BUNAMULEMAWA, Uganda (Reuters) - Villagers and soldiers in eastern Uganda on Wednesday began hacking away at a wall of mud with shovels and hoes after a landslide on Monday turned two villages into a muddy grave, killing about 30 people and leaving more than 100 missing.
The authorities have given up hope of finding anyone alive amid the filthy debris on Mount Elgon, while the Uganda Red Cross warned that fresh cracks had appeared in the hillside, suggesting a new landslide might be imminent.
“It’s purely exhuming bodies,” Uganda Red Cross branch manager Alex Welikhe said on Wednesday. “You can’t expect to find survivors buried here now.”
Poignant remnants of village life in the coffee-growing area have begun to emerge from the mud: a banana tree, a tin roof, clothes, blankets and even the body of a dead cow, emitting a pungent odor.
Issa Funga, who lost his parents, his brother and his uncle, held a shovel in one hand, and in the other, a photograph of his now deceased uncle he had recovered from the rubble. He said he wanted to be able to give his relatives a proper burial.
“I want them to be exhumed so that we can bury them and say these are the graves of our father and mother,” he said.
Asked why he hadn’t stopped living on the slopes following previous mudslides, Funga said he had “nowhere to go”.
The slopes, fertile for growing coffee, are prone to such landslides. In 2010, scores of people were buried alive when a mudslide struck and last year, a similar incident killed at least 23 people.
A government official said that no bodies had been recovered yet because of the sheer depth of the mud covering them.
Construction machinery and tractors are being brought in to help with the recovery process.
“We won’t be at peace until the bodies are out,” said 50-year-old Mary Sarah Muitinye, who lost her brother and sister-in-law in the disaster.
Alice Wabulu, 44, saw the fissures in the ground that hinted at the impending disaster. But she and her family didn’t have anywhere to go and when the landslide struck, her daughter-in-law and three grandsons were killed.
“They have left me alone. What am I going to do? Three sons and one daughter!” she wailed as friends sat on the ground with her and tried to comfort her.
“I saw the earth coming down. It sounded like a storm,” she said. “I ran and left them. If I had energy, I would have rescued them.”
Julius Wabuteya, 26, found his pregnant wife buried up to her knees in mud after the landslide and rushed her to a hospital nearby. She was one of nine survivors taken to the hospital with injuries, according to the Red Cross.
Standing by his house, one of the last structures remaining upright in what has become a field of mud, Wabuteya fretted it could all happen again. “I fear that the thing could come again and sweep me away,” he said.
The Red Cross has warned that fresh cracks have appeared in the hillside and is urging the 3,368 people still in the area to leave for their own safety. Officials said they hoped to begin distributing relief supplies to the survivors by the end of the day.
Up to 400,000 people could now require humanitarian aid as the rain has intensified, forcing them to abandon their homes for fear of further mudslides.
Authorities say the death toll could have been much higher if it was not for the fact that it was a market day and many villagers were away from home. Others saw cracks appearing on the hillside beforehand and fled the area, before unseasonably heavy rain triggered the mudslide.
The affected area, which lies across the border from Kenya, produces coffee in what is the third biggest economy in east Africa and the continent’s largest exporter of the beans.
Editing by James Macharia and Andrew Osborn