KAMPALA, Uganda – Massive landslides induced by torrential rains destroyed three villages in the mountainous district of Bududa in eastern Uganda, killing scores of people but possibly hundreds, officials said Monday.
Disaster Preparedness Minister Stephen Mallinga said it was still too early to say how many had been killed in Monday afternoon's landslides, but officials from Bududa said the final death toll would likely be in the hundreds.
"We are sending a rescue team down there," Mallinga said. "It's very difficult to estimate how many have been killed, but two villages are affected, and maybe more."
Witnesses said the landslides were unexpected, happening several hours after a torrential overnight downpour that at first seemed to have done little damage.
David Wakikona, a lawmaker from the region, said most people were likely indoors when huge blocks of mud and rocks started to roll down hills, toppling homes, killing livestock and burying people alive.
"We don't yet understand how this all happened, but it's terrible," Wakikona said. "Three villages have been buried."
According to Wakikona, at least 300 people lived in the affected villages. Officials said rescue teams from the Ugandan army would play a lead role in moving the soil as the search for possible survivors begins.
The Uganda Red Cross said two villages had been destroyed and that at least 15 houses had been buried in the landslides. It may take time before the full death toll from such disasters is known, as often it requires rescuers working with hoes and shovels to dig through the mud and find bodies trapped underneath.
Landslides are a common occurrence in the hilly parts of eastern Uganda, and they have been especially lethal over the years in those villages where the land is denuded of vegetation cover. In 2010 massive landslides in Bududa killed about 100 people, destroying everything from the village market to a church.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who visited the scene, said at the time that the landslides were divine retribution for the people's failure to give to the land what they take from it. The villages are usually heavily populated, and often they live on land bare of trees.
There has been fierce resistance to a government effort to relocate the most vulnerable people in Bududa and neighboring districts, with some activists there saying it would be even more disastrous to abandon their ancestral homes. Even those who were relocated to a camp for refugees after the 2010 landslides secretly returned to Bududa, said Mallinga, the disaster preparedness minister.
"There's a degree of unwillingness to leave," Mallinga said.