Page last updated at 15:51 GMT, Thursday, 4 March 2010

Uganda village 'like a giant cemetery'

villagers digging in the mud

By Peter Greste
BBC News, Mount Elgon

On the slopes of Mount Elgon in eastern Uganda, Beatrice Kibone cries for her husband.

A villager buries a dead relative, 03/03
Just 40 people from a village of 350 survived the disaster

His body, battered almost beyond recognition by the force of the mudslide that swept through their village on Tuesday, lay in a simple wooden coffin.

She also cries for her sister, who they buried a day earlier; and for her four children still missing beneath the acres of mud and rock now smeared across the landscape.

Ms Kibone survived because she was chatting to some friends in a home barely half a kilometre away.

That was when she heard the crack of the mud breaking free from the mountain.

David Wandete describes it as sounding like an explosion followed by the most terrifying roll of thunder he had ever heard.

Just minutes earlier, he had told some children to shelter in his hut from one of the worst storms they had had in months.

"I didn't know which way to run, so we all decided to shelter in the house," he says.

The mud stopped a few feet from the wall.

Anxious anticipation

It is a mark of the power of the mudslide that only 40 people from a community of more than 350 are still alive.

We can continue like this for months and we still won't find all the bodies
Michael Nataka
Ugandan Red Cross

Rescue workers - though this is hardly a rescue operation - have so far found almost 90 bodies. The rest are missing, presumed dead.

Even so, 500 Ugandan soldiers are still hacking at the mud with picks and shovels.

Millions of tonnes of dirt and rocks cover the three villages, but with the nearest road two hours' walk away on a steep, muddy and perilously slippery track, there is no chance of getting heavy earth-moving equipment in.

But the survivors and those from surrounding villages with friends and relatives still missing are following every blow from the picks with anxious anticipation.

Every time a soldier finds something that looks like a body, a crowd gathers with people straining to spot some piece of clothing that they might recognise.

They want to know for sure that their brother or cousin or aunt is indeed dead and they want to give them a decent burial in a marked grave.

That may not be possible.

More rain

Michael Nataka, chairman of the Ugandan Red Cross Society, says the search for bodies now seems pointless.

"It is a futile exercise. We can continue like this for months and we still won't find all the bodies," he says.


"Some are buried under mud maybe five or 10 or even 15 metres deep. It would be best if we just declared it a giant cemetery."

But he is also now concerned for the people still living in the region.

For all its steepness, the mountain is heavily populated.

Every slope has been cleared and planted with banana plantations or vegetable patches.

And all around, brown smudges of smaller landslides mark the hills as if a giant had tried to claw his way up.

"I'm afraid. It's too dangerous to stay here," says Mr Wandete.

"I don't want to leave my home but I don't think we have any choice. I'll go wherever the government tells me."

And the Red Cross believes the sooner they move, the better. Forecasters are predicting a month more of heavy rains.

By mid afternoon, the clouds had formed once more over Mt Elgon, and another downpour had begun as rescuers and villagers dashed for shelter.

Rain like this triggered the devastating mudslide. Nobody expects this disaster to be the last.

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