Desperate Rescue Efforts Underway After Devastating Papua New Guinea Landslide

Desperate Rescue Efforts Underway After Devastating Papua New Guinea Landslide

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Villagers in Papua New Guinea are digging through rocks and mud to rescue survivors and retrieve bodies after a massive landslide that the UN fears has buried at least 670 people. The catastrophe struck early Friday morning, obliterating a bustling village in Enga province and causing damage extending nearly a kilometre.

So far, fewer than a dozen bodies have been recovered, with rescue efforts hampered by rubble up to 10 meters (32 feet) deep in some areas and a lack of adequate equipment. Local media reported that one couple was pulled alive from beneath rocks, having survived because their home was on the edge of the landslide’s path. Rescue workers were able to save them after hearing their shouts for help.

Prime Minister James Marape has expressed his condolences and ordered the country’s defense force and emergency agencies to the affected area, about 600km north-west of the capital Port Moresby. However, locals in Kaokalam village say they are still waiting for larger rescue operations to begin. Community leader Ignas Nembo said that locals feel abandoned, using shovels and their bare hands to dig people out.

“It’s been almost three to four days now but [many] bodies are not located yet. It is still covered by the landslide and people are finding it really hard to dig them out – they are calling for the government for support and help,” Nembo said.

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Acting Provincial Police Commander Martin Kelei confirmed that soldiers have arrived and are attempting to remove boulders, but warned that these efforts are precarious and risk further rock slips. “Digging is very hard at the moment because we’re worried about further landslides and deaths – so local people are only digging from where they can see it is safe,” Kelei said.

About 3,800 people had been living in the area before the disaster, and remaining residents are being evacuated as the region remains high-risk with forecasts of further rain. Justine McMahon, the country coordinator of Care Australia, said the ground is unstable and could trigger further landslides, so her team has decided to stay out for now to allow authorities to conduct rescue and recovery operations.

Serhan Aktoprak from the International Organisation for Migration highlighted the challenges faced by rescue teams, including the reluctance of some grieving relatives to allow heavy machinery near their loved ones. Instead, people are using digging sticks, spades, and agricultural forks to recover bodies.

The landslide has buried more than 150 houses and displaced about 1,250 people. Rescue efforts are further hindered by major damage to the sole road leading to the town, with a 200-meter (650-foot) section destroyed.

Initial reports had put the death toll in the low hundreds, but a UN revision on Sunday raised the estimate, taking into account updated population numbers. The village had recently attracted people from other areas displaced by tribal violence in the region.

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The Mount Mungalo landslide occurred in the highlands of Enga, in the north of the island nation. The Kaokalam village lies at the midpoint of the main road connecting the province’s capital with the Porgera gold mine, operated by Canadian mining company Barrick Gold Corporation, which resumed operations earlier this year.

Local officials and reporters attribute the mountain’s collapse to weeks of heavy rain and other wet conditions in the area. Australia, a close neighbor with a history of offering aid to Papua New Guinea, quickly pledged support on Saturday.

Melissa Enoch

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