YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – After the country’s deadliest flooding in the last three years, Rwanda is mourning the deaths of at least 130 people amid fears the toll could continue to rise as the search continues for those who are still missing.
Torrential rains resulted in floods of mud that ripped through the country on the night of May 2, sweeping away homes, cutting roads apart, destroying bridges, and otherwise devastating the area’s infrastructure.
“It started raining around 9:00 p.m. until 5:00 a.m., while many people were asleep,” said Father Longin Niyonsenga of Butete Parish in Rwanda, speaking to Crux.
“Because of too much rain, water started entering different houses,” Niyonsenga said. “Many people started running away but some who were asleep died in their homes. Others’ houses collapsed on them.”
“Apart from people, these floods destroyed many houses and roads in Northern and Western Provinces of Rwanda,” he added.
“My Christians and I are still looking for more deaths,” the priest said in a May 4 interview. “We buried seven people from the same family.”
Pope Francis has offered “blessings of strength, peace” in the wake of the disaster. In a May 4 telegram addressed to the Apostolic Nuncio to Rwanda, Archbishop Arnaldo Sanchez Catalan, the Holy Father expressed his spiritual closeness to the people of Rwanda.
Pope Francis “has received with deep sadness the news of the loss of human life and destruction caused by the recent floods in the western and northern provinces of Rwanda,” reads a portion of the telegram that was signed on behalf of the Pope by the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
“As a sign of spiritual closeness, the Holy Father willingly invokes upon all the people of Rwanda the blessings of strength and peace of Almighty God,” the statement read.
The Supreme Pontiff prayed “for the deceased, wounded and displaced, as well as for those involved in recovery efforts.”
The World Council of Churches has also expressed solidarity with the people of Rwanda in their moment of grief. In a May 5 Pastoral Letter, Rev. Jerry Pillay, the organization’s general secretary, conveyed “our solidarity and support to the churches and people of Rwanda for the grace to overcome these difficult challenges.
“As people of faith, we are called to stand together in solidarity with one another, upholding each other in prayers, supporting those who are made vulnerable socially and economically, the displaced persons, and those who have lost their means of livelihood due to crisis and disaster,” he said.
Niyonsenga said the disaster wasn’t the first, nor would it be the last.
“I cannot say that it is an isolated event, because it is happening many times these days. As a mountainous and overpopulated country, disasters might happen many times,” he said.
Although Rwanda has seen devastating floods in the past, Tuesday’s downpour was especially destructive. According to statistics, there were more than 250 fatalities caused by flooding between 2018 and 2020, and 183 people died in 12 flood catastrophes between 2000 and 2015. However, the present floods are the deadliest flooding event ever.
According to Richard Munang, Deputy Regional Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Africa Office, the flooding may be related to global warming, as Africa is warming twice as quickly as the rest of the world.
“East Africa has seen temperature increases of up to 1.7 celsius. This means the consequences of a warming globe, which include events such as extreme precipitation, will continue to escalate. This is part of what we are seeing,” he said.
Niyonsenga told Crux that the Catholic Church, through its charitable wing Caritas, has been doing what it could to bring relief to the thousands of people affected by the disaster.
“Caritas, as an organization which is always near the people, after realizing that there were floods, started giving food and giving classrooms as shelter. The Church also helps in burying the dead. The problem is that the means are limited, “he said.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame said the government was deploying every means to “address this difficult situation … I am personally following up the response closely,” he said.
The Catholic priest has welcomed the government’s response so far, noting that “immediately after hearing that there was a disaster, police, army, and government officials started providing support to the population in need. The people injured were taken to the hospital, the dead are being buried and the survivors are being given food and shelters. They are near the people.”
Niyonsenga reassured the bereaved families that they had not been abandoned.
“Even though this happened, we are telling them that God still loves them and the beloved ones who passed away did not perish but went to God,” he said.