LUBUMBASHI, Congo (AFP) ― Between 100 and 200 victims of an April 22 train crash in the Democratic Republic of Congo were buried in mass graves after the disaster, the Congolese Red Cross said Monday, casting doubt on the official death toll of 74.
Many people were trapped for days in the mangled wreckage of the goods train, which was bursting with illegal passengers when it flew off the rails in a swampy and inaccessible part of the country.
“We had no choice but to bury them in mass graves. We dug at least seven ditches. In each ditch there were between 15 and 30 people,” local Red Cross head Bondo Mitonga said by telephone.
Mitonga, who was at the scene of the crash in southeastern Katanga province, said he was unable to give a more precise figure for the number of victims.
His account chimed with that of local human rights activist Timothee Mbuya who said a day after the crash that “so far at least 100 bodies have been taken from the train and buried, because there’s no morgue.”
However, the government stuck by its statement Sunday putting the number of dead at 74, with a further 163 injured.
Government spokesman Lambert Mende said any higher figures were “lies” coming from “people who want to appear interesting.”
Mitonga said the number of bodies and the state they were in ―with body parts scattered across the disaster scene ― had made it impossible to bury the victims in individual graves.
Six days after the crash, Mitonga said there were still nine carriages to be searched for bodies and possible survivors.
He said the search and rescue effort was hampered by the horrific smell, and workers were having to “disinfect” the scene before accessing it.
Train crashes occur fairly frequently in DR Congo, where the railway lines were built more than 50 years ago under Belgian colonial rule.
Little maintenance work has been done since independence in 1960, but the World Bank is currently financing a program to refurbish the network.