BUDUDA, Uganda – Rescue workers equipped only with hand-held tools gave up their search Tuesday and waited for bulldozers to arrive to help find some 100 people who residents said were missing after landslides struck Uganda's mountainous east.
Residents who survived the natural disaster stared at the quickly hardening red sludge the day after massive landslides hit the eastern district of Bududa. A government official called the region a "death trap" and said the government would move out residents.
Government officials have not released a death toll, but the Uganda Red Cross said it has confirmed 18 deaths. But some villagers in a place called Bunamulembwa, one of the villages swept by massive landslides in the eastern district of Bududa, said close to 100 people — mostly children — were missing.
"It is feared the landslides and floods buried about 29 homes with about 30 people," Stephen Mallinga, Uganda's minister for relief and disaster preparedness, said in a statement Tuesday. "We cannot as of now establish the exact number of homes and people buried."
Workers and volunteers who dug at the mud with machetes and hoes said the job was frustrating.
"The mud is just too deep," said Hannington Serugga, a rescue worker with an aid group called Samaritan Emergency Volunteers' Organization. "We have tried our level best (to retrieve bodies) and we have failed. This really is a challenge."
Michael Solo, a man who said he lost his four children in the landslides, pointed to the spot where he suspected they were buried. He said his house was one of 17 buried in the neighborhood.
"I used to love this place," Solo said. "But now I want to go. I just want to go."
Villager Alice Bunyolo said her brother had lost his wife and two children.
"My brother, I feel bad for my brother," she said.
Another man who said he lost his entire family cried as he gazed to the sky, offering his dirty handkerchief and praying for a miracle.
Landslides have struck this rugged part of eastern Uganda at least once each year since March 2010, when rain-induced landslides killed about 100 people and destroyed everything from a church to the village market.
Sometimes the landslides are minor, killing a few livestock and injuring a few people. But at times they bury whole villages alive.
Bunyolo told the story of a young man who was out cutting grass for his cow when he heard a strange sound and saw the ground moving. The man ran east, and after the landslide the western part of what had been a green hill was covered in mud, homes buried.
Musa Ecweru, a junior minister for disaster preparedness, was mobbed by villagers after he arrived in Bunamulembwa with no bulldozers. Villagers asked him what the government was going to do to help them. He said bulldozers were coming but was not sure when they would arrive.
"The local tools cannot manage," Ecweru said. "We can't act on emotions. We can only do what's possible."
Officials say the threat from landslides is not over and that 400,000 people living on the edges of Uganda's Mount Elgon are likely to be displaced by torrential rains. For years the government has failed to persuade villagers to move to safer places; local activists say it would be a cultural disaster if the people left their ancestral homes.
Ecweru said the government would now forcibly evict those villagers deemed most vulnerable to landslides.
He described the place as a "death trap," saying disaster would happen again.