Bududa tragedy swirls over me like an apparition

Sunday March 7 2010

Volunteers search for the bodies of landslide

Volunteers search for the bodies of landslide victims. PHOTO BY KATHERINE HAYWOOD 

By Tabu Butagira

Early this week, lives of hundreds of Bududa residents were taken in the most heartbreaking of nature’s cruelty. They had woken up, done their chores, conversed and laughed before retiring to their places of abode in a drenched evening. However, an overnight mudslide buried virtually all of them alive. Sunday Monitor’s Senior Reporter Tabu Butagira visited the three flattened villages and below tells the harrowing tale of a locally unparalleled human tragedy:-

The uphill journey was dicey and enduring. It had rained the previous night and the clay road surface was dangerously slippery. The rise was steep. It was suffocating to ascend and sloping was a delicate, likely deadly, balancing act in the event of any miscalculated step.

I was not, on Wednesday, climbing one of several hills in the Mt. Elgon range for fun as the privileged often do.
This was a trip, more unforgettable for its ominous nature, to courageously gather a story on human tragedy in Bududa District incomparable to any disaster the present generation in the area could recollect.

On Monday, the heavens opened with extreme generosity over Bumayoka and Bukalasi sub-counties like it had done the previous two days.

Accompanying gusty winds swayed the trees to weak standing; the soils loosened, detaching huge rocks – some half the size of a hut.
When mother earth lost its ability to imbibe more of the falling rains, gurgling run-off water began pouring down hill and opening gullies in Nametsi, Namanga and Ukha villages.

Residents estimated in excess of 871 saw nothing eccentric. After all, such downpour and thundering sludge is what they grew up witnessing, even acknowledging as tolerable occurrence, even when the slides periodically snapped the lives of handful village mates.

The foot hill swarmed with activity. Women cooked and their children played by the fireside in the suffocating warmth of smoky kitchen, turned bed room in the night. Two overstretched but resilient medical workers, one of them posthumously identified as Pheobe Namwano, were struggling - in difficult circumstances - to save lives of dozens of in-patients at Nametsi Health Centre III.

Out-patients and passersby who sheltered on the porch of the medical buildings and nearby shops engaged in lively discussions, unaware this would be their last chatty moment.

At 6p.m., according to local authorities, a mass of soil broke from near a kilometre high and fell with a petrifying bang. Shortly after, news began doing the rounds some five people had been buried alive.

Residents who have, for more than a decade, resisted government plans to relocate them considered the avalanche, deadly as it was, one of the several witnessed before. And in an area sandwiched between rocky hills, darkness falls faster.

That fateful day, 8p.m. found most residents huddled in what they considered safe mud-and-wattle houses - their places of abode.
It never was. What happened two hours later was – and still is – a disaster of indescribable monstrosity.

Amorphous mudslides powered downhill by violent storm water and rolling huge rocks as well as smashed trees came crashing and blanketed the three villages, about 3-square kilometre wide, like the layer of terrifying cumulonimbus clouds that drift d above.

Hundreds buried
Within a few minutes, an estimated 350 people out of 871; 176 cattle, 50 goats and countless pigs as well as about 2,000 fowls had been buried alive.

It was nature’s mass death sentence. Some 68 others were injured, Bududa District Chief Administrative Officer Oswan Vitalis notes in the local government’s first comprehensive report on the boundless ruins made public on Thursday.

A handful of residents who read the danger signs right escaped just in time. Ms Evangirina Nanduttu is one of them. Fearing a mudslide was imminent, she together with three grand children fled the area after failing to persuade her 71-year-old husband, Mr Dison Kuloba that they leave for another safer village.

Mr Kuloba was lucky to survive but a falling tree crushed his right ankle and fractured his collar born. At Bududa Hospital, I saw him whimpering on the floor on a mucky mattress in the Male ward. He told me through an interpreter that his “stubbornness” had edged his life to near-end.

The shattered bones had not been cast, two days after admission.
The fractures were but just bandaged and a thick layer of clotted blood bore witness to how the old man, already debilitated by advancing age, was dangerously vulnerable after bleeding for long.
This medical facility had about a dozen survivors brought in with varying injuries on different days. Help to them was lethargic even when the handful health workers on duty appeared to offer their best.

