In a day of horror on the roads in southern Africa, dozens of people, including many young girls, were killed in separate vehicle crashes in Swaziland and South Africa.
The young girls and women were packed into the backs of two open-air trucks on Saturday morning, traveling the mountainous roads of Swaziland – a small monarchy bordering South Africa and Mozambique – after gathering reeds for an annual traditional festival celebrating the royal family, the Swaziland Times reported.
The first of the trucks crashed into a van that had been pulled over by traffic police, causing a pile up as the second truck then smashed into both cars, killing at least 38 of the young women.
Lucky Luhele, spokesman for a local humans rights organization called the Swaziland Solidarity Network, told BuzzFeed News that eight girls were pronounced dead at the scene while dozens of others were rushed to a nearby hospital.
Luhele said the Swaziland Defense Force has since informed him that the death toll may have risen to more than 60 girls.
On Sunday, however, Swazi police told Reuters that 13 had been killed.
One 18-year-old survivor, Siphelele Sigudla, told the Swaziland Times that the first truck, in which she had been traveling, was carrying more than 50 young women. The trucks were on their way to the residence of the royal family for the festival of the Reed Dance.
Police at the scene prevented press from taking pictures, the Associated Press reported, though some onlookers took pictures with their cell phones and provided them to journalists.
"We all have heard about the dark cloud that has befallen the `imbali,'" King Mswati III of Swaziland said Saturday, using the Swati language word for flower, used to refer to the groups of girls attending the festival.
The king promised that the families of the injured and deceased would be compensated and that his authorities were investigating the accident.
The Swaziland Royal Police Force did not immediately return BuzzFeed News' request for comment.
"The royal family needs to take responsibility for this," Luhele said. He alleged that the King requested the girls be taken to the royal residence in the two trucks. "Only animals are transported in an open truck. It is not designed to transport human beings."
"This is not the first incident where young girls have been injured on royal assignments," Luhele said in a public statement about the crash.
Luhele told BuzzFeed News his network is calling on the king to cancel the Reed Dance, scheduled to begin on Sunday, and instead turn it into a prayer session for the deceased, injured, and their families.
"If the king has a conscience he will do so, but knowing him, he may do otherwise," Luhele said. "But you cannot lose hope."
The Reed Dance ceremony, or Umhlanga, is a traditional celebration that pays homage to the Swazi Queen Mother, Ntombi Thwala. In the eight-day festival, about 40,000 unmarried young women and girls dressed in traditional garments gather at the royal residence to chop reeds and help mend the fence surrounding the royal village. In 2012, the Associated Press reported that Mswati III had recently been using the festival to find wives.
Swaziland is the only absolute monarchy left in Africa and has been ruled by King Mswati III since 1986. The mountainous region has a population of about 1.4 million people and of the highest rates of HIV per capita in the world.
Dozens were also killed in two more crashes on Saturday on the Eastern Cape of South Africa, several hundred miles south of Swaziland.
A driver traveling between the towns of Butterworth and Willowvale lost control of a privately owned bus Saturday morning, killing 35 – including four children – and injuring nine, Simon Zwane, a spokesman for the South African Road Traffic Management Corporation, told BuzzFeed News.
Around the same time, a minibus taxi overturned further down the Eastern Coast, killing 12 and injuring three, Zwane added.
In 2011, South Africa had the seventh highest rate of road fatalities per population in the world, according to the government, while Swaziland had the 28th highest rate.
Ema O'Connor is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Ema O'Connor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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