PNG landslide: Thousands more to evacuate as death toll mounts

Photo: Kindupan Kambii/Facebook

Six villages down hill from the landslide disaster that has claimed an estimated 670 lives in Papua New Guinea’s highlands will be evacuated over fears more of the mountainside will crush them. 

The landslide in conflict-prone Enga Province hit Yambali village before dawn on Friday after the side of Mt Mongali collapsed. A handful of survivors have been found but hopes of finding more are dwindling four days after the disaster. 

Up to 10,000 people will be evacuated as rescue and recovery efforts are stepped up, Sandis Tsaka, provincial administrator of Enga province, told BenarNews. 

“The landslide is still very much active, the soil is moving downhill and further villages down the hill are being evacuated as we speak,” said Tsaka, who helped coordinate relief efforts at the disaster site on the weekend. 

“The impacted village is about 4,000 people and almost half of their number are accounted for, but further down we are looking at another ward with about five or six villages. So we’re looking at evacuating up to 10,000 people.  

“It’s going to be a massive exercise for us,” he said, adding they were yet to be told of the level of national government assistance. 

Local officials estimate that at least 150 houses were buried, said Serhan Aktoprak, chief of the International Organisation for Migration’s (IOM) mission to Papua New Guinea. 

“They are estimating more than 670 people under the soil at the moment, with hopes of saving them alive shrinking,” Aktoprak said Sunday in a video posted online by The Associated Press. 

“As of yet, only five bodies could have been recovered and one leg of an individual could be recovered, not the whole body. All of these belong to adults,” he said. “But the numbers are feared to be much greater than initially anticipated.” 

Two survivors, Johnson and Jacklyn Yandam, described their rescue from the debris of their crushed house after eight hours as a “miracle.” 

“I told my wife we will die but we have to die together. We were in our room and waiting for the rocks to crush us,” Johnson Yandam told the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) on Monday and appealed for government assistance with food and water. 

Videos circulated online by villagers showed a collapsed mountainside and people clamoring over the jumbled debris as they searched for any sign of survivors. Wails of grief rose and fell in the background as people dug with their hands and any tools they could find. 

Aktoprak said the village was buried under six to eight meters (20-26 feet) of soil and rocks. 

Charitable groups, government agencies and organisations such as IOM are “working hand in hand and side by side in delivering relief and aid support,” he said. 

Australia, the largest aid donor to Papua New Guinea, and the United States said they are ready to provide assistance for the disaster recovery effort. 

Enga province has also been wracked by tribal fighting – in February more than 50 people were killed in the neighboring Wapenamanda district – complicating already hazardous recovery efforts.  

Seven people were killed and 50 houses burned in the Sirunki area when fighting flared there only a few kilometers from the landslide, NBC’s local Enga bureau reported on Monday.  

“It’s been an ongoing conflict between the two neighboring tribes in the area and it’s flared up again two days ago,” said Tsaka, the provincial administrator. 

“I cannot confirm those numbers at present, but there’s been loss of life and destruction of homes and villages and food gardens on both sides.” 

The only road leading to the landslide site from Enga’s provincial capital Wabag passes straight through Sirunki. Tsaka said there were no “issues with getting relief relief supplies to the disaster area,” with two police mobile squads on site and an army company deployed to contain the fighting. 

Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape has said the defense force, the highways department and national disaster officials will coordinate with Enga’s relief effort.  

As the disaster unfolds, Marape’s government is focused on its political survival after 18 of his lawmakers defected on the weekend to the opposition, which is maneuvering for a vote of no confidence in the prime minister. Marape on Sunday said his remaining members of parliament and coalition allies still have a majority. 

The provincial government said the landslide was “an unprecedented natural disaster and humanitarian crisis” for Enga.  

The Pacific island country has suffered a succession of natural disasters in the past several months, as well as economically ruinous riots in the capital Port Moresby and spasms of deadly tribal violence in the highlands.

PNG aid on the way, more considered as death toll rises

Australia will send technical experts and AUD$2.5 million (US$1.66 million) in initial aid to Papua New Guinea as the death toll continues to rise following a catastrophic landslide that destroyed a village. 

PNG’s National Disaster Centre said more than 2000 people had been buried alive by Friday’s landslide in remote Enga province. 

Under the Australian aid package experts will provide incident management assistance, support geo-hazard assessments and help early recovery efforts, with the Australian Defence Force also assisting. 

“As a close neighbour and friend, we will be doing all we can to provide support,” Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles said in a statement on Monday. 

Treacherous terrain in the region and difficulty getting in aid has hampered rescue efforts, raising fears few survivors will be found. 

Australia is ready to consider additional support beyond Monday’s announcement, Foreign Minister Penny Wong said. 

“(This) package will assist the urgent needs of those affected by this devastating landslide,” she said. 

The head of the International Organisation for Migration in PNG Serhan Aktoprak said the conditions on the ground were hampering rescue and aid efforts. 

