Congolese refugee death toll climbs

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) government has confirmed that at least 251 Congolese refugees died after their boat capsized on Lake Albert on Saturday, en-route from Uganda.

NASA satellite image of Lake Albert showing the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda
Image: Slawojar.

Spokesman for the government, Lambert Mende, made the statement on Thursday: "It is with deep sorrow that we confirm the death of 251 of our compatriots who had boarded the boat from the Ugandan side of Lake Albert".

It is with deep sorrow that we confirm the death of 251 of our compatriots who had boarded the boat from the Ugandan side of Lake Albert.

Lambert Mende

President Joseph Kabila declared three days of national mourning, which began on Thursday, described by Mende as a display of compassion and solidarity with the people of Congo.

The refugees were reportedly returning to the DRC, leaving Uganda voluntarily.

Mende has claimed this is due to the "poor quality of welcome to which they were subjected," while the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has recently recorded an increase in Congolese refugees spontaneously returning to the DRC, following a military victory over rebels in the nation's east last November.

Tragedy struck the overcrowded vessel, when, as latest reports claim, it was carrying around three hundred people.

Two boats were attempting to cross Lake Albert from the Hoima district on the Ugandan shore.

The waterway is known to be dangerous when the weather is rough, and combined with a lack of life-jackets and a general inability of passengers to swim, incidents like this often lead to high body counts. Days before, a campaign had been launched by the DRC to enforce wearing lifejackets aboard all vessels in the nation’s waterways.

Since Saturday, the death toll has continued to climb, it was initially reported that twenty had died. On Monday, UNHCR received information from authorities that 41 people had been rescued and 98 bodies recovered. This number climbed again by Tuesday – with reports stating 107 had died, including 57 children.

The survivors were taken to the Bundibugyo district, in the north-west of Uganda, where UNHCR and the Ugandan government are providing help, including psycho-social support. Relatives of the deceased are identifying family members at the district hospital.

UNHCR and the Ugandan government are assisting in the transport of the bodies back to the DRC, and have established an information and response point for relatives of the survivors. Julian Paluku, governor of the North Kivu district has said the recovery of bodies will continue.

Reportedly, the refugees had originally fled the DRC after a July 2013 attack on the Kamango region to the east-northeast of the capital, Kinshasa.