Isingiro- A visit to the Rwandan Genocide Burial Ground, at Kasensero landing site, shows a well-tended place. The grass is mowed and the flowers are in bloom. There is a general peace and quiet about the area.
It is a large piece of land and is the place where genocide victims whose bodies floated on Lake Victoria, were buried.
The caretaker of the site is Rose Najjembe, who has been there for about one year now. When asked who pays her to do the job, all she says is, “Money is relayed from Kampala.”
The grounds receive visitors fairly regularly. The last lot, before me, was a group from Isingiro District. Although the atmosphere is calm, the events that occurred 20 years ago, were anything but peaceful.
By the beginning of May 1994, the first bodies from the genocide had floated into Lake Victoria. The first recorded Ugandans to see those dead bodies were two fishermen, Mitodi Ssekyanzi and Josephat Kyetume at Kasensero landing site in Rakai District (however, many other bodies were seen at other landing sites and fishing villages on Lake Victoria).
In the first week of May 1994, while fishing, Ssekyanzi and Kyetume saw two dead bodies according to the defunct Munnansi newspaper of May 2, 1994. Munnansi was later quoted by other newspapers in the country. It was also Munnansi that broke the story of the floating dead bodies on Lake Victoria in November 1990. Some of the dead bodies were in military uniform. Some had stab wounds. Others were headless.
The dead bodies in military attire were reportedly of the retreating Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) fighters, who drowned in Kagera River while fleeing or who decided to commit suicide rather than be taken as prisoners of war by the Rwanda government forces.
Munnansi quoted the two fishermen saying: “‘We first saw two dead bodies while fishing at night which we took far into the lake and dumped them there.’ Before long, they saw another dead body of a woman tied together with a baby.
While they were contemplating what to do, three other dead bodies of men appeared with the pockets of their trouser turned inside out; suggesting that they could have been robbed. “We were concerned. We went to the Resistance Council (RC) I chairman.”
The RC (now local council) I chairman approached their newly-elected Constituent Assembly (CA) delegate, Emmanuel Pinto who started mobilising for the retrieval of the bodies from the lake for burial.
The exercise to get the bodies from Lake Victoria and bury them involved residents and the central government through non-government organisations. The Munno and Munnansi newspapers of May 27, 1994 quoted the Mpigi District Central Government Representative, Ms Victoria Nalongo saying: “The people in Mpigi raised Shs3 million to bury the dead bodies as well as special gear to wear and some medicine, after those who had buried more than 1,000 bodies at Bukunga landing site in Buwama, had developed diarrhoea and skin diseases.”
The newspapers said Nalongo stated that the fishermen and other citizens did a commendable job in retrieving and burying of the bodies in spite of water hyacinth which slowed their speed.
Before the dead bodies overwhelmed the villagers, the Banyarwanda in Masaka and Mpigi Districts were directly involved in burying some bodies on their private land. However, according to a man called Lukyamuzi, one of the undertakers from Senero village near Bukakata landing site in Masaka District, a row erupted when the Tutsi refused to bury bodies deemed to be of Hutu and vice versa.
The dispute was, however, solved when individuals were approached to sell land to the government as burial sites. One man, Murongo, was the first to sell a plot near Kasensero landing site at Shs2 million, which is also the largest burial site of the genocide victims in Uganda.
In mid May, 1994, the deputy minister of Housing and Urban development, Mr Mutebi Mulwanira, in the company of journalists toured the landing sites and fishing villages on Lake Victoria.
At Lambo landing site, the chairman of the business community, Mr John Rogers Kakooza told the press that they had formed a committee of undertakers and provided them with special gear and that each of them was getting Shs4,000 per day.
He also said some bodies had been buried at Kikonoka and Nansere fishing villages.
Kakoza said the financial assistance and special gear was provided by the World Vision International, an NGO which also hired a special boat which would go through the hyacinth which was hampering the job.
However, other companies together with the government also helped in retrieving and burying the bodies. On May 30, 1994, Phillip Porel, the general manager, The Uganda Fish Processors Associations (TUFPA), said at a press conference in Kampala, that TUFPA had given Shs20 million to help in retrieving and burying the dead bodies from Rwanda.
He said money would be channelled through Lutheran World Federation in association with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Other organisations such as Concern International, among others, participated in hard and sad task.
Another hurdle the country had to face was that the decomposing dead bodies on Lake Victoria affected the fishing industry in Uganda. By June 1994, the consumption of fish had reduced dramatically.
A big-sized tilapia fish which before the genocide would cost up to Shs300, in late May, cost Shs20. It cost Shs50 around the landing sites in Masaka and Kampala.
It was rare to find and hard to sell fish as there was no customers. Fishermen abandoned the industry due to lack of business. A kilo of Nile perch which previously cost between Shs450 and Shs500, was selling at Shs350 if it was available.
This was revealed by John Rogers Kakooza, the head of the business community at Kasensero landing sites, when he talked to the press. People in Uganda had virtually abandoned eating fish for fear of getting diseases in spite of numerous calls to allay their fears. They thought the fish were eating the decomposing bodies.
Pinto and Kampala’s Central Government Representative Sarapio Karashani were among the many that tried to educate the masses at rallies and through the press that it was safe to eat fish.
This was more amplified by the general manager of TUFPA who on then Uganda Television indicated that the company had exported more than 50 tonnes of Nile perch to Holland after studies indicated that it was safe to eat fish.
Once the dead bodies had been retrieved, the government of Uganda provided free transport on Saturday May 14, 1994, for whoever wanted to go for special prayers held at Kasensero for the Rwanda genocide victims. Munno newspaper of May 23, 1994 reported that people boarded buses from then City Square and National Theatre in Kampala to go for the burial.
The prayer service was conducted by religious leaders from different faiths presided over by the Kampala Cardinal Emmanuel Wamala, who prayed to God to be merciful to the dead but also put light into the heartless so that they could stop butchering innocent people.
The central government was represented by the minister of state for internal affairs, Capt Tom Butime. In his address, Butime said the government of Uganda decided to use NGOs and other local organisations to retrieve and bury the bodies since there was no other quick means to do so.
The innocent souls killed so mercilessly and whose bodies had been left to rot, were eventually given a decent burial.
Although most bodies were buried at the Rwandan Genocide Burial Ground, a male body wearing a white collar was buried at Bukalasa Catholic Seminary.
The body was first seen by an old Catholic woman who alerted Bishop Adrian Ndungu of Masaka Diocese, who ordered for a proper burial according to the rules that govern the priests.
Since the body had a white collar around the neck, it was presumed to be of a Catholic priest. Because the body had no identification, the tomb at Bukalasa in which it was interred is the only one which has no name.