Uganda mudslide: Villagers dig out after hundreds were buried alive

Volunteers with pickaxes and hoes are trying to find the bodies of those buried by Monday's mudslide in Uganda. Scores of bodies have been found, and hundreds more are thought to be buried under the mud.

James Akena/Reuters
An aerial view shows people searching for the bodies of their relatives after a mudslide in Bududa, 228 miles east of the Ugandan capital, Kampala, Wednesday.

When the Uganda mudslide hit her village early Monday evening, Eleanor Namasa was at home with her two sisters-in-law and her toddler, Catherine.

“I heard a noise, ran outside, and started warning people that we were going to die, but there was not enough time,” she says, lying on her hospital bed. As the mud engulfed her home, all she could do was cling to her daughter.

After being trapped in the mud for three hours, Ms. Namasa and her daughter were rescued by people from a neighboring village. But the mudslide had obliterated her village of Nameitsi and two neighboring villages, burying the inhabitants and killing 11 of Namasa’s relatives.

While the Ugandan Army says 55 bodies had been found by Wednesday afternoon, the Red Cross put the figure at more than 80. But officials estimate that there are hundreds more people left under the mud. And, unlike rescue efforts after the devastating recent earthquakes Haiti or Chile, few expect to find anyone alive under the mud.

A mile-long scar of earth

Perched spectacularly in the mountains on Uganda’s eastern border with Kenya, Nameitsi was a typical rural village: grinding poverty, a trading center, and homesteads dotted with banana plantations. All that is now gone.

Where the village used to be is now a mile-long long scar of churned earth, uprooted trees, and the detritus of destroyed lives. At the entrance to the village, four corpses were lined out for identification. Songs of mourning drift through the air.

Rescue teams with hoes and spades

Two days after the catastrophe, emergency rescue teams from the Ugandan Army, local volunteers, and the Red Cross slowly worked their way through the piles of earth left in the mudslide's wake. A two-hour walk along slippery mountain paths from the nearest passable road, the town cannot be reached by heavy digging machinery.

Instead scores of rescuers burrow slowly through the thick layers of mud with hoes and spades. Throughout the day the number of bodies being found rises steadily.

Overcultivation to blame?

The region around Nameitsi is no stranger to mudslides. While unusually heavy rainfall helped exaggerate the scale of the calamity this time, it is the root causes of overpopulation and the subsequent overcultivation that are really to blame.

Wilson Watira, the local district councilor, says that people in the area have been advised repeatedly to move out, at least in the rainy season. But few have heeded the warnings.

Now, though, Mr. Watira thinks that has changed.

“The people here are almost used to situations like this. But this time it has gone beyond what even they can handle,” he says.

Even as they mourn their dead, however, some in Nametsi say that the lessons of this tragedy have not been learned.

Just two days after the disaster, Isaac Matanda was preparing to bury his cousin and his cousin's three young children. Lying on a makeshift table in front of one of the few remaining houses are the bodies of Freddie, 5, Richard, 4, and Waka, 3. Nearby lies the body of their father.

Mr. Matanda says that the tragedy won't be enough to make residents of the area – mostly subsistence farmers – leave, because the land is very fertile and yields much better harvests than other areas. Also, many residents have deep ancestral ties to the land.

“People are fearing now and it will take some time before we can live normally,” says Matanda. “But when the season changes people will still come back here and risk themselves.”

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