Over 2000 people buried in landslide, PNG tells UN

Renju Jose and Lewis Jackson |

Five bodies have been recovered but hundreds more are feared dead after the landslide.
Five bodies have been recovered but hundreds more are feared dead after the landslide.

Papua New Guinea’s massive landslide has buried more than 2000 people, the government says, 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 UN released on Monday.

A separate UN 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.

The landslide crashed through six villages in the Maip-Mulitaka district in the country’s north at early on Friday while most of the community slept.

Villagers carry a coffin during a funeral procession in Yambali
Yambali villagers held a funeral on Monday for one of the bodies retrieved from the debris. (AP PHOTO)

More than 150 houses were buried beneath debris almost two storeys 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 UN official.

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 60km away, at night.

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

Villagers use heavy machinery to search through a landslide in Yambali
The first excavator only reached the landslide site late on Sunday, the UN says. (AP PHOTO)

Aid convoys on Monday passed the still smoking remains of houses.

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

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 $A2.5 million aid package late on Monday and said it would send technical experts to help rescue and recovery.

The Australian Defence 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.

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 UN 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 1250 people have been displaced.

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