PNG landslide: Thousands more to evacuate as death toll mounts

Stefan Armbruster and Stephen Wright
PNG landslide: Thousands more to evacuate as death toll mounts Villagers search through a landslide in Yambali village in Papua New Guinea’s Enga province on May 26, 2024.
International Organization for Migration/AP

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 Organization 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.”

2024-05-26 PNG NBC landslide survivors.png
Johnson and Jacklyn Yandam were dug out from their collapsed house in Yambali village on May 24, 2024 after the landslide hit in the early hours of the morning. [Screenshot/NBC Enga]

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, as he 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 organizations such as the 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.”

In this photo provided by the UNDP Papua New Guinea, villagers carry a coffin during a funeral procession in Yambali village in the highlands of Papua New Guinea on May 26, 2024 following a fatal landslide. [UNDP Papua New Guinea/AP]

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. 


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