Salim Ndayisaba and his eight member crew of fishermen thought their lives had come to an end in May, when two of their three fishing boats capsized in the middle of Lake Kivu at around 2:00 am.
Hell broke loose for the team that had set off for a normal fishing night when a heavy wave hit their boats and pushed them to far end in the lake. They could have sailed back on the mainland but the heavy wave sank their boat. They almost lost their lives. Their families could not have easily known how they died and they could not have lived to tell the tale of water brutality.
“When fishing, we use three boats connected to each other. Each boat has three men and there is usually a captain for the whole crew,” says Ndayisaba.
“On the fateful day, at around midnight, we set off for our routine fishing, it all seemed normal until around 2:00am when strong winds started blowing setting off a wave. We had previously experienced waves so this was no cause for worry, we proceeded with our business but a few minutes later the waves became stronger which led to our boats disconnecting. Two of them were blown away and sank immediately,” he narrates.
He went on to say that their colleagues who remained on the third boat called the police marine unit which intervened immediately and rescued them.
“We had little or no hope of surviving but the police marine divers showed up in the shortest time possible and rescued us, they are our heroes,” says Ndayisaba.
Ndayisaba shares a similar story with Fatuma Muhawenimana, a resident of Rutsiro District, who is a fish monger and happens to be among the 85 survivors of the July incident, when the boat they were sailing in from Rutsiro en route to Rubavu, capsized.
All people on board survived.
“We were aboard the boat in the middle of the lake when the storm hit us and the engine broke down. If you have been in the middle of a lake where the only thing you see is water from all sides, then you can understand the fear we had. Fortunatly, those that had phones called the police and everyone felt relieved when we saw the marine boats coming,” Muhawenimana says.
“It was not only rescuing us; they took us to their headquarters in Mushonyi in Rutsiro District, provided us with the necessities and repaired our boat at no cost,” she adds.
The marines aren’t only charged with recue operations but also water security.
Even those caught violating fishing rules say that marine patrols approach them in a friendly manner and sensitise them on dangers of their illegal actions. Among them is Norbert Turikumwe, who led his nine-man team into a no-fishing territory.
The marine night patrols intercepted them and confiscated their fishing materials.
“By law, no one is allowed to fish within 500 meters from the shores but two weeks ago, we violated that not because we intended it but we were scared of the storm. At around 4:00am, marine patrol intercepted us. They showed us the distance from the shores to where we were, then they confiscated our fishing materials,” Turikumwe narrates.
He adds that; “the next day, we went to their camp to reclaim our materials. The officers took time to educate us on the dangers of fishing outside the gazetted area and then advised us to pay a fine of Rwf50, 000 on RRA account, come back with the bank slip and take our fishing material back, which we did.”
Today, Turikumwe is among the community mobilisers who sensitise fishermen on standard fishing practices.
Policing on the waters
The male and female marine officers say they derive their thrill and motivation in saving lives, ensuring people’s safety and that of water species.
A diver is usually equipped with an oxygen cylinder, fins, a regulator, buoyancy compensators or buoyancy aid, a face mask, snorkel, thermal protection (suit), self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (scuba), a bayonet, a belt strapped with heavy metals to help sink, and water shoes.
“What we do here starts from us being psychologically prepared, physically able and well equipped. It is so exciting to pull someone out of the water alive. Every time I take part in saving a life I feel very motivated and encouraged to do it again and again,” says one of the long-time experienced Police divers, Assistant Inspector of Police (AIP) James Mupenzi.
Mupenzi attributes his thrill to his superiors whom he says are passionate about water security.
The Commanding Officer of the Rwanda National Police Marine unit, Chief Supt. Methode Munyaneza, expounded on how police and its partners ensure maximum security on water bodies in Rwanda.
The Police unit, which was established in 2005 with 35 qualified personnel, has since grown significantly operating the seven marine posts across the country, including its main base in Mushonyi.
“These posts have qualified marine officers with modern equipment to ensure security and safety in all the 17 inland lakes and three others, including Lake Kivu, that are shared with neighbouring countries, as well as ensuring that these water bodies are utilised in a sustainable manner in accordance with national laws,” says CSP Munyaneza.
Common illegal activities on lakes, he said, include illegal fishing or use of unspecified nets, smuggling and drug trafficking.
Disasters in waters, he explained, are usually caused by carelessness and illegal fishing especially at night, disregarding precautionary measures like wearing lifejackets and sending young children to fetch water or to fish in deep waters.
“In order to overcome these challenges, we conduct regular water patrols and work with fishing cooperatives and traders to advance safety on water bodies and to conduct fishing in a safe and sustainable manner.”
CSP Munyaneza further notes that his unit closely works with the Rwanda Agricultural Board (RAB), to ensure that fishing conducted in Rwandan water bodies is done legally.
“We seize illegal fishing tools and unlicensed boats which are usually in poor mechanical conditions – and we destroy them in order to curb bad fishing practices. We have speedboats that are used during night and day patrols to ensure that illegal activities such as transportation of smuggled merchandise and trafficking of narcotics are halted,” CSP Munyaneza adds.
Police also partners with Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Agency (RURA) and Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) to ensure that all human activities on and around the water bodies are acceptable and do not damage the environment.
“We conduct regular checks to ensure that boat operators have licenses allowing them to engage in water-related business and also whether they have enough lifejackets for their passengers, among other requirements,” says CSP Munyaneza.
He called on parents and guardians residing around water bodies to put the safety of their children first by not encouraging them to fetch water in the dark or to conduct fishing activities on their own.
“We also recieve cases of drowning caused by drunkenness; some fishermen go in while drunk. Others, although rare, are children who escape or leave school or home to go fishing. We call upon parents and schools to take precautionary measures to prevent children from playing or carrying out any activity in waters,” said Munyaneza.
“Through Community Policing, Police Marine works with fishing communities, water transport operators, local leaders and neighbouring communities to advance knowledge on safe fishing practices, environment sustainability, and how to partner in improving the general security situation in and around water bodies.”