05/27/2024, 11.46
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Difficult rescue, uncertainty over death toll in Papua New Guinea tragedy

More than 2,000 people may have been buried by the huge landslide that hit the village of Yambali, while a UN agency speaks of 670 dead. The presence of conflict between local tribal groups makes aid operations more difficult. Food and psychological support are needed. AsiaNews sources:  "there are Lutheran and Adventist churches" in the area, while "there are few Catholics". 

Port Moresby (AsiaNews) - More than 2,000 people may have been buried alive by a huge landslide that hit a remote area of Papua New Guinea on 24 May, while the treacherous terrain and the difficulty of bringing aid to the area diminish the possibility of finding survivors.

There is still a great deal of uncertainty about the real number of people who have died: a UN agency in the country speaks of around 670 dead, while the Disaster Management Team (Dmt) Secretariat of Png speaks of a much larger number, over two thousand. The discrepancy in the estimate reflects the difficulties in formulating a reliable and accurate balance sheet, as well as the problems related to the isolation of the affected area. 

The landslide hit the village of Yambali, in the north of the country, around 3am on 24 May, while most of the community was sleeping. More than 150 houses were buried by debris nearly two storeys high. Rescuers told local media that they heard screams coming from underground, but search and rescue operations for the missing are complicated. 

AsiaNews sources in the country report that the village is "part of the parish of Kasap" and is located "along the road that leads to the Pogera mine" and it is precisely the mining operations that could be the cause of the disaster, also because there have been no weather emergencies. Also in the area, the source continues, 'there are Lutheran and Adventist churches', while 'there are few Catholics'. 

"I have 18 members of my family buried under the rubble" and "many other members of the village that I cannot contact," Evit Kambu, a resident of the area, told Reuters. He says he feels "helpless" because he is unable "to recover the bodies".

More than 72 hours after the landslide, residents are still using spades, sticks and bare hands to try to move debris and reach any survivors or missing people. The arrival of heavy equipment and aid has been slow because of the remote location but also because of the dangers of a conflict between local tribal groups that is taking place nearby. Clashes and violence are forcing aid workers to travel in convoys escorted by soldiers and to return to the provincial capital, some 60 km away, at night.

In the tribal war, eight people were killed and 30 houses burnt on 25 May, a UN official reported. Today, aid convoys passed the remains of the still smouldering houses. The first excavator only reached the site late yesterday evening, and so far, only six bodies have been recovered.

Contact with other parts of the country is difficult due to patchy reception in communications due to power restrictions at the site.

In a note, the Dmt communications office emphasises that 'the UN continues to work with local authorities to verify preliminary estimates of the injured, missing and dead. The UN humanitarian coordination team has reached Wabag and is working with the provincial committee to coordinate the response'.

"Clean water, food, clothing, shelter items, cooking utensils and medicine remain urgent priorities for survivors. Materials for the safe and dignified disposal of bodies are also needed,' the statement concludes, 'and psychosocial support remains a top priority.

According to Matthew Hewitt Tapus, a pastor from Port Moresby whose home village is about 20 km from the disaster zone, many people are not even sure where their loved ones were when the landslide struck. Indeed, among the inhabitants, it is common practice to stay at the homes of friends and relatives. "It is not that everyone is in the same house at the same time, so," explains the Christian leader, "there are fathers who do not know where their children are, mothers who do not know where their husbands are. It is chaos'.

Prime Minister James Marape's office said that the disaster was being handled by the Png emergency authorities and that the head of government is in the capital Port Moresby to prepare for the return of Parliament tomorrow, where he will face a motion of no confidence. Even now there is a risk of the ground and debris moving again and more than 250 homes have been abandoned as officials encourage people to evacuate. More than 1,250 people have been displaced, while some locals do not want heavy machinery and excavators to enter the village and interrupt the mourning.

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