The death toll from a boat that capsized in Lake Albert Monday rose to 108 after 82 more bodies were recovered.
Ugandan police said the boat was carrying more than 150 Congolese refugees, who were escaping from Kyangwali refugee camp in western Uganda. They were returning to DR Congo after a recent improvement in the security situation in the country when the boat capsized.
On Saturday, local fishermen rescued 45 boat passengers from the lake on the border between Uganda and DR Congo, but hopes of finding more survivors were running low, even as Uganda police, marine officials and army joined in the search.
Survivors said they had clung onto the edges of the boat until they were rescued. Others held onto the cargo that had also been in the boat.
“So far, the bodies retrieved from the waters today are 82 and on Sunday evening we found seven bodies, which indicates that the boat was really over-loaded,” John Elatu Ojokuna, the area police commander, said on Monday. Nineteen bodies were found on Saturday.
Preliminary reports indicate that the hand-built boat did not have life jackets and there was no emergency response to the disaster save for the efforts of local fishermen. Police said they had arrested the boat’s coxswain to assist them with investigations. Some survivors said the coxswain had been sipping from sachets of gin before the boat capsized.
The Ntoroko District Police Commander, Mr Bosco Bakashaba, told journalists that some of the bodies were found floating in the lake, which forms a natural border between Uganda and the DR Congo.
“More bodies may be discovered since the search is still on-going,” he said.
As the search for survivors and bodies continued, Ugandan authorities were investigating the circumstances under which the refugees had sneaked out of their camp and travelled to the lake without permission or detection.
Preliminary investigations indicated that over 100 refugees walked more than 10 kilometres from the Kyangwali camp, descended the Albertine escarpment that forms part of the western arm of the East African Great Rift Valley, to the banks of the lake at Senjojo landing site.
It is believed that they walked through the night to avoid detection.
Mr David Kazungu, the commissioner in charge of refugees in the Office of the Prime Minister, said the Ugandan government had not approved the refugees’ travel.
“They escaped from Kyangwali refugee resettlement,” he said.
Hundreds of residents escaped from Kamango area in eastern DR Congo last December and took refuge in Uganda after fighting broke out between government troops backed by UN peacekeepers and rebel groups in the area.
The refugees initially settled in Bundibugyo District close to the border before the Ugandan government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees moved them further inwards to the settlement camp where they were given land to build shelter and grow crops.
Mr Kazungu said many refugees have sneaked back to DR Congo after the defeat of the M23 rebel group — the most dominant in the area in recent years. Some of them are believed to have sneaked back across the same lake.
“Over 1,000 refugees are reported to have returned to their home this way and reported to authorities in DRC,” he said. The camp they escaped from hosts over 20,000 Congolese refugees.
Arrangements were underway to transport the bodies to DR Congo for burial. Ugandan police were holding the 45 survivors for their own safety.
Some of the refugees were returning to DR Congo to harvest crops they left in their farms, area residents said.