From the killing fields to the cemetery

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rhino paocher cemetry INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS The cemetery in Kabok is the final resting place of many slain Kruger Park rhino poachers. Picture: Chris Collingridge

Johannesburg - Rusting crosses plot where the dead lie in Kabok cemetery – in clearings hacked out of riverine bush.

The names to which the crosses belong are hand-printed on each with house paint. Each has a lone date – that of their death.

There is Ernesto Manuel – 27/05/2012, Vussica Rios Simo – 29/8/2012 and Tomas Fulane – 4/12/12. These are names of people from Mozambique.

They might have come from different tribal groups and clans, but they moved to this border town for economic opportunity.

That opportunity, according to law enforcement officials, ties in with the rhinos killed in Kruger National Park, which lies within sight of the cemetery.

We don’t know how each of the occupants of Kabok cemetery died, but these clearings are said to mark the final resting places of rhino poachers who died violently.

There are no elaborate tombstones; families leave offerings of squash at the foot of burial mounds. Elsewhere cut flowers lie drying.

It is a peaceful place, where green parakeets fly between fever trees and a rain bird calls from deep in the bush. It is also a place the community doesn’t want outsiders to see. The cemetery is hidden from the road, but we went in search of it, hoping to learn more about the poachers said to be buried here.

But the only possible sign was a tenuous one. On some of the burial mounds lie coils of barbed wire. Maybe they symbolise a death beyond the wire fence of Kruger. A sign left to say a poacher died and lies here. Again, the barbed wire may be meant to keep animals off the burial mound.

But the people of Kabok don’t want to talk about their dead or their customs. At weekends, those who live near Kabok say funeral processions thread their way through the town into the hidden cemetery.

The journey of the dead from killing fields in Kruger to cemeteries like the one in Kabok is a long one. It begins on a cold slab in a state mortuary.

If a poacher is killed in the Mpumalanga part of the park, his body is usually taken to the state mortuary at Mapulaneng Hospital in Bushbuckridge.

“The bush telegraph works quick here,” says Captain Oubaas Coetzer, spokesman for Skukuza police station. “The family will hear that someone was shot in this vicinity and after a day or two they will arrive at the police station.”

Late last month three poachers were shot dead. It took two weeks before relatives came.

At Skukuza police station, there is a detective who specialises in identifying the dead poachers. It is his job to take the family to the mortuary to identify the body.

“The family will need to get a death certificate and removal certificate so they can take the body across the border,” says Coetzer.

The detective records the name of the dead.

If the family can afford it, a funeral home will take the body across the border; sometimes the family will do it themselves.

Even when they get to Mozambique, the journey home is far from over. In some places along the border, roads are little more than footpaths, public transport a pipe dream.

For those who come from this village, the journey ends at Kabok cemetery, where we stood uninvited among the food offerings and the rusting crosses. But the graveyard would keep its secrets about the poachers it holds a while longer. A hostile crowd, one armed with a spade, forced us to retreat. - The Star

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