An estimated 450 people were by Monday night unaccounted for following devastating landslides in Bugisu sub-region, Eastern Uganda.
Residents in the affected areas resorted to desperate rescue measures, using whatever they could find to dig through mounds of mud to rescue their loved ones.
The Ugandan government advised residents living near the affected villages to relocate to safer ground.
At least 11 villages were reportedly buried under mud and heavy boulders, resurrecting memories of the March 2010 and August 2011 landslides that occurred in the same areas.
Officials from the Uganda Red Cross Society (URCS) on Monday confirmed 18 people dead following the 2pm heavy downpour that triggered the landslides.
Two villages of Namaga and Bunakasala in the Bumwalukani Sub County, Bududa district were reportedly completely buried.
According to an eyewitness, Ms Rachael Namwono, 29, at least 30 homes in Mabaya Village, in Bulukyeke Sub County, with over 300 men, women and children were completely buried.
“At 2pm, the ground trembled, followed by heavy rumbling of soil and stones which covered our home,” Ms Namwono said.
According to the Bunamulembwa Village LC III Chairman Ernest Wayengera and the area LCI Chairperson Mr Peter Namulunyi, an estimated 100 household in the village were flattened. An estimated 150 people could not be accounted for by press time yesterday.
In a statement to our Ugandan sister publication Daily Monitor, URCS said it’s Secretary General, Mr Michael Richard Nataka had also joined an emergency ground team in the conducting of a rapid vulnerability capacity assessment.
“The Uganda Red Cross Society has sent a team of volunteers to assess the situation and establish the number of people affected although local authorities have told Red Cross that there could be about 80 people in each of the villages,” URCS head of communications Catherine Ntabadde said yesterday.
Government also said it had swung into action.
“The minister of State for Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees Hon. Musa Ecweru will be travelling to Bududa district to assess the situation. Government is working towards ensuring that affected families receive necessary assistance in form of relief items,” government said in a statement last evening.
It could not however confirm the number of those dead. By 7pm however, a Red Cross roll had confirmed 18 dead, 9 hospitalised, 72 survivors. Nine victims of the landslide in Bulukyeke had been referred to Bududa hospital with serious injuries.
Minister disputes figure
However, Uganda’s Minister for Disaster Stephen Malinga told the Nation from Kampala that a team of government officials had been dispatched to help in the rescue operation.
But he downplayed fears of a huge death toll saying that most of the people had been out of their homes at the time of the disaster.
“The landslides happened today (Monday) at around 3pm but it was a market day and most of the people were not in their houses,” he said on phone.
He confirmed that ten people had been rescued and taken to Bududa hospital for treatment. Another 100, he added, could not be accounted for.
At the same time, Dr Malinga said emergency food stuff, clothing, tents and blankets had been sent to the survivors although the Minister added the government would not construct tents for them.
“Our experience with camps is very poor because of the rains. It becomes very difficult to keep the hygiene, children will be covered in mud and it’s not easy to wash them.
“If it becomes necessary, then we shall move them far south from the area.”
He said the army and the police had been called in to help, although they were only expected at the scene on Tuesday morning.
Old wounds opened
This is the third time landslides are affecting these areas.
In August last year, URCS declared Bududa a disaster area after landslides injured eight people and left 420 others homeless. Among the affected areas was the Simuyu village in Bulucheke Sub County.
In March 2010, at least 300 people were killed and over 5000 people displaced after a six hour downpour triggered off landslides in several villages on the slopes of Mount Elgon.
The affected villages included Nametsi, Kubewo, and Nankobe. An estimated 90 homes were destroyed in Nameti village alone. The affected villages were buried by fast moving mud, with houses, markets, and a church destroyed; many roads were also blocked.
In Butaleja, over 6,000 homes from the sub-counties of Kachonga, Masimasa, Kimuntu and Nawangofu were affected. Two primary schools in Nabehere and Lubembe had to be closed.
The Mbale-Busolwa road was also closed due to flooding.
Bulucheke’s Vice Chairperson Mr Nasson Wanasolo, who witnessed the Bulukyeke mudslide, told reporters an estimated 100 people could have been buried in Monday’s disaster.
“At around 2pm a huge mass of socked soil and boulders struck the hamlet. Most of the villagers were in their homes and children were trying to get to their homes,” Mr Wanasolo said.
“We all ran for our dear lives. It was dreadful,” Mr Wanasolo added.
He is currently admitted at the Bududa District hospital with a broken limb, an injury he sustained as he tried to save himself.
He said nine of his children were missing and are feared dead.
Additional report by Aggrey Mutambo