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People gather at the site of a car accident off of Iganga-Jinja highway in Wairaka, a town in eastern Uganda. The country experienced 3,194 fatal road accidents between January 2018 and January 2019. More accidents may have gone unregistered. Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda
Human Rights

Thefts at Motor Accident Scenes Leave Ugandan Authorities Unable to Identify Bodies

Uganda

In Uganda, stealing from people who have been hurt or killed in road accidents is becoming more common, causing authorities to have trouble identifying the deceased. Government solutions are underway, and in the meanwhile, officials are encouraging people to document the thefts.

JINJA, UGANDA – Traffic is stopped on the Iganga-Jinja highway in eastern Uganda.

People step from their cars, following a trail of tire marks through a wall of shrubs growing on the roadside. Everyone wants to see for themselves.

“This is so bad,” someone says in a hushed voice.

A vehicle lies on its side. A man is dead.

“He has gone to rest,” Ngobi Josephat says, just joining the growing crowd.

A man turns the body over. It’s been badly cut in the accident. Suddenly, the man reaches into the trouser and breast pockets of the deceased and begins removing whatever he finds.

“Banange!” people exclaim in Lusoga, a local language, as they watch the grisly scene. “My God!”

Police arrive moments later and search the body for identification. There’s nothing.

“Someone has just taken the wallet,” a voice from the crowd shouts. But the culprit is gone.

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Kakira police arrive at the scene of the accident. The theft of wallets and identification cards makes it difficult for police to track down relatives of those who die or are critically injured during car accidents. They interview onlookers for information about the incident.

Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda

According to Ssebambilidde Charles, Assistant Commissioner of Police in Traffic and Road Safety Directorate, stealing valuables during traffic accidents is a common occurrence in Uganda.

“Before saving a life, most Ugandans at an accident scene first help themselves with the valuables of the injured person,” he says.

But theft of wallets and identification cards makes it difficult for police to track down the relatives of the dead or critically injured.

David James Wamunyerere, the Divisional Police Commander of Jinja East, says police were able to identify the man. They learned he was traveling from Kumi District to see his daughters who are enrolled in school in Kampala, Uganda’s capital.

His daughters knew he was driving to see them and to pay for their school fees. When they could not reach him by phone, they suspected he may have been in an accident.

The police helped the family track him to a mortuary in Jinja. But the 1.5 million Ugandan shillings ($407) he was travelling with for the school fees were gone.

According to traffic reports, Uganda experienced 3,194 fatal road accidents between January 2018 and January 2019. But more accidents may have gone unregistered.

Moses Byaruhanga, who leads the country’s pathology department, says bodies can only be stored in the mortuary for a week. If police cannot identify the body during that time, mortuary staff are forced to bury the body in a city cemetery.

Before saving a life, most Ugandans at an accident scene first help themselves with the valuables of the injured person.

The body can only be exhumed and tested for a DNA match if a family member comes looking for the deceased.

Joshua Agonya suffered serious injuries during a bus accident in northern Uganda in May 2018. When he recovered two days later, he discovered that the 3 million shillings ($815) worth of valuables that he was traveling with were gone.

One man, who refused to disclose his name due to fear of arrest, says that it is widely known that even the police will take belongings from the critically ill or dead.

“If I leave the money, the policeman, who will get the documents, will not hand the money over to the relatives,” he says. “And then the doctor may also take the money just like the mortuary man.”

In 2016, five members of the Ngora Police were arrested for stealing cash and personal belongings from the scene of an accident.

Ssebambilidde advises the public to serve as witnesses at the scene of accidents and use smart phones to document any theft, even if committed by police.

“If evidence points to the policeman as the one that took the valuables, then he will be charged with theft,” he says. “He would not be spared.”

Luke Owoyesigire, police spokesperson for Kampala metropolitan, says the government has been working to install highway cameras on all national roads to help them catch people who steal from accident scenes. The project is part of a $120.2 million contract given to a Chinese company in 2018.