Nyabarongo boat tragedy: Survivors’ painful wait for remains of loved ones

SHE SITS pensively on a bench inside a relatively small rented house. An old mat, a jerry can, a mortar and pestle and a basin are spread on the floor of the living room.
Ntahondi (right), the husband of Uwimana with his two younger brothers.
Ntahondi (right), the husband of Uwimana with his two younger brothers.

SHE SITS pensively on a bench inside a relatively small rented house. An old mat, a jerry can, a mortar and pestle and a basin are spread on the floor of the living room.

As our interview begins, she speaks with a low tone, a clear indication that she is still in shock. And as she starts delving into details of how a boat she was travelling in together with her husband some two weeks ago capsized and how her husband has since gone missing, she can’t help but shed tears.

Josiane Uwimana, 21, is still gripped by the painful loss of her husband Elie Ntahondi, 28, whose body has not been found  since the accident on January 3.

Her brother-in-law Eric Nsanzimana also perished in the fateful boat that was sailing from Rugalika Sector in the southern district of Kamonyi to a market in Mageregere, Kigali.

At one point during the interview, she enters the bedroom and emerges seconds later holding a photo of her husband posing with two of his younger brothers. She stares at it, pointing to her youthful husband amid tears.

 “The pain of losing your loved one and missing their body is unbearable,” Uwimana says, as tears roll down her cheeks.

Uwimana had been married to Ntahondi for barely a year and their first born passed on just days after birth.

 The couple, residents of Ruramba village, Rugalika Sector of Kamonyi District, earned a living by selling cassava in local markets, including the one across Nyabarongo in Mageragere Sector, and tilled a small piece of land to supplement their income.

They were determined to work hard to improve their living conditions and always dreamt of owning a house, land and other property in the near future.

 But their dreams were tragically cut short when the boat they were travelling in capsized, killing Ntahondi.

“It all happened in a matter of seconds. Things happened so fast,” Uwimana says of the accident.

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Uwimana looks at a photo of her deceased husband. (JP Bucyensenge)

As the boat reached mid-way the journey, water started filtering through and within seconds the boat was filling, according to survivors’ testimonies.

Passengers, some of whom carried basins to the market, started drawing out the water in a desperate attempt to maintain the boat’s stability in vain. The boat capsized with over 20 passengers on board.

Eleven of the passengers were rescued and an estimated 12 others went missing, according to official figures.

The following days saw police divers search the water in search of the missing individuals.

By Thursday, six bodies had been recovered while at least five more remain unaccounted for, according to local authorities. Two of the bodies were recovered on Thursday morning and the search for more bodies continues.

Marriages shuttered, families destroyed

The families of those still missing have virtually lost hope of ever seeing the bodies.Uwimana is one of them.

“I experience nightmares every night. I can’t sleep. I always see terrifying things in my dreams,” she says.

“I am not sure whether I will ever come to terms with this tragedy,” she adds.

“If I could get his remains for a decent burial, perhaps it could bring some relief,” the 21-year-old says.

“I will never forget how lovely, kind, respectful and social my husband was. His image dwells in my mind and it will remain there forever,” she adds.

Like Uwimana, Jean Paul Ngayaberura, 34, was aboard the fateful boat.

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Ngayaberura at his home in Rugalika Sector on Thursday. JP Bucyensenge. (File)

The 34-year-old, who at the time was transporting over 250 kilogrammes of cassava to the Mageragere market, lost his sister and brother in-law in the same accident. The body of his sister Françoise Uwingeneye was recovered while that of his in-law remains missing.

“We are still shocked,” Ngayaberura told The New Times on Thursday at his home in Taba village.

“What happened delivered a strong blow to my family and community. It is a bitter pill to swallow,” the father of one says.

Ngayaberura says community support is helping him to cope with the long wait and he remains optimistic that one day, the remains of his in-law will be found and given a decent burial.

In the meantime, the entire community is mourning the boat’s victims. All who perished in the tragedy hailed from Rugalika Sector.

“We are comforting each other. Had it not been for the community support, I don’t know what would have happened,” Ngayaberura says.

Today, the survivors and those who lost their relatives in the tragedy are calling for government support to pick up pieces of their broken                                                          life.

Following the accident, which was blamed on old and weak boat as well as overloading, authorities announced a new string of measures to curb maritime accidents. They include strict boat inspection to ensure that all boats are in good condition, have lifejackets and an engine prior to allowing them sail.

Old boats or those that do not meet the requirements have also been banned – a category under which many of the boats that sailed from Kamonyi to Mageragere fall into.

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