Rwandan bodies washing ashore in Ugandan lake

May 21, 1994|By New York Times News Service

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Thousands of bodies from Rwanda's massacres have washed down the Kagera River into Lake Victoria in Uganda in the past week, creating an acute health hazard, Ugandan officials say.

Cloaking the countryside with the stench of death, the bodies -- as many as 100 an hour -- are being washed ashore in the Rakai district of southern Uganda or onto islands in Lake Victoria and have been seen as far north as Entebbe.

A clean-up operation by the Ugandan government and international relief agencies has been hampered by the remoteness of the area, heavy rains and the difficulty of fighting off the wild dogs and other animals feeding on the bodies.

Worried about an outbreak of disease, the Ugandan Health Ministry is telling villagers and fishermen to boil drinking water and to cook all fish thoroughly.

"It's basically an appalling sight," said Keith Sherper, the director of the U.S. Agency for International Development in Kampala, who is assisting the Ugandan government in the cleanup.

The Kagera River flows through southern Rwanda, mostly through government- and militia-controlled territory, and bodies have been carried by the current for weeks. Workers are trying to remove the bodies before they reach the lake.

Relief officials say the killers must have dumped the bodies into the river by the truckload. Many are mutilated.

"I've never seen hatred like this in my life," said Manuel Pinto, a member of the Ugandan Parliament from the Rakai district and the head of the cleanup operation.

The massacres in Rwanda began April 6 when its president, Juvenal Habyarimana, was killed in a suspicious plane explosion.

Most of the killings have been done by the majority Hutu military and militia and have been directed at the minority Tutsi tribe in what human rights officials say is an "ethnic cleansing" of the Tutsis.

Battle deaths in fighting between the military and the Tutsi rebels have been relatively few in comparison.

Reliable estimates of the death toll are hard to find, but some range up to and beyond 200,000.

The Kagera River empties into Lake Victoria in the Rakai district near the fishing village of Kasensero, once an important trading center but now decimated by AIDS.

The village is down to about 1,000 inhabitants. It was in Kasensero that the first cases of AIDS were reported in the 1980s.

The cleanup operation in Uganda began April 25 but was at first limited to a local effort. Western donors have now pledged more than $150,000.

World Vision International and the Lutheran World Federation are the two main relief agencies, but in a broad show of support, Ugandan volunteers are providing time, money, trucks, fuel and excavators for mass graves.

The Ugandan government is trucking in drinking water.

Lake Victoria, the second-largest body of fresh water in the world, borders Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya and is also the source of the Nile.

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