Gruesome bound and bagged body mystery on Burundi-Rwanda lake

Fishermen say the corpses started coming some two months ago: rotting bodies with bound limbs or stuffed in sacks, floating on the glittering waters of Lake Rweru on the border between Burundi and Rwanda.

AFP| Updated: Sep 19, 2014, 09:56 AM IST

Lake Rweru: Fishermen say the corpses started coming some two months ago: rotting bodies with bound limbs or stuffed in sacks, floating on the glittering waters of Lake Rweru on the border between Burundi and Rwanda.

Where they have come from and why they are there remains a mystery. Investigations have stalled as the case embarrasses Burundi and its powerful neighbour denies all knowledge.

Officially, just four bodies were found tied up in sacks last month -- already enough to set alarm bells ringing in a region scarred by decades of political unrest and serious rights abuses.

Fishermen report seeing as many as 10 times that number, carried by the currents in the lake some 270 kilometres (170 miles) northeast of Bujumbura.

Late last month a joint Burundi-Rwanda commission was set up to find the origin of the bodies, and Burundi`s presidential spokesman Willy Nyamitwe repeated this week that the two countries were working together on the case.

But on the ground, little seems to be done to unravel the mystery.

"On our side, we investigated by asking leaders in the area if there were any missing people, and they said no," said local Burundian governor Aline Manirabarusha.

One diplomat in Burundi`s capital Bujumbura says the bodies were buried without an autopsy.

"It means that the people can never be identified, or know where they come from," the diplomat said.In 2006, the bodies of Burundian opponents murdered in political violence were thrown into various rivers in the country.

That was the year Burundi emerged from more than a decade of brutal civil war, and its political climate remains fractious ahead of presidential polls due next June.

Neighbouring Rwanda is led by strongman President Paul Kagame, who despite being credited with overseeing dramatic economic advances while in office, has also come in for mounting criticism for suppressing dissent, including the alleged assassinations of exiled opposition figures.

On both banks of Lake Rweru, which some 10 kilometres (six miles) long, residents say they are sure the bodies were washed downstream by the Nyabarongo-Kagera river.

The river originates in Rwanda before flowing into Lake Rweru, on into Burundi and Tanzania, and emptying into Lake Victoria.

It has a grim history: during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the bodies of some of those massacred floated down the river.

Near the water, a young Rwandan farmer describes how the main river, which splits into different channels, has in recent months taken a new path.

That is why the bodies have appeared in the lake, he says.

"Had they remained in the Kagera river, the injustice would never have come to light," said the farmer, who lives with his family in a small hut at the edge of the river, a short boat ride from the border with Burundi.

"It was God who wanted these crimes not to go unpunished."

The farmer says he has seen around 20 bags containing bodies flowing downstream in the river.Local residents say the bodies started coming in mid-July. But after discovering them, they pushed them back into the water, for fear of bringing trouble on themselves.

Local official Manirabarusha also insisted the bodies come "down the Kagera river."

But asked if that means the bodies come from Rwanda, the governor declined to comment.

"I do not know where exactly the Kagera is... I forget, ask geographers who have studied this," she said, visibly embarrassed.

A senior Burundi official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the case may never be brought to light because "Burundi will sacrifice the truth on the altar of its relations with Kigali."

"It is crucial, because Burundi cannot afford to antagonise its powerful neighbour," he said.

When contacted by AFP, Rwandan police spokesman Damas Gatera dismissed any suggestion the bodies have come from his country.

"There were no dead bodies in Rwanda or found in Rwanda, the ones we are talking about were found in Burundi," he said.

When asked why Rwandan farmers have been ordered not to talk to journalists in the area, he said he did not know.