This is where their journey ends, far from home, their bodies carried by the Kagera River out of Rwanda and into Africa’s greatest lake, Victoria, to be caught like perch by peasant fishermen.
They have traveled more than 100 miles, over thundering falls and along fertile savannas, by the time the Kagera rages into Lake Victoria at Kasensero. It is near that little town that Jamil Kakora waits each morning, his boat loaded with plastic bags instead of fishing tackle.
By the time he and his five-man crew returned to shore about noon Saturday, a ghastly collection of limbs and torsos filled the boat. The fishermen, donning masks and gloves, worked quickly to wrap and tie the bodies, never sure what parts belonged together, and to load them into the trailer of a red tractor parked nearby.
“We heard about the war on the radio,” Kakora said, “so we knew the bodies were coming. We had a meeting in the village and agreed: You cannot leave these people to just float in the lake. Even if they died like dogs in Rwanda, they deserve to be buried like humans. We all said yes, this is something we must do.”
As many as 40,000 bodies, relief specialists say, have washed into this giant lake that provides an abundance of Nile perch and tilapia for fish markets from Kampala, Uganda, to London, as well as drinking water for scores of primitive villages scattered along its shores. Some corpses are washed by the currents onto the coast; others float just below the surface hundreds of yards offshore.
The majority of the victims of the most extensive massacre in modern Africa’s post-independence history appear to be women and children. Some who reach Lake Victoria apparently were beheaded. Others’ arms were tied behind their backs. One cluster of infants washed downstream in a tied sack. Three others were joined by a single pointed stick thrust through their stomachs.
International aid workers estimate that between 200,000 and 500,000 people have been killed in Rwanda since the country’s president died in a mysterious plane crash April 6, and Hutu-dominated government troops and militiamen began an orgy of murder, primarily against members of the minority Tutsi tribe. Two million Rwandans have fled across the border to neighboring countries.
Although Kenya has dismissed any threat from the decomposing bodies to its portion of Lake Victoria, Uganda has told its people not to drink the lake’s water until further tests are made and to boil all fish taken from Victoria for at least 30 minutes. Health officials also are concerned that cholera could be spread by the flies that descend in thick swarms on the bodies.
The first bodies the villagers pulled from the lake were buried in shallow graves a few yards from the shore. They were dug up by dogs and pigs and lay uncovered for several days, along with the rubbish and human waste that the people of Malembo routinely deposit at the water’s edge. Health officials feared an outbreak of disease could result.
World Vision, a U.S. relief and development agency, was already active in the region when the bodies began pouring into Lake Victoria. Its work dealt primarily with 160,000 children orphaned in the region by AIDS--the leading cause of death in rural Uganda. With the new crisis, its staff, in coordination with government officials, put together an emergency plan to clear Lake Victoria of bodies and bury the dead.
Malembo is tucked away on the shoreline swamps of the Nassara Plain, 20 miles from any road other than a footpath. The village has no running water or electricity, and most of the 800 inhabitants have concerns other than examining the daily cargo of the body-hunting fishermen who are paid $6 a day by World Vision.
Only a handful were on the shore Saturday as the tractor’s trailer began to fill with bodies. John Marembo, who is the local defense secretary and also the village’s record-keeper, stood by the tractor, dutifully recording in his notebook the number of bodies retrieved for the day: 18, 19, 20. . . .
Each victim was marked on his pad under a column labeled “Arrival.”
“It is awful enough that Rwanda should have a war like this,” Marembo said. “It is also very bad they should give us their litter from the war.”
When the trailer was full, a barefoot man climbed onto the tractor and headed back into the thick bush, chickens and goats fleeing his approach. He drove to a dusty clearing a mile away, a mass grave site bought from a local farmer for $80.
Joseph Kasozi and John Kastunga waited there, shirtless and sweating in the fierce sun. Along with five others, they had dug a huge grave, as long and high as a bus. They were eating sugar cane stalks. Six other large graves shoveled out earlier in the week were already filled, covered with earth and marked by a cross of twigs lashed together by twine.
Kasozi said he hopes he can soon return to his normal life as a fisherman. But that, he said, is up to Rwanda.
The bodies were thrown into the pit and covered with a liquid chemical, to become nameless wartime victims whose families will never be able to fully explain their fate. As the workers shoveled in earth, up the path toward the clearing came the village’s lay priest, John Lubega.
He wore a cross carved from a bone around his neck and had no shoes. He was reciting: “Oh, Lord in heaven, help the souls of these people. They are the accidents of war. We ask you, please intervene and stop the war so people may stop dying.”