Papua New Guinea: Huge Landslide Buries More than 650 People Alive

About 200 homes were demolished. Relief efforts hampered by tribal conflict

It’s a race against time in Papua New Guinea, where an unprecedented natural disaster has flattened several villages. The hardest hit was the town of Maip Muritaka, where a huge landslide completely destroyed about 200 houses on the night of Friday, May 24, killing hundreds of people. The latest casualty estimate provided by the UN Migration Agency’s head of mission, Serhan Aktoprak, puts the death toll at more than 670, and local authorities say the tragic number is set to rise.

Rescuers, most of whom are volunteers from surrounding villages, are digging with their bare hands in hopes of finding the villagers of Maip Muritaka still alive, while the South Pacific island’s government ponders whether to formally request more international support. The United States and Australia, Papua New Guinea’s closest neighbor and most generous provider of humanitarian aid, said they were willing to do more to help rescuers who have little hope of finding survivors underground. According to Aktoprak, “a layer of soil, stones, and mud 6 to 8 meters thick” buried hundreds of peasant homes, several local health facilities, several small businesses, a guest house, a school, and a gas station. “Working through the rubble is very dangerous, and the ground is still slippery,” the UN spokesman said.

Government authorities are trying to place medical aid and evacuation centers on safer ground on both sides of the huge swath of rubble. The relief work is hampered by ongoing tribal warfare in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, a diverse developing country of 800 languages and 10 million people who are largely subsistence farmers.