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DRC Still Recovering Landslide Victims

FILE: A Red Cross worker stands next to bodies at a makeshift morgue at a primary school in Bushushu, South Kivu province, Democratic Republic of Congo, on Sat. May 6, 2023.

BUSHUSHU, DRC — Little remains of the villages of Bushushu and Nyamukubi, on the lush shores of Lake Kivu in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, which were buried by a thick wall of mud and rock on May 4.

Provincial authorities say 443 people have been found dead and more than 2,500 people are still missing.

"Every day when we're digging, we come across dead bodies," said Rodrigue Bonga, head of a team struggling to remove thousands of cubic meters of rubble to open a road.

"Today it was two bodies, yesterday three..." he said as he sat in a Bushushu bar at the end of yet another day of grisly discoveries.

Local residents, aided by Red Cross volunteers, have launched a search for the remains of the missing.

"These are our brothers, we have to do something," Bonga said.

He finishes his beer and sighs: "We are deeply affected, for us human life is sacred."

According to lawyer Eric Dunia, not everyone shares those values, as it emerges that money and even coffins meant for victims of the disaster have gone missing.

"Some people get rich on the blood of victims," Dunia said in Nyamukubi.

The lawyer, who is also a parliamentary assistant in Kinshasa, arrived on the scene five days after the disaster, accompanying a delegation of ministers and MPs who brought humanitarian aid and money.

They also brought coffins, after a national outcry over images of hastily dug mass graves.

The government had announced aid for 200 affected families amounting to 2.5 million Congolese francs (around $1,100) per household.

But "each family received less than $200", says Jospin Baluge Safari, 34, a Bushushu survivor.

The government delegation announced they had brought with them $200,000 in cash to help the victims of the tragedy, which was kept for more than two weeks by the local administrator of Kalehe Territory, 20 kilometers from the site of the landslides.

When the local committees responsible for distributing the aid tried to recover the money, they found $42,000 was missing, Safari said.

"What we are asking the courts to do is to find out who took it," he said.

Contacted by telephone, the public prosecutor's office in Kalehe declined to comment, stating only that "the investigation is ongoing."

"Even coffins have been misappropriated," said another lawyer, Augustin Chungachako, who has reported missing aid to authorities on behalf of a group of victims.

"On June 7, the prosecutor's office launched a search and found 41 coffins, sacks of rice, blankets, clothes and other materials behind the office of the territorial administrator," in Kalehe-center, the capital of the territory, Chungachako said.

According to him, several people have been arrested.

Seventy-year-old Adolphe Mulenga Byuma, who had been appointed "cashier" on one of these committees, said he "distributed money to people who were not disaster victims."

Sometimes, "the same person would come back with three or four different names, and take the money each time".

He claims that he tried to report these misappropriations internally. He was eventually removed from the committee.

"When the distribution took place, we were not on the lists," said Nico Kabumba Kalwira, "president" of the informal Nyamukubi camp.

"In the end, you wonder whether they're helping us or trying to increase our suffering," he said.