More than 670 people now feared dead following PNG landslide

Photo: Kindupan Kambii/Facebook

A United Nations agency has confirmed more than 670 people are presumed dead following a landslide in Papua New Guinea’s highlands on Friday.

The International Organisation for Migration’s Chief of Mission in Papua New Guinea, Serhan Aktoprak, said the scale of the impact was much greater than initially thought.

“Now, the estimates suggest that 150 plus houses may be under the debris of six to eight metres deep. And they are fearing that approximately 670 plus people could have lost their lives,” Aktoprak told ABC.

He said terrain surrounding the disaster zone in Enga province remained dangerous and unstable – prompting the evacuation of about 1,250 survivors.

“When I was speaking with my colleagues … about an hour ago, as a matter of fact, they had to run away from the site because of the increased danger as rocks nonstop keep falling and the land continues to slide,” Aktoprak.

“This coupled with the heavy bulk of soil that had already landed earlier, is putting pressure on the surrounding houses, hence the evacuation of those.”

The UN, government agencies, police and military personnel are assisting with the recovery.

Locals were digging with shovels, sticks and bare hands to find people they fear are buried beneath rubble and rock. 

By Sunday, only five bodies and a leg of a sixth victim had been recovered. 

Homes and two health centres lie underneath where the side of the mountain gave way on Friday. 

It is estimated that around 60 houses were covered by the landslide and each house may have contained between 10 to 18 people. 

Local humanitarian groups say the long-term impact of the disaster is devastating. 

“People have lost their house, they’ve lost their food gardens, they’ve lost their loved ones,” CARE International PNG county director Justine McMahon said. 

“We understand health facilities have been destroyed.

“So that will really have an impact on people as well.”

But there are many obstacles to recovery, with loose soil still threatening nearby homes that have survived and roads into the village still remain obstructed, preventing excavators from getting to the site. 

“The recovery time is expected to be long, search and rescue efforts are complicated due to the nature of the terrain and the remote access,” UN humanitarian adviser Mate Bagossy told the ABC. 

“So we expect search and rescue to continue for days or weeks2

Beside the blocked highway, convoys have transported food, water and other essential supplies since Saturday to the devastated village 60 kilometres from the provincial capital, Wabag. 

The convoys have been moving slowly, as they are not to travel through the area in the dark for security reasons, and daylight hours are getting shorter heading into winter. 

To add to the complexity of the operation, Serhan Aktoprak told the ABC, a dispute between two clans has erupted in Tambitanis village, approximately 27 kilometres, halfway, along the route. 

“So far eight people have been killed… 30 houses had been burned down and five businesses, stores, shops have also been burned down,” he said. 

“Now this is also creating an increased risk of safety for (aid) convoys, including humanitarian personnel.”

The Enga Province has had long-term issues with tribal warfare and dozens of people were killed in a massacre earlier this year. 

Meanwhile, the National Disaster centre of Papua New Guinea has allocated K500,000 (US$130,000) to assist the affected people in the Mulitaka landslide in Enga Province over the weekend.

National Disaster Centre Director Laso Mana presented the the cheque to Enga Provincial Disaster chairman and Provincial Administrator Sandis Tsaka in Mulitaka.

Mana was accompanied by PNGDF Colonel Michael Bandi and Tsaka to Mulitaka to see the situation on the ground.

Colonel Bandi told the people that after seeing the situation on the ground they would submit reports to the government upon their return.

He said all the leaders that would make decision were already having discussions because this was a big disaster.

Colonel Bandi said at this time of disaster everybody needs to co-operate because security was one of the very big concern.

He said they must respect each other and keep channels of communication open and there was a lot of work they need to do and would work closely with the government.

Colonel Bandi said it was not only the defence force that would take the lead to work, they would need the assistance from all government agencies including Enga Provincial administration and all other government agencies.

He said they must allow all the government agencies to work with the military on the ground to solve this problem because it was a big disaster.

Colonel Bandi said other NGO and donor agencies would also come in, adding that the Australian High Commission could not travel due to flight cancelation.

He also appealed to the media to report facts so that people from the outside would know.

Colonel Bandi said he was also announcing the commitment of the defence force commander that the defence force would stay there and assist police to solve this problem and conveyed condolence to the people.

He said the National Disaster Centre conveyed its condolences to the people and made available K500 000 to the Enga Provincial Disaster centre to assist the people.

The unexpected first time landslide occurred at 3am last Friday morning covered the entire village and covered the people alive.

According to former Mulitaka LLG president Jaman Yandama, they had a total of 3,895 population but almost 2000 were covered alive in the landslide.

Former Mulitaka MP Mark Upaia said they are saddened of their people who perished in the landslide. Upaia said they would confirm the exact figure of people missing, domestic animals and houses damaged.