Reports have been rife that remains of victims of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi buried in Uganda are being disinterred for witchcraft purposes. IGNATIUS SSUUNA visited the sites and writes.
Silence welcomes you as you open the gate at Ggoolo, one of the sites at which thousands of victims of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi are buried in Uganda. It’s so quiet you can’t even hear birds chirping.
At the height of the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi, tens of thousands of victims were thrown into River Nyabarongo, a tributary of Lake Victoria. Their bodies were washed away down the river and ended up in Uganda and probably beyond.
The bodies were later buried at six different sites in Uganda. The sites include Ggoolo, in Mpigi District, Labu, Namirembe, Malembu and Kasensero, all in Makasa District.
At the entrance of Ggoolo sits Clinton Okoye, the overseer of this site. There are five mass graves here and home to 955 remains.
The burial site here is well maintained. This land (3 acres) was donated by Muhammad Taban- owner of Big Ways Investment Limited. Taban employed Clinton Okoye to take care of the site.
“Taban is a generous man,” Okoye begins. Okoye says he was scared at first because he didn’t know why these people had been killed. But after reading about the genocide, he accepted the job. Nobody can enter here without permission. A guard’s house is being built near the site.
“I am not paid well. I only earn Shs 25,000 a month. But I am not complaining too much,” Okoye says.
Okoye explains one of the reasons why he is paid to guard the site is to make sure that the remains are kept intact. He says some people in Uganda still believe in witchcraft because they think they can become rich overnight by using human bones in exchange for blessings from witchdoctors.
“Everything here is cemented. Even if I don’t sleep at the site, nobody can exhume the bodies,” Okoye says. There are headstones at the mass graves on which words ‘victims of the Rwanda conflict’ are engraved.
“This was an error and we shall soon rectify it,” Okoye sombrely says.
Taban plans to improve the Ggoolo site to the level of Gisozi memorial site in Rwanda. “The government of Rwanda has already recognised our contribution. We are not demanding money from Rwanda.”
There are nine graves here and the site houses 1718 bodies. However, the irony here is that though Ugandans living at the shores of Lake Victoria did a noble job of burying the dead during the Genocide, authorities in Kampala have reportedly refused Rwanda to exhume the bodies and accord them decent burial. As a result, the remains are in the bushes. Some graves are defaced and inaccessible.
At Lambu, a visitor can hardly tell whether mass graves do exist.
My guide John Lubowa, a resident of the area says nobody in the neighbourhood is paid to maintain the graves.
“Sometimes, residents who clear the bushes covering the graves need money. Nothing can be done without money,” says Lubowa. There are also signs that cows graze atop the graves.
Remains of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi at Namirembe, Dimo and Malembo were supposed to have been transferred to Lambu last year.
The Rwandan embassy in Uganda built two mass graves at Lambu but Uganda blocked the move to transfer the remains.
At Kasensero landing site, 2827 bodies are buried there.
The Rwandan embassy here plans to cement the mass graves in Kasensero soon. Dimo is home to 2149 bodies while Malembo houses 1669 bones. Residents talked to say since the graves are not cemented and are in the bushes, the remains are not safe.
“Remains of human beings not kept well can be abused. It is very common here,” Linda Nalukwago, a resident of Lwalaaro in Mpigi District said.
A report compiled by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Unity, Human Rights and the fight against Genocide recently visited Uganda to assess the situation of the remains buried there.
After the visit, lawmakers expressed concern over the reluctance by relevant organs to rebury the remains. They recommended the remains be accorded decent burial as a matter of urgency.
Ambassador speaks out
Rwanda’s ambassador to Ugandan Ignatius Kamali recently met officials from the Ugandan Foreign Affairs Ministry to discuss the possibility of exhuming the bodies from the bushes.
“We are still trying to convince Ugandan officials but we have not yet succeeded. They are giving three reasons why we should not exhume the dead,” Kamali reveals.
One reason why the bodies should not be exhumed is that they could cause health problems to the people living in the area.
The Ugandan government says it needs to get clearance from the Ministry of Health before Rwanda is allowed to exhume the bodies. But a source from the Ministry of Health in Uganda says this is not the first time bodies are to be exhumed.
“Many bodies get exhumed. Some bodies of those died in the bush war in Luwero have been exhumed,” says the source who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Ugandan leaders also asked Rwanda to give them time to establish the owner of the land on which the bodies will be buried. “They say the issue concerning land in Uganda is sensitive. When we met leaders here, they raised this issue,” Kamali said.
Ugandan leaders are of the view that the graves be cemented in their respective locations.
There is also argument that exhuming the remains is against the Ugandan culture. Let’s hope that soon a consensus will be reached to give our dear departed a decent burial.