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17 Jun 2024 7:30
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  •   Home > News > International

    Bodies being pulled from rubble as people use shovels, bare hands to dig after landslide strikes remote PNG village

    Papua New Guinea's government has warned the death toll from Friday's landslide in Enga province could jump dramatically.

    Papua New Guinea's government has warned the death toll from Friday's landslide in Enga province could jump dramatically.

    Warning: This story contains distressing details.

    The United Nations estimates that around 675 people are likely to have been killed in the disaster.

    But in a letter to the UN, PNG's disaster agency estimates that "more than 2,000 people" could be buried under the rubble.

    The ABC has not been able to independently verify that figure, and multiple sources in PNG say at this stage it's too early to give a definitive death toll.

    The Australian government announced on Monday it would provide $2.5 million in humanitarian assistance to support PNG's response to the landslide.

    "All Australians will be thinking of Papua New Guineans at this very difficult time," Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles said.

    Mr Marles said Australia's Defence Force would be "working closely" with the Papua New Guinea Defence Force to assist with the response.

    Foreign Minister Penny Wong said the package would assist with the urgent needs of the people affected.

     "Today's package will assist the urgent needs of those affected by this devastating landslide, and we stand ready to consider additional support," she said.

    Bodies are slowly being pulled out from under vast mounds of rubble and earth in Papua New Guinea's Enga Province after the massive landslide swallowed dozens of homes on Friday.

    Footage filmed by a local priest Father Steven Yange shows men in the remote Highlands region digging through the rubble with shovels, sticks and their bare hands.

    "There is a family in there. They are [trying to] move the bodies," he told the ABC.

    Multiple UN agencies, the Papua New Guinea Defence Force and a small number of aid agencies are in the region offering help, but Father Yange told the ABC that more assistance was "much needed."

    "We need medicine, we need these things that can be used to dig up the bodies," he said.

    Father Yange said families who had survived the landslide but lost their homes also needed more help, particularly as rain continued to fall in the region.

    [PNG datawrapper]

    "We need the government and NGOs to help them with food, bedding, clothes, and if possible if they can provide them with tents they can use," he said.

    "These are the basic needs."

    As of Sunday, only five bodies and the partial remains of a sixth victim had been recovered from the vast piles of earth and rubble.

    Father Yange said villagers would also need heavy machinery to dig out the bodies of those lost, but local contractors and mining companies were waiting on assurances from the local government that they'd get some form of payment for the assistance.

    'Trying to remove big rocks with sticks'

    Local lawyer Andrew Ruing also sent videos to the ABC showing men trying to dig through the debris with rudimentary instruments.

    "As we speak, 300 plus lives are buried there. The boys are struggling," he said.

    "They are not using bulldozers or anything … they are trying to remove big rocks with sticks. Therefore we are asking anybody who can help… we really need assistance."

    Both the Papua New Guinea government and aid agencies say they're sending assistance and supplies to the village, but say the remote terrain has made it difficult.

    In a statement, the United Nations office in PNG said the "site's remoteness, ongoing terrain movement and damage to access roads is slowing relief efforts".

    "Government authorities remain focused on clearing debris and improving access to the site," it said.

    "The UN continues to assist government authorities with the coordination of response efforts.

    "Necessary relief supplies including emergency shelter, food and water are being prepared for transport and distribution. This follows a limited, preliminary distribution of such items over the last 24 hours."

    Resident representative of the United Nations Development Programme Nicholas Booth told the ABC that "in addition to police and defence forces on site, provincial government [representatives] are on their way together with UN and World Vision to deliver supplies to the communities on site".

    Serhan Aktoprak, the chief of mission at the International Organization for Migration PNG, said the agency was also trying to navigate "cultural sensitivities".

    "Frankly speaking, we don't know how this is going to work," he told the ABC.

    "Because there are also cultural sensitivities that we have been informed of in that the communities, while mourning and grieving, may not wish any heavy machinery to get involved as they are trying to recover the corpses to maintain their integrity as much as possible.

    "[But] we have no intention to give up until the community requests us to stop."

    International partners offer help

    The recovery effort is also being complicated by political machinations in Port Moresby, with Prime Minister James Marape facing a looming vote of no confidence next week.

    Eighteen members of the government coalition — including five ministers — have moved to the opposition, in the most significant shift away from Mr Marape since he wrested power from Peter O'Neill in 2019.

    But Mr Marape insists he still holds the numbers to command government, and said his government remained "steadfast and undeterred" by the political threat.

    PNG's government has issued an "open request" to international partners for help responding to the landslide, and the ABC has been told that several countries are now discussing the best way to coordinate a response.

    Australia's Defence Minister Richard Marles told the ABC that Australia was poised to offer more help.

    "We supported some of the first officials going to the site and we have made clear to the PNG government what support we could provide," he told the ABC's RN Breakfast.

    "The exact nature of the support we do provide will play out over the coming days."

    Both the PNG government and UN agencies are also wary of the risk of rain triggering fresh landslides in the area.

    In the footage filmed by Father Yange, the sound of rocks shifting and skittering can be heard in the background, and the priest said locals were concerned about more of the mountain coming down.

    "Tomorrow we don't know what will be happening but landslides are still continuing," Father Yange said.

    "The mountains are likely to be coming down and that could destroy three or four more communities."

    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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