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Landslide in Papua New Guinea Buries Village, Hundreds Feared Dead in Tragic Disaster

Photo : Reuters

For five days, survivors in the remote village of Yambali, Papua New Guinea, have been using shovels and their bare hands to dig through mud and debris nearly two stories high. The landslide, which occurred while families were asleep, buried an estimated 2,000 people under a "mountain" of rubble, spanning an area equivalent to three to four football fields. 

Mate Bagossy, a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) rescue worker, described the scene as devastating. "It's basically a mountain that has fallen on their heads," he said. The chances of finding survivors are slim, according to rescue officials. 

Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister, James Marape, addressed parliament, stating that the villagers went to sleep for the last time, unaware they would not wake up. "Nature threw a disastrous landslip, submerged or covered the village," he said, attributing the tragedy to "extraordinary rainfall" and changes in weather patterns that have caused multiple disasters in the Pacific Island nation this year.

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The death toll estimates have varied. While the government reported over 2,000 people buried alive, the UN estimates around 670 are missing, and community leaders suggest the number is about 200. So far, only six bodies have been recovered.

Satellite images and photos from the UN and local villagers reveal the scale of the disaster. "It's an entire village and shops and a fuel station and a lodge and the church and the school ... all of that has gone," Bagossy noted. He explained that the village lodge is partially visible because the landslide only covered a portion of it. However, everything else is buried under six to eight meters (20-26 feet) of rubble.

Rescue operations face significant challenges. Only one excavator has reached the site, but it remains unused due to concerns about the unstable terrain. Thousands of people have been ordered to evacuate amid fears of further landslides.

Geologists and geo-hazard specialists from Australia and New Zealand are en route to the village to assess the risk of additional landslides. "The entire area needs to be surveyed to understand the risk of further landslide in the area and surroundings. It's very complicated to bring in heavy machinery if the terrain is not stable. The entire road was sinking," Bagossy said.

The UN migration agency has also warned of the risk of infectious diseases due to decaying bodies. "Every passing minute, bodies buried under the debris are decaying, with water squeezed between the ground and the vast debris covering an area of three to four football fields continuing to leak. This is posing a high health risk," said Serhan Aktoprak, chief of the agency's mission in Papua New Guinea, in an emailed statement. 

As the search and rescue efforts continue, the community grapples with the enormity of the disaster and the devastating impact on their lives.

May 29, 2024 2:53 p.m. 500

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