KOUBI, Mali – Mahmoudou Ibrahim combed the waters frantically for his family after they and hundreds of other passengers were catapulted into the Niger River when their boat capsized.
Amid the cries for help in the darkness of night, he listened in vain for the sound of their voices.
On Sunday morning, crews pulled the bodies of three of his children from the river: 1-year-old Ahmadou, 3-year-old Salamata and 4-year-old Fatouma.
There still is no sign of his wife, Zeinabou, or their 5-year-old twin girls, who were last seen curled up on mats aboard the ship.
“The pain that I feel today is beyond excruciating,” he said from the village cemetery where he buried the remains of his three children Sunday in the sandy dirt.
By nightfall, a total of 43 corpses had been recovered from the river since the accident Friday night, said Hamadoun Cisse, a local official in charge of tracking casualty figures.
Passengers on the capsized boat said they believed hundreds of people were on the overladen vessel when it sank Friday. But the ship’s owner did not have a full list of who was on board, making it impossible to determine the actual number of people missing.
The boat was headed from the central port of Mopti to the northern desert city of Timbuktu, packed full of people traveling ahead of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha this week. Many Malians choose to travel by river even though the journey takes several days and nights because it is easier than traversing the region’s poor desert roads.
The accident took place near the village of Koubi, about four miles from Konna. Authorities said 210 survivors had been registered, leaving dozens missing.
The boat disaster comes as Mali has been gripped by more than a year of crisis, starting with a rebellion in early 2012 and a subsequent coup, followed by the seizure of the country’s vast north by Tuareg separatists and Islamic extremists. The French army intervened in January, pushing the militants out of the cities, but violent attacks still take place.
Survivors of the Friday boat sinking described a chaotic scene, as scores of people awakened by the jolt of the boat’s collapse tried to make their way to shore.
Niamoye Toure, a 22-year-old housekeeper, was bringing her infant son home to Timbuktu to meet his grandparents. After the boat sank, she tried to swim with one hand and hold her baby with the other.
“There was a man who didn’t know how to swim who took my son’s hand,” she recalled. “This man was very heavy and he kept hanging on to my son so I was forced to let him go or risk drowning myself.
“This morning I am alive, but part of me is dead inside because part of me is still in that water,” she said.
She insisted she would wait by the river’s shore until her son’s body was found.
Ibrahim Yattara, 29, also awaited each body retrieved from the river for any sign of his wife. The two were traveling to see family in Dire, and to share the good news that she was pregnant.
With each passing hour he became more fearful she was gone. On Sunday afternoon, they found her body and buried her in the village on shore.
“She was the only woman I had ever loved since childhood,” he said. “We were so happy to know that she was pregnant. Today I am sick of life. It has no meaning for me.”
Many of those traveling to Timbuktu by boat were schoolchildren returning to class and who were unable to swim.
Abouri Djittey drove through the night from the capital of Bamako – a distance of 435 miles – after learning that his 7-year-old daughter Ramata had drowned.
Now he thinks often about a dream he had days before the accident, in which Ramata was on a boat and fell into the water.
His wife has stayed up all night crying and awaits his return. Though he came for his child’s remains, he was leaving Sunday without them.
“After seeing the bodies coming out of the water in a badly decomposed state, I cannot bear to see my daughter like that,” he says. “I prefer to return to Bamako without seeing her body.”