Papua New Guinea landslide buried more than 2,000 people, government says

An injured person is carried on a stretcher to seek medical assistance after a landslide in Yambali village, Papua New Guinea, May 24, 2024. [AP Photo]

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

The National Disaster Centre gave the new number in a letter to the U.N. released on Monday but dated Sunday. A separate U.N. agency put the possible death toll at more than 670 people.

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

The landslide crashed through six villages in the Maip-Mulitaka district in the country's north at around 3 a.m. on Friday while most of the community slept. More than 150 houses were buried beneath debris almost two stories high.

Rescuers told local media they 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 are still using spades, sticks and their bare hands to try and shift the debris and reach any survivors. Only seven bodies have been found so far.

Villagers held a funeral on Monday for one of the bodies. Tens of mourners walked in a procession behind the coffin wailing and weeping, according to video shot by a U.N. official.

Aid trickle

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

Eight people were killed and 30 houses burnt down on Saturday, a U.N. agency official said. Aid convoys on Monday passed the still smoking remains of houses.

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

Many people are still unsure whether loved ones were in the path of the landslide because villagers often move between the homes of friends and relatives, according to Matthew Hewitt Tapus, a pastor based in Port Moresby whose home village is roughly 20km from the disaster zone.

"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 told Reuters by phone.

Prime Minister James Marape's office said the disaster was being handled by PNG emergency authorities and Marape was in the capital Port Moresby preparing for the return of parliament on Tuesday, where he faces a no-confidence motion.

Australia announced an initial $1.66 million aid package late Monday and said it would send technical experts to help rescue and recovery. The Australian Defense Force is already providing logistical support.

China, which has been wooing Pacific island nations, said it would heed the needs of PNG and provide assistance within China's capabilities for disaster relief and post-disaster reconstruction.

"We believe that the people of Papua New Guinea will be able to overcome difficulties and rebuild their homeland at an early date," foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a daily news briefing when asked about aid to PNG.

Site still dangerous

Even when rescue teams can get to the site, rain, unstable ground and flowing water is making it extremely dangerous for residents and rescue teams to clear debris, according to Serhan Aktoprak, the chief of the U.N. migration agency's mission in PNG.

There is still a risk the soil and debris could shift again and more than 250 homes have been abandoned as officials encourage people to evacuate, he said. More than 1,250 people have been displaced.

Some local residents also do not want heavy machinery and excavators entering the village and interrupting the mourning, he said.

"At this point, people I think are realizing that the chances are very slim that anyone can basically be taken out alive," he said.