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Villagers are still rescuing people from last week's landslide in Papua New Guinea


Authorities fear a second deadly landslide could hit a remote village in the highlands of Papua New Guinea and that contagious diseases could break out. Government officials say more than 2,000 people may have been buried in a landslide last week, but only six people's remains have been recovered so far. Villagers are using shovels and their bare hands to search for anybody still trapped beneath the tons of debris that swept through the area.


MARTIN: The main bridge to ferry aid and equipment to the area has collapsed. Mate Bagossy is the United Nations' humanitarian adviser in Papua New Guinea. He reached the village of Yambali to assess the situation. He was there yesterday, and he is with us now. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

MATE BAGOSSY: Thank you for the invite.

MARTIN: Can you just tell us what you saw when you arrived at the village?

BAGOSSY: So currently it's a scene of complete desolation with the landslide that has covered the main highway and buried a number of houses. So survivors are searching for their relatives, and there is a feeling of overall anxiety and trauma in the location. Meanwhile, the road is cut between the capital - the provincial capital of Wabag - and the district of Porgera, which is also causing further problems.

MARTIN: Can you say more about what makes this search-and-rescue effort especially challenging?

BAGOSSY: This is an area of very remote access, about two hours from the provincial capital of Wabag and two hours through an unpaved road. Meanwhile, there are some tribal conflicts ongoing, which are, so far, not directly impacting the search operations and the relief operations. But they are a factor to be considered, and they oblige us to require - us at the United Nations - to require a Papua New Guinea Defense Force escort when we reach the location. So that's another factor. And the third one, and perhaps the most important, in fact, is that the landslide has still not stabilized, and the entire area is very dangerous.

MARTIN: You were able to get there and back. Is any aid, any additional assistance getting in?

BAGOSSY: Yes. Already some food and water items were distributed by the provincial authorities and the Catholic Church, other partners - also, UNICEF has distributed some hygiene kits for female particularly. This is just the very, very first line - very initial response. So a bigger bulk of items - for relief items, for support, non-food items, kitchen, shelters, so on and so forth are expected in - from tomorrow onwards and are being delivered to the highlands. The logistics is quite complicated because there is also a bridge that has collapsed on the main highways.

MARTIN: And you mentioned that the area is still unstable, as we said, that there is a concern that there may be a second landslide. So what is the priority at this point? Is it getting people out, or is it getting aid in?

BAGOSSY: The priority is to accelerate the search-and-retrieval operations. I think at this stage, we cannot talk anymore about search and rescue because we do not expect truly to find any more survivors, unfortunately. And that's one priority, given that in a number of days the search operations will be called off, and people could be declared missing. Also, for public health reasons - that's one thing. But this, as I said, is really challenging.

So with the unstable terrain right now, which was also while we were there, we could feel that there was instability. So - and the other, of course, priority is to support the survivors and provide some relief. So this is ongoing. And given the hard access, it's not easy. Logistics are complicated, but we are really hoping to speed this up in the upcoming - in the very few days.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, you've been doing this work for some time. May I ask if there's any way you can kind of compare this to other disasters that you've assisted with?

BAGOSSY: Well, I think the only perhaps way I can say - this is really sudden, unexpected, by night. It happened at 3 a.m., so it took almost everyone at home, in their homes. This has probably increased the toll of casualties, but I would be, nevertheless, very careful with the number of casualties because we truly, in fact, do not really know.

MARTIN: That is Mate Bagossy. He's the United Nations' humanitarian adviser in Papua New Guinea. Thank you so much for joining us, sir.

BAGOSSY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.