‘Our hearts are heavy’: anguish as Papua New Guinea picks up the pieces after deadly landslide

<span>Locals seen in Enga province, Papua New Guinea, during rescue efforts after the deadly landslide in late May. While the official search for bodies has ended, some relatives and families continue to search for their loved ones beneath the rubble. </span><span>Photograph: Emmanuel Eralia/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Locals seen in Enga province, Papua New Guinea, during rescue efforts after the deadly landslide in late May. While the official search for bodies has ended, some relatives and families continue to search for their loved ones beneath the rubble. Photograph: Emmanuel Eralia/AFP/Getty Images

In a remote village in northern Papua New Guinea’s Enga province, the community has set up a haus krai, a traditional mourning house. It is located about 200 metres from the landslide that buried people while they slept on 24 May. The house honours those killed in a tragedy that has affected thousands of people.

Earlier this month authorities brought an end to the official recovery operation. Estimates of the number killed vary widely and few bodies have been recovered. The UN initially said 670 villagers died, though locals say the number is lower.

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Kopen Kongo lives in Mulitaka, Enga province, where the disaster hit. He says many men, women and children remain buried under the debris. A police reservist, Kongo is among the fortunate as his family was spared. His mother, two sons, and wife were trapped inside their house when the landslide struck, but he managed to dig them out alive. Many of his neighbours were not as lucky. The loss is deeply felt by all.

“The pain of losing so many in our community is unimaginable,” Kongo says. “We demand that the memories of our loved ones are respected.”

While the official search for bodies has ended, some relatives and families continue to look for their loved ones. As they reckon with the losses, tensions have been stirred over how authorities have responded, while a road giving access to a nearby mine has raised objections for disrespecting cultural practices.

The Enga provincial disaster committee’s decision to put in a bypass road to reach the recently reopened mine, located about 30km away in Porgera, has angered many surviving landowners in Yambali, one of the villages hit by the landslide, and others nearby.

Residents are concerned by attempts to carry fuel supplies through the affected area. According to Engan traditions, it is culturally inappropriate to disturb the ground where bodies are still buried, and the community insists on proper burials before any road access is created.

Elizabeth Thomas, a local missionary, says the “temporary bypass road through the graveyard is not a good idea”.

Kongo says residents demand respect for their deceased, and want a proper dialogue with the Enga provincial administration. He has also called for disaster support funds to be transparently managed and directed to the appropriate organisations.

“We need to ensure that every bit of aid goes to those who need it most, without any mismanagement,” he adds.

The Enga provincial disaster committee deputy chairman, Kenneth Andrews, told local media there was an understanding between the communities of Yambali and Porgera to use the road. But many in the area affected by the landslide are not happy.

“People of Porgera are suffering because of this disaster as well and we need the Yambali people to understand and cooperate with authorities to rebuild lives of the living,” he said. A spokesperson for the Porgera mine did not respond to a request for comment.

Unbearable task

Erickson Magalio, a resident of Yambali, lost his beloved sister in this catastrophe. Overwhelmed by grief and a desperate urgency, Magalio returned to the village from Wabag town, clinging to the fragile hope of recovering his sister’s body. The enormity of the task before him was almost unbearable.

“The rocks are massive, and the debris and mud are so thick and deep. Using our bare hands and shovels is simply not enough to reach the bodies,” Magalio says.

“It was like trying to move a mountain with a spoon.”

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Despite relentless efforts, the layers of rubble stood as an insurmountable barrier, and the ground beneath them remained in a constant state of flux, shifting like fluid.

About 30 people from nearby Nete Lyaim are thought to have been killed in the disaster. They were visiting Yambali when the landslide struck.

Newman Kana, a community leader from Nete Lyaim, told local radio station Jesus FM that dozens of people had either been living in or passing through the village in search of basic government services that are unavailable in their district. “If their basic goods and services were located in their region and communities, my poor and suffering people would not have lost their lives to this natural disaster.”

In Yambali, ongoing tremors threaten those who remain. A preliminary assessment of the landslide by geological experts indicated it remains a high-risk area prone to further rock slides.

Immediate measures, such as stabilising boulders, have been necessary to mitigate further risks. Longer-term solutions – including planting tap-rooted vegetation and considering road diversions – are being considered.

Rescue and relief operations have focused on immediate aid and long-term planning, hoping to prevent further conflicts and better prepare for the possibility of future disasters.

“Our hearts are heavy, but our resolve is strong,” Magalio says.

“We will rebuild, and we will remember those we have lost.”