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Over 2,000 Buried in Deadly Papua New Guinea Landslide: Officials

Published: May 28, 2024
(Image: Relief workers and people walk at a site damaged in the aftermath of a landslide in Enga Province, Papua New Guinea, May 26, 2024, in this handout image obtained by Reuters. New Porgera Limited/Handout via REUTERS)

A massive landslide in Papua New Guinea has buried more than 2,000 people and hundreds may have lost their lives, according to the national government. 

Treacherous terrain has impeded aid and lowered hopes of finding survivors from the disaster, which struck on Friday, May 24. Papua New Guinea’s National Disaster Center stated that more than 670 individuals could have been killed.

The Pacific island nation’s last credible census was in 2000. Many people live in isolated mountain villages, and the variance in the numbers reflects the remote site and the difficulty in getting an accurate population estimate. 

Defence Minister Billy Joseph said 4,000 people had been living in the six remote villages in the Maip-Mulitaka area in Enga province.

The landslide occurred in the early hours of Friday, while most were asleep, and more than 150 houses were buried beneath debris almost two storeys high.

Resident Evit Kambu told Reuters: “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,”. “But I cannot retrieve the bodies so I am standing here helplessly.”

More than 72 hours after the landslide residents were still using spades, sticks and bare hands to try and shift debris, and according to the provincial authority only 5 bodies were found.

Difficult conditions

Serhan Aktoprak, the chief of the U.N. migration agency’s mission in PNG said rain, unstable ground and flowing water was making it extremely dangerous for residents and rescue teams to clear debris in the affected areas.

Aktoprak added: “At this point, people I think are realizing that the chances are very slim that anyone can basically be taken out alive.”

More than 250 homes have been evacuated, he said, with more than 1,250 people displaced.

Due to the remote location of the disaster, heavy equipment and assistance have been slow to arrive, while violent tribal warfare nearby between different factions has made aid workers travel in convoys escorted by soldiers.

On Saturday, eight people were killed and 30 houses burnt down in the violence, a U.N. agency official said. 

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

Many people are still unsure about their relatives’ whereabouts, according to Matthew Hewitt Tapus, a pastor in the national capital of Port Moresby. His home village is located close to the disaster zone.

He told Reuters: “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.” 

Joseph said the defense operations chief was sent to the disaster scene within 24 hours with assistance from the Australian Defence Force, and a PNG defense engineering team and a military helicopter for evacuations were also deployed on site.

The government has requested a New Zealand Defence Force geotechnical team to assess possibly unstable land and zones nearby.

The minister added the province needs to build capacity for disaster warnings, saying the government would rebuild the villages and reopen the main highway to the town and gold mine at Porgera.

Australia announced an initial A$2.5 million ($1.66 million) aid package, and said it would send technical experts to help rescue and recovery.

Reuters contributed to this report.