43 feared dead in Bulambuli twin landslides

A resident of Sisiyi in Bulambuli District ponders his next move after his house was buried by a mudslide yesterday. Residents put the number of dead in the tragedy at 43. PHOTO BY Nelson Wesonga.

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Lives of thousands living on Mt. Elgon slopes are in danger as a 1.5-metre deep crack measuring about 40kms has been observed on the ridges.


The death toll from two separate mudslides in the eastern Bulambuli District had by last evening risen to 43, local leaders and witnesses said. The Uganda Red Cross Society, however, could only confirm 18 deaths. Fourteen other people remained unaccounted for.

In Kampala, State Disaster Preparedness Minister Musa Ecweru said 29 residents possibly died, although only 19 bodies had been recovered. The fatalities might rise, he said. By 7:30 pm last night, this newspaper was told two survivors who had been pulled out alive from under a sludge, breathed their last hours after arriving at Shared Blessing Health Centre in critical condition.

The mud flow, which residents said is the most devastating ever witnessed in Sisiyi and Buluganya sub-counties in the last 20 years, buried the homes of 22 families. Rescue workers digging through the sludge with hoes, mattocks and pickaxes, and some scooping the soaked soil with their bare hands, had by 3pm yesterday, retrieved 26 corpses.

And just as residents began to take in the scale of calamity, four of their colleagues who were heading to the flattened site reportedly drowned in the nearby Biritanyi River that had burst its banks. “This is devastating; it is terrible,” LC5 chairman Simon Wananzofu said at the ruined Kimuli village on Mt. Elgon slopes. “We can’t explain this but our appeal is for excavators to help retrieve the bodies trapped under the rubble and for relief.” The planned activity never took off after soldiers and residents manually managed to retrieve about 90 corpses, and the excavator taken by government has remained rusting on site.

Response assessment
After yesterday’s disaster, Red Cross volunteers quickly moved on site early morning to help with search and rescue operations, according to spokesperson Catherine Ntabadde. She told this newspaper by telephone that their teams were undertaking rapid assessment in the affected areas to ascertain the scale and nature of immediate humanitarian needs.

Bulambuli is one of the newly-created districts at the border between Bugisu and Sebei, roughly 30 kilometres northeast of Mbale town. Residents said the avalanche crashed and submerged parts of at least four hamlets between 1am and 3am on Sunday night following 17 hours of uninterrupted downpour, which also drenched large parts of central Uganda.

The rain yesterday continued to pound much of the Mt. Elgon region and National Environment Management Authority (Nema)’s Information Systems Specialist, Dr Mary Goretti Kitutu, speaking by telephone from the neighbouring Mbale District, predicted more mudslides. “The rain is the trigger for mudslides and people living higher up the mountainous areas have to run to lower, safer areas quickly,” she said. “If they do not leave the hills, there will be more disasters.”

Gardening and construction activities are understood to have led to removal of grass and other vegetation cover crucial for holding rocks in place. As a result of these invasive actions, the soils are bare and easily get soaked and loosen, releasing dangerous mud and rock flows downhill, according to experts.

The situation in Bugisu land, according to government officials, is being exacerbated by rapid population increase. Kimuli village chairman Jacob Nasami said majority of the victims of yesterday’s twin mudslides were children.