Around June 1994, locals in Zaire, now DR Congo, living along Lake Kivu began seeing human bodies arriving on the shores. They retrieved them and buried them. The process continued for weeks.
Now, as Rwanda prepares to remember victims of this human orchestrated crimes of crimes for 25th time since 1994, there are two mass graves in Goma City – which are directly located on the opposite side of the border with Rwanda in Rubavu district.
Large parts of the two cities border Lake Kivu for kilometers down south.
The survivors of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi are wondering if those victims will ever get a decent burial.
On the night of April 6, the presidential plane was shot down over Kigali by what court appointed investigators in France found to be members of the then ruling party – who were angry over the president’s decision to sign a peace deal with the then RPF rebels.
The genocide, at the time already planned, was put in action.
Across Rwanda, for the next 100 days, more than a million Tutsi were killed. For areas around rivers, Tutsis were forced into them to drown. Some were killed far away, and their bodies dumped in rivers.
The perpetrators had been taught to believe for years that Tutsis were foreigners and “invaded” Rwanda from Ethiopia. Dumping them in rivers, would eventually take them back via river Akagera down to river Nile on-wards to Ethiopia. Or so the perpetrators believed.
The Congo case is not the first where genocide victims are buried outside of Rwanda─far away from the site where they breathed their last.
In Uganda and Tanzania, officially designated memorial sites have been set up where victims that surfaced there are laid to rest. To end up in these neighboring countries, they floated downstream through various rivers into river Akagera – on to Lake Victoria.
In Uganda, some 20,000 victims are laid to rest at three sites, whereas more than 900 are at one site in Ngara district of Tanzania’s Kagera province which neighbours Rwanda.
Swimming with “white” Dead Bodies
The case of bodies that ended up in Congo is however different. Six witnesses have come forward, some of who took part in the exercise of removing the bodies from Lake Kivu and buried them. They spoke exclusively to The Chronicles team.
The witnesses agreed to speak only if their identities are not made public. One of them is a Rwandan. Karangwa is the name we will use for one of our key sources.
Back in 1994, he was a young Rwandan man and a member of a Congolese swimming club in Goma, the main city of North Kivu Province. Without swimming pools, the group had the vast Lake Kivu to them.
At around 6am on June 15, 1994, Karangwa says they arrived for the day’s swimming routine. Apparently, the site where they gathered was close to a large house by the lakeside which belonged to a relative of Zaire’s then leader Mubutu Sese Seko.
“When we jumped into the water, some of us were colliding with bodies”, he narrates. “The skins had turned white. We screamed in shock.”
The group rushed out of the lake to call for help. A few locals gathered to witness. Karangwa says and that a crew from Zaire’s state broadcaster RTNC also came and captured the images. It is not clear whether a record has been made public about the incident on that June day and beyond.
That day alone, according to Karangwa and the other witnesses, 17 bodies were retrieved as they floated towards the first site. The next day, they were buried by local Congolese in a mass grave close by.
Decapitated, tied, bullet wounds
There was a two-day lull and then more bodies arrived on June 18. It became the routine for days and weeks which followed. Everyone in Goma knew the bodies were coming from Rwanda as rumours spread – reinforced by local radio reports.
As the world debated what to call the mass killings happening in Rwanda right from April 7, so were Congolese. All they knew was that a war was going on.
Karangwa and the other witnesses narrated that collecting bodies from the lake became a daily activity. Apart from the Mobutu family lakeside house, bodies also surfaced at another site used by Zaire’s marine coast guards.
Other bodies washed up a small port where boats from Minova, down south, parked to unload goods or load others.
The full scale of the tragedy that was unfolding in Goma may never be known. The following week, some 35 bodies washed up – most of them women and children.
The witnesses say the bodies kept coming and a count that became public at the time was that they were more than 100 bodies that had been retrieved.
The bodies had gruesome injuries. Some had been decapitated. Many had their hands and legs tied. Some had huge wounds on heads, necks and abdomen.
All these are killing tactics used by the genocide militia which were roaming around Gisenyi and all Rwanda’s villages killing Tutsis and those who tried to hide them.
“What was common on all men is that their hands and legs were tied from behind; were naked and had bullet wounds,” said Karangwa.
This information was also corroborated by other witnesses.
Karangwa and other witnesses have confirmed that there are two mass graves of victims from Rwanda in Goma.
One in which bodies of 52 victims were buried is located outside the marine post on the road heading to Goma’s main port. Another mass grave is located in a part of Goma called Kituku, near the market.
The Chronicles did not travel to Goma to establish the exact current positions due to security concerns. The descriptions and photos were obtained from different sources, all of which are judged to be credible.
French commandos enter
Up until late 1994, Gisenyi was occupied by the defeated government and state machinery, including troops. France had thousands of commandos based in Goma and other locations in eastern Zaire. Various records show that high-level French military officers visited the retreating government in Gisenyi to deliver supplies.
French academic and historian Gérard Prunier has documented rare details leading up to the decision to deploy French commandos in Rwanda. According to Prunier, in a less publicized move, French officers visited the ‘interim government’ at Hotel Meridien in Gisenyi around mid June 1994. They delivered supplies and equipment.
Officially, as announced in Paris and beamed on global media, French troops entered into Rwanda on Thursday June 23, 1994. They would go on to establish the infamous so called humanitarian cordon “zone turquoise” covering western and southwestern regions of Rwanda.
A probe instituted in 2006 to investigate the role of France in the 1994 genocide gives a hint as to how some of the bodies that surfaced in Goma’s lakesides ended up there.
Several witnesses heard during the lengthy hearings confirmed to the ‘Mucyo Commission’ that French soldiers were in Rwanda before and during the genocide, and only left after the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels took over Rwanda in July 1994.
Witnesses testifying in that probe confirmed that some Tutsi arrested at roadblocks were put in helicopters piloted by French officers and thrown from the sky into Nyungwe forest and Lake Kivu. These acts took place before June 23, 1994, the officially announced date of French troops’ entry into Rwanda.
The operations continued throughout the zone turquoise era. In other instances, people killed near the lake were dumped in the lake with some bodies tied with stones so they could sink.
All these details are contained in the final Mucyo report and the millions of other judicial documents in Rwanda and the archives of the UN International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, which replaced the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).
IBUKA wants answers
The previous DR Congo governments, from Mubutu Sese Seko to Joseph Kabila, did not do anything about the mass graves. For Kabila, the east has been a war zone – and giving a decent burial for genocide victims could not have been a priority.
The latest revelations come as newly the elected DR Congo President Felix Tshisekedi is scheduled to visit Rwanda on March 26 for a two-day trip – the first he may have had on Rwandan territory.
The issue of genocide victims buried in Goma has been of concern to genocide survivors in Rubavu district for some time. On June 26, 2018, at a commemoration ceremony in Rubavu district, the survivors’ umbrella association IBUKA pleaded that information about mass graves in Goma needs to be looked into.
Kabanda Innocent, the coordinator of IBUKA in Rubavu, said at the event that they would like the remains of the victims to be repatriated back to Rwanda for a decent burial.
“There are witnesses who were there when the bodies were washing up on the lake shores. It is not rumours,” said Kabanda in an interview long after the event.
Meanwhile, back in Goma, some locals are said to regularly clean the surroundings of the mass graves.
Karangwa and the witnesses interviewed for this story, say at both sites, there has not been any change. There is no development in terms infrastructure. What it looked like in 1994 is nearly the same view today.
A Congolese man only identified as Shorayi, currently working with UN Congo mission MONUSCO, was actively involved in the burials of the bodies. Two decades later, and he reportedly goes back to do cleaning at the sites.