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A week after Congo floods, volunteers dig through debris for bodies

FILE PHOTO: Thousands still missing as Congo flood survivors search for relatives

By Crispin Kyala

BUSHUSHU, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - With shovels, sticks and bare hands, Red Cross volunteers struggled to clear caked mud from around a body half buried in a landslide in Bushushu village in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

A week after torrential rains triggered deadly floods, the workers said they were exhausted and running out of equipment. But they keep finding corpses under piles of debris, buried in hillsides, floating in waterways and the nearby lake.

"We are very, very limited in what we do, especially the transport of bodies. It's a serious problem," Désiré Yuma Machumu, head of the Red Cross in Congo's South Kivu province, said.

At the site of the landslide, the volunteers wearing surgical masks finally managed to remove the decomposing corpse and place the remains in a white body bag.

Six of them then picked it up walked the 3 km (2 miles) to the nearest burial site, where empty coffins lay waiting in rows.

More than 440 people have been confirmed killed according to the Red Cross.

At least another 5,000 remain unaccounted for, local administrator Thomas Bakenga Zirimwabagabo said on Tuesday - though the government says there are still no official figures for the missing.

On Thursday, Reuters watched the volunteers painstakingly recover 17 bodies.

"The bodies are starting to rot ... and some of us have fallen ill," said 27-year-old Julien Bisimwa, one of the volunteers, standing in front of wrecked buildings and a mound of twisted metal sheets.

Rains are still battering the region and there are other risks for locals.

"All the drinking water sources have been cut off..., everything is gone, toilets have been washed away," Pacifique Chiralwira, head medical officer of the region, said.

"At the moment the population, the survivors are going to drink the water from the lake, while we continue to discover bodies in there, which exposes us, exposes our population in the long run to water-borne diseases."

(Reporting by Crispin Kyala; Additional reporting by Djaffar Al Katanty; Writing by Sonia Rolley and Bate Felix; Editing by Andrew Heavens)