Locals dig at the site of a landslide at Mulitaka village in Enga province, Papua New Guinea.—AFP
Locals dig at the site of a landslide at Mulitaka village in Enga province, Papua New Guinea.—AFP

SYDNEY: Papua New Guinea’s massive landslide three days ago buried more than 2,000 people, the government said on Monday, as treacherous terrain impeded aid and lowered hopes of finding survivors.

The National Disaster Centre gave the new number in a letter to the UN, which had put possible deaths at more than 670.

The variance reflects the remote site and the difficulty in getting an accurate population estimate. The Pacific island nation’s last credible census was in 2000 and many people live in isolated mountain villages.

Defence Minister Billy Joseph said 4,000 people had been living in the six remote villages in the Maip-Mulitaka area in Enga province, where the landslide occurred in the early hours of Friday while most were asleep.

Defence minister says 4,000 people had been living in six remote villages hit by landslide

More than 150 houses were buried beneath debris. Rescuers heard screams from beneath the earth.

“I have 18 of my family members being buried under the debris and soil that I am standing on, and a lot more family members in the village I cannot count,” resident Evit Kambu told Reuters.

“But I cannot retrieve the bodies so I am standing here helplessly.” More than 72 hours after the landslide, residents were still using spades, sticks and bare hands to try and shift debris. Only five bodies had been found, according to the provincial authority.

Heavy equipment and assistance have been slow to arrive due to the remote location while tribal warfare nearby has made aid workers travel in convoys escorted by soldiers and return to the provincial capital, 60km away, at night.

Eight people were killed and 30 houses burnt down on Saturday in the violence, a UN agency official said.

The first excavator only reached the disaster site late on Sunday, according to a UN official.

Many people are still unsure whether loved ones were caught as villagers often move between homes of friends and relatives, according to Matthew Hewitt Tapus, a pastor in the PNG capital Port Moresby whose home village is close to the disaster.

“It’s not like everyone is in the same house at the same time, so you have fathers who don’t know where their children are, mothers who don’t know where husbands are, it’s chaotic,” he said.

The defence minister said the operations chief was sent to the disaster scene within 24 hours with assistance from the Australian Defence Force, and a PNG defence engineering team was on site, as well as a military helicopter for evacuations.

The government also requested a New Zealand Defence Force geo-technical team to assess possibly unstable land nearby which would be making heavy earth-moving equipment dangerous, he said.

Published in Dawn, May 28th, 2024

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