PELMADULLA, Sri Lanka – A group of Sri Lankan soldiers carried a body wrapped in a tarpaulin to police for identification, while others dug Monday through piles of mud, unearthing a motorbike, pieces of furniture and clothes, the only signs of 15 homes that stood on Kiribathgala Hill just a few days ago.
Helicopters searched elsewhere for people still marooned after rain-triggered floods and mudslides inundated villages last Thursday, killing at least 169 people and leaving 102 others missing, officials say.
The rains caused part of Kiribathgala Hill to come crashing down, burying the 15 homes and their 26 inhabitants under huge rocks, mud and fallen coconut trees, village officer Udari Erabedda said. Soldiers have recovered 12 bodies, including those of two women and a child dug out on Monday. The others remain missing.
The hill in Sri Lanka's Ratnapura district, known for gems and precious stones, is 120 kilometers (75 miles) southeast of the capital, Colombo. Most residents make their living by tending small plots of tea or spices, or by working in nearby gem mines.
K.W. Robo Singo, 72, lost his daughter, granddaughter and four greatgrandchildren.
"I heard a huge sound and saw large rocks and trees crashing down," Singo said. "Within five minutes everything was over, the whole area was a heap of mud."
Sriyani Mallika wept as she pointed to the area where her brother's home once stood. She said her brother, his wife and two children were all buried under the mud.
Her brother tended a tea plot and wanted to educate his son to become a doctor, she said.
Terrified villagers huddled in a nearby school, having left their homes for fear of more mudslides.
With more rain expected later Monday, rescuers raced to evacuate villagers from the most vulnerable areas around the country. Already, more than 75,000 people have taken shelter in 337 relief camps set up in the south and west.
An air force helicopter on a relief mission crash-landed near Baddegama town in the south on Monday. All 11 people onboard escaped unhurt. Earlier, an airman died after falling while trying to rescue a marooned person from the air.
Army boats skimmed along water-filled village streets, while flood victims waded through the brackish waters to army trucks carrying relief supplies.
"We are displaced and have no place to go," said Rathana Kumari, who fled her flooded home with her family and took refuge on the Southern Expressway, a highway linking Colombo with the cities of Matara and Galle. "Now we are extremely helpless with our little children. ... Today, we didn't get anything to eat."
Medical teams have been dispatched to affected areas, and medicines have been sent by air to hospitals unreachable by road, said Health Minister Dr. Rajitha Senarathna.
Soldiers took advantage of a lull in the rain Sunday to clear roads to reach some flooded areas, said Maj. Gen. Sudantha Ranasinghe, who is heading the search and rescue mission.
The United Nations said it is donating water purification tablets, tents and other supplies for the displaced. India sent two shiploads of goods and some medical staff, and the United States and Pakistan also promised relief supplies.
Mudslides have become common during Sri Lanka's summer monsoon season as forests across the tropical Indian Ocean island nation have been cleared for export crops such as tea and rubber.
Another massive landslide a year ago killed more than 100 people in central Sri Lanka.