Rocks were still falling from the mountain, soil was cracking and water was flowing under the debris. 

“We’re just hoping that in the remaining short window of time that we have, we can at least contribute to the relief efforts in saving some more lives,”  Aktoprak said. 

“But unfortunately, (time) is not on our side.” 

 Marles earlier said Australia’s close ties with PNG meant it would be on hand to deliver support where it was needed. 

“Obviously, we are able to bring to bear the kinds of support that we would in respect of any natural disaster which occurs within our own country,” he told reporters in Melbourne on Monday. 

“PNG is a close neighbour, is a country with whom we have the closest of relationships, and we have offered whatever support we can provide in terms of dealing with this disaster. 

“We’ll continue to work with the Papua New Guinean officials as to how best that can be done.” 

A spokesperson for United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “deeply saddened” by the reported loss of hundreds of lives. 

“He extends his heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims and expresses his solidarity with the people and government of Papua New Guinea,” the spokesperson said. 

“The United Nations and its partners are supporting the government’s response efforts.  

“The Secretary-General underscores that the United Nations stands ready to offer additional assistance at this challenging time.”

Friday’s landslide buried more than 2,000 people and formally asks for help

A Papua New Guinea government official has told the United Nations that more than 2,000 people are believed to have been buried alive by last Friday’s landslide and has formally asked for international help.
The government figure is roughly triple the UN estimate of 670 killed by the landslide in the South Pacific island nation’s mountainous interior. The remains of only five people had been recovered by Monday, local authorities reported. It was not immediately clear why the tally of six reported on Sunday had been revised down.

In a letter to the United Nations resident coordinator dated Sunday and seen by The Associated Press, the acting director of the country’s National Disaster Centre Luseta Laso Mana, said the landslide “buried more than 2,000 people alive” and caused “major destruction” in Yambali village in Enga province.

Estimates of the casualties have varied widely since the disaster occurred, and it was not immediately clear how officials arrived at the number of people affected.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM), which is working closely with the government and taking a leading role in the international response, has not changed its estimated death toll of 670 released on Sunday, pending new evidence.

“We are not able to dispute what the government suggests but we are not able to comment on it,” said Serhan Aktoprak, chief of the UN migrant agency’s mission in Papua New Guinea.

“As time goes in such a massive undertaking, the number will remain fluid,” Aktoprak added.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres sent “heartfelt condolences” to the families of the victims and the people and government of Papua New Guinea and said the U.N. and its partners are supporting the government’s response efforts, and “the United Nations stands ready to offer additional assistance at this challenging time,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Monday.

The death toll of 670 was based on calculations by Yambali village and Enga provincial officials that more than 150 homes had been buried by the landslide. The previous estimate had been 60 homes.

The office of Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape did not respond Monday to a request for an explanation of what the government estimate of 2,000 was based on. Marape has promised to release information about the scale of the destruction and loss of life when it becomes available.

Determining the scale of the disaster is difficult because of challenging conditions on the ground, including the village’s remote location, a lack of telecommunications and tribal warfare throughout the province which means international relief workers and aid convoys require military escorts.

At least 26 tribal warriors and mercenaries were killed in a battle between two warring tribes in Enga in February, as well as an unconfirmed number of bystanders.

The national government’s lack of reliable census data also adds to the challenges of determining how many are potentially dead.

The government estimates Papua New Guinea’s population at around 10 million people, although a UN study, based on data including satellite photographs of roof tops, estimated in 2022 it could be as high as 17 million. An accurate census has not been held in the nation in decades.

The landslide also buried a 200-metre (650-foot) stretch of the province’s main highway under debris 6 to 8 metres (20 to 26 feet) deep, creating a major obstacle for relief workers.

Mana said the landslide would have a major economic impact on the entire country.

An excavator donated by a local builder Sunday became the first piece of heavy earth-moving machinery brought in to help villagers who have been digging with shovels and farming tools to find bodies. Working around the still-shifting debris is treacherous.

“The situation remains unstable” due to the shifting ground, “posing ongoing danger to both the rescue teams and survivors alike,” Mana wrote to the United Nations.
Mana and Papua New Guinea’s defense minister, Billy Joseph, flew on Sunday in an Australian military helicopter from the capital of Port Moresby to Yambali, 600 kilometres (370 miles) to the northwest, to gain a firsthand perspective of what is needed.

Mana’s office posted a photo of him at Yambali handing a local official a check for 500,000 kina (US$130,000) to buy emergency supplies for 4,000 displaced survivors.

The purpose of the visit was to decide whether Papua New Guinea’s government needed to officially request more international support.

Earth-moving equipment used by Papua New Guinea’s military was being transported to the disaster scene, 400 kilometres (250 miles) from the east coast city of Lae.

Traumatised villagers are divided over whether heavy machinery should be allowed to dig up and potentially further damage the bodies of their buried relatives, officials said.