Stark photos of the accident in Luri village raised a question: Why did the driver try to cross a road that was overrun by a fast-moving stream — a road that sits atop a 3-meter embankment, and that lacks any kind of guardrail to protect cars that might be pushed over the edge by rushing waters?
The way local residents describe it, they have no other choice. The bridge that once carried them over the stream collapsed in 2012. A concrete road was built next to the collapsed bridge but is not elevated enough to safely carry commuters over the water when the stream is running high.
Local resident Stephen Wani said every rainy season, residents on the northern side of the stream are cut off from the hospital on the southern side. “Once our people become sick here, we will just die because we can’t go and access health services on the other side,” Wani said.
So they try to cross the stream, too often without success. Luri residents say more than 50 people have drowned in the last three months alone trying to cross. Many were travelers from other areas.
After the accident on Saturday, relatives sobbed and dozens more stood watch quietly while volunteers recovered bodies from the water.
Elizabeth Ajawa, 30, was one of the survivors. Ajawa said she and 21 other commuters boarded a Toyota Land Cruiser at the Customs Taxi Park to travel to Mundri in former Western Equatoria state.
She said when the group reached the site of the old bridge, security personnel told the driver not to cross because the road was flooded. He said the driver agreed not to cross — but several hours later tried to drive slowly over the road when authorities were not looking.
“Our car was carried by the water and we fell into the water. I don’t know how I managed to come out. It was only God who brought me out of the water,” Ajawa told VOA’s South Sudan in Focus.
Mary Albino, another survivor seated in the back of the vehicle, said she managed to swim to shore.
“They [the driver and conductor] told us go. Just when we reached the middle of the [road], two wheels became disconnected and were carried away. That was how we fell in the water. We were four people outside the pickup. When I fell, my legs got stuck on a rock, and then I started to swim to the other side,” Albino said.
Luri County Commissioner Emmanuel Paul Fartakin said the driver ignored instructions not to cross.
“We have standing orders with the traffic and security personnel at the bridge,” Fartakin told South Sudan in Focus. “They order every vehicle to stop and wait until the water subsides before they cross. … That driver came at 2 p.m. and was asked to wait at the bridge. But unfortunately, he escaped at 8 p.m. when the security personnel got busy and didn’t realize he was leaving.”
Luri County resident Pitia John said even though government officials know many people die trying to cross the water, they look the other way.
“This [road] has killed many people within three months,” John said. “Every time people drowned, government officials hear about it but don’t take any action to fix the bridge. Sometimes officials even visit the bridge and promise residents it will be fixed, but once they leave, they never come back.”
Fartakin said the national government had contracted with the IBMC construction company to repair all bridges leading to Luri County beginning with the Kapori, Kabu and Gudelle bridges.