OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (AP) — Nearly 30 years after President Thomas Sankara was killed in a coup as he strived to make his West African country an egalitarian one, his purported grave is being dug up to answer lingering questions about his death.
Sankara was a Marxist, anti-imperialist revolutionary who in four years in power in Burkina Faso doubled the number of children in schools, reduced infant mortality, redistributed land from feudal landlords to peasants and planted 10 million trees that still help shade Ouagadougou, the capital. His style was different from other African presidents, ordering ministers to trade in Mercedes for more humble Renaults.
Sankara's death at 37 in October 1987 after a coup staged by his once best friend Blaise Compaore has remained shrouded in secrecy.
Sankara and his followers were hurriedly buried, and his family and many others in Burkina Faso have for years wanted to know how he was killed, and if, in fact, his body is really in the Dagnoen Cemetery, on the eastern outskirts of Ouagadougou.
"We want the truth," many people chanted Monday outside the cemetery, urging the gendarmerie to let journalists in.
"We are here to see who is in the grave and we won't leave until we know the truth," said 20-year-old mechanic Ismael Sawadogo among a crowd of people waiting on dark brown earth outside the cemetery. "I was not born when Sankara died but I heard that he was righteous and loves justice."
Medical experts from Burkina Faso and France are overseeing the exhumation of the site where Sankara and the 12 others killed alongside him are said to be buried. They will conduct DNA tests to identify the bodies.
At the time of the 1987 coup, Compaore said troops loyal to him uncovered a plot by Sankara to arrest and then execute Compaore and two other members of the ruling National Revolutionary Council.
When troops entered the government compound, Sankara pulled out a light machine gun and a pistol and died in an exchange of fire, Compaore said in reports from that year. Compaore has denied being a part of Sankara's killing.
Workers with pickaxes and shovels were seen starting the exhumation Monday morning under tents.
"The exhumations have started," Benewinde Sankara, the lawyer for Sankara's family, who is not related to the former president, told The Associated Press by telephone from the cemetery.
He said that in principal they might begin exhuming Sankara's grave on Monday, but "the process is going to take time." Sankara's family will not attend, he said.
Sankara's widow, Mariam Sankara, has long been fighting for the right to have DNA tests on Sankara's body to prove the remains are really his, but until last year she was blocked in the courts. The family long has doubted that the Ouagadougou cemetery holds his remains.
The impoverished West African country's name was changed from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso when Compaore and Sankara staged a coup in 1983 and ousted a moderate military faction to launch a leftist revolution. The country had gained independence from France in 1960 and had been under military rule since 1966.
Compaore then staged his own coup in 1987. The reasons for his split with Sankara were never fully explained.
A new constitution that was supposed to restore democracy was adopted in 1991. Compaore ruled from then until he was driven from the country by large-scale violent protests in October amid resentment over his bid to remain in power.
Interim President Michel Kafando last year said investigations into Sankara's death would go forward "in the name of national reconciliation." The exhumation was authorized by the interim government in March.
On Monday, hundreds gathered outside the cemetery as the exhumations began.
Serge Bambara, a musician known as "Smokey" who is a leader for an activist group called The Citizen's Broom, said it was an important day. He said he hopes that this will help prove who killed Sankara, so that they can be brought to justice.
"This should have been done years ago," he said. "We are here because we are concerned about the truth ... there is hope."
Associated Press reporter Carley Petesch in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.