Body recovery 'called off' at Papua New Guinea landslide site

Locals dig during search and rescue efforts at the site of a landslide at Yambali village in the region of Maip Mulitaka in Papua New Guinea's Enga Province on May 30, 2024. [AFP]

The bodies of hundreds of villagers feared buried in Papua New Guinea landslide will not be recovered, the military said Wednesday, describing recovery operations as "too dangerous".

"All efforts to recover bodies have been called off because of the danger", Major Joe Aku told AFP, citing the risk of further landslides.

"Recovery is non-negotiable at this stage," he said, dashing survivors' hopes of recovering loved ones.

Aku -- one of the leading military officers overseeing the site -- declared the highland disaster area a "no-go zone".

It will be cordoned off to the community and authorities until further notice.

Papua New Guinea's government estimates 2,000 people may have been buried in a 600 metre-long (2,000 feet) mountain of soil and boulders that engulfed a remote community in Enga province.

Aku said the toll could be closer to 650. Make-shift recovery efforts unearthed just nine bodies, according to local health authorities.

With the recovery effort now called off, the true toll of the disaster will likely never be known.

"It is too dangerous to be on-site at this stage. This is the worst and biggest landslide I have seen," he said.

Papua New Guinea is one of the world's most disaster-prone regions and landslides are extremely common in its highlands.

But the estimated 7,849 villagers near Mount Mungalo, in central Papua New Guinea were not prepared for the landslide that buried families and their homes in the early hours of May 24.

While Edlyn Yaki managed to escape, her husband, father and three children were buried.

She sat in a white makeshift aid tent, dressed in black clothes that others have given her. She had lost everything.

"I saw the other families who had fled, I was certain that I would see some of my family members. But unfortunately, all my family had been covered by the landslide," Yaki told UNDP Papua New Guinea.

After digging for 10 days and nights, she finally found the bodies of her two children and husband.

"But my daughter -- we still haven't found. She is still buried under the rocks," Yaki said.

"At this stage I can't do nothing but grieve."

Further risk of landslides

An internal report by Papua New Guinea's mining and geohazards department, obtained by AFP on Tuesday, warned there was a "high likelihood of further landslides" at the site "in the immediate future".

The report warned the recovery efforts could provoke another landslide, and the relocation of villagers should be "non-negotiable".

In particular, there was concern that the use of recently arrived heavy machinery could topple boulders perched above.

"Movement or vibration from the machinery will set these boulders into motion," the report warned.

Surrounding communities have been evacuated due to the risk, with many taking refuge in nearby "care centres", Aku said.

They are relying on aid from agencies or partner countries to survive.

Although aid efforts were severely hampered by the site's remote location, nearby tribal violence and landslide damage that has severed major road links.

Aku added discussions were underway with the community and local authorities about a possible memorial for those "buried under the rubble".