A government minister last evening placed the number of people missing from Monday’s landslide catastrophe on the slopes of Mt. Elgon at 109 although no official figure of the dead was given as hopes of finding anyone alive all but faded.
Speaking at the scene of the devastation, junior Minister for Disaster Preparedness Musa Ecweru, rounded off the possible number of the dead to 109, but gave no basis for his estimation, calling it the “official figure of those missing”.
By press time, the frantic but futile rescue operation appeared to be switching mode to a painstaking recovery process in the affected Bunakasala, Namaaga and Bunamulembwa villages of Bulucheke Sub-county, Bududa District.
The Uganda Red Cross Society put the number of survivors at 112 but could not say whether any bodies had been retrieved, 30 hours after the tragedy.
Society volunteers, joined by residents, with rudimentary tools, were now concentrating efforts on hacking into the three-metre thick water-logged debris as the difficult task of tracing bodies got underway.
One survivor, Ms Zipola Namono, was rescued Tuesday morning from the rubble and rushed to Bududa district referral hospital in critical condition.
But fatalities could have been possibly avoided, or at least minimised, according to local accounts.
It emerged yesterday that village residents had detected fresh cracks and noticed heavy earth movements on Sunday, hours before disaster struck.
But for fear of being forced to move, no one reported this to the authorities.
Earlier reports had indicated anywhere between 18 and 54 residents of Bulucheke sub-county perished when their homes in Bunakasala, Namaaga and Bunamulembwa were flattened.But without proper village records, the exact toll of Monday’s landslide remains unclear.
Mr Eldard Wamukota, the regional coordinator for the Red Cross, initially said 18 people from 16 families died. But in separate interviews with Daily Monitor, some residents placed the toll at 54. This number has also been called into question by Bududa District chairman, Mr John-Bosco Nambeshe, who estimated the fatalities at 150.
The different figures, based on guesswork, underline the hazard of the inadequate official population statistics.
In Kampala, Mr Ecweru’s superior, Dr Stephen Mallinga, issued a statement at the government Media Centre, announcing that “it is feared that landslides and floods buried about 29 homes with about 30 people”.
“We cannot, as of now, establish the exact number of homes and people buried, he said, “Assessments are ongoing to establish the exact numbers. Ten people have been rescued and admitted (to) Bududa hospital.”
Two days after nature again unleashed its wrath on Bududa, government had by last evening neither delivered promised relief assistance nor provided earth-moving equipment to help rescuers clear the debris to enable faster access to those likely trapped underneath.
Unlike in the March 2010 tragedy when the army led search-and-rescue efforts when mudslides again buried an estimated 350 people in the same district, this time round soldiers slinging AK-47 rifles as well as police deployed to the affected villages, only stood by.
The Constitution obliges the army to help in emergency situations.
Yesterday, Mr Ecweru said the government will “immediately” provide graders, wheel loaders and excavators to help dig up trapped victims. Vehicles ferrying relief food and other items for the survivors were by last evening on the way to Bududa district, he said.
According to Mr Ecweru, the government will this time not establish Internally-displaced People’s camps (IDPs) for the mudslide victims to avoid complications of hygiene and food supply experienced in 2010 when survivors of the Nametsi mudslides were huddled at a camp in Bulucheke Sub-county.
Instead, the minister said, survivors will be hosted by neighbours and close relatives and relief portions will be supplied directly to the host families.
The Red Cross said yesterday it plans to begin handing out tarpaulins for temporary shelter as well as utensils. The humanitarian organisation estimates that 447 families are at risk, and require immediate relocation.
On Tuesday morning, National Environment Management Authority’s Information Systems Specialist, Dr Mary Gorreti Kitutu, told Daily Monitor that about 80 per cent of the eastern part of Bududa District is “highly” perilous for human settlement
A downpour and hailstorms hit the lashed affected area from Friday through Sunday, triggering the landslides on Monday.
From a distance, Namaaga, Bunamulembwa and Bunakasala, now look like a freshly tilled garden ready for planting. The stench of decomposing domestic animals and human flesh had started to fill the air yesterday as the search for the dead and dying continued.