Driving from Kampala at night, I and photographer Stephen Wandera, arrived in Mbale town around midnight early Wednesday and spent the remaining hours there. A battery of visiting journalists, eager to capture the big news in text and pictures, plied to eastern Uganda, anyway.

Together with this newspaper’s Mbale Bureau chief, Mr David Mafabi, our stopover at Bududa Hospital en route to the scene of mudslide gave a glimpse to the grim picture ahead.

Ordinarily, vehicles can drive and stop at Luwanda, the foot of the first hill, and any place on the top of the hill is only accessible on foot. In this case, one had to trek at least 7 kilometres over two hours to reach the three affected villages.

Unfortunately, this Wednesday was no ordinary day. President Museveni was expected to address the people at Bukalasi Sub-county head quarters, which is by the road side, as such his mean security detail blocked any and every vehicles from going past the venue.
After a five-minute of barren bargain, I asked our driver, Mr Abdullah Obaro, to park at the Boma ground were people, including ministers, were already gathering.

The President was due to fly by chopper to make firsthand assessment in the affected area and return to the sub-county head quarter shortly to talk to the residents. The malicious halt by the Presidential Guard Brigade, now merged into Special Forces, increased the distance I had to walk to more than a dozen or so kilometres.

It was getting late and my patience was running out. I grabbed my laptop from the car, pocketed one bottle of mineral water and apple fruit, flung a heavy Italian-tailored leather coat on my left arm and used the right to carry a plastic bag containing a packet of high-energy biscuits/snacks.

And I told Mr Mafabi to hold fort at the Boma ground for Mr Museveni’s address so that we do not miss him either way.
After walking some two kilometres, together with Mr Wandera, the rain began falling. I quickly covered the laptop with the leather jacket and moments later dumped the machine in an NTV car that was returning from Luwanda, having crossed there before the military set up the sentry.

Thirty minutes after a climb on sharply winding, narrow and slippery road, I was losing breath. The rain had now subsided into a drizzle. But I, like everyone heading up, was perspiring and my shirt, drenched by sweat, stuck to the body lick tick on cow. Fellows sloping would try to grab those laboriously heading up in order to firm up after slipping. The body dodging was a swift and precise game for an unqualified touch could yank a pair off the sharp road edges and down into the valley.

Drenched, fatigued
My muscles were failing to cooperate. The pang cut through the thigh and I felt my flesh burning. For a while I wondered why I offered to cover the story in the first place.

The strong grooves of my jungle-suited brown Craze Horse shoes have in the past performed flawlessly during slippery treks on assignments in south Sudan and Eastern DR Congo. But not on this particular occasion. The shoes, heavily bespattered with mud, had become cumbersomely weighty to lift.

Worse, at some point I had to grab sticking tree roots to avoid skidding into a gorge. Shortly afterwards, I found a kid with a machete and quickly picked and used it to chop a branch of a coffee tree which I sharpened at the down end to dig in at most treacherous stretches of the road and stabilise.

From a kilometre distance, I saw the flattened villages like a vast newly-graded construction site. Metres to the scene, a wailing woman stooped and gestured over two corpses - one without the left leg- roughly covered with a shredded blanket and both lying on an old, torn mattress.

Tragic sight
Separating the two dead bodies and another of an old woman that had begun swelling were two limbs of disparate sizes. A column of uniformed UPDF soldiers and volunteers cut through the mud and sometimes pushed heavy stones in search of bodies. They took no break yet food and clean water were scarce. They worked just with hoes, shovels and pick axes - and in some instances clawed mounds of soaked soil with bare hand.

On their side lay the body of a fat man, blood oozing through his orifices. A huge cow, neck crushed and head drooping, poked out half buried in the sludge.

The soldiers, together with Uganda Red Cross Society as well as local volunteers, some of who walked several kilometres to offer help, were my heroes. Not publicity hungry bureaucrats making grand statements in the comfort of Kampala offices. Suddenly, everyone is looking down a bore. Out they pull just a human head and no evidence of the torso nearby. The sifting and search continue.

Farther and uphill, an artificial stream flowed in the middle of bowl-shaped wide path of the crumbled soil – the standing lane of disaster. Sounds of cracks uphill raise fears of another imminent landslip.

But job down had to continue. I got wedged in the marsh countless times as I moved about, gathering accounts and crosschecking figures. The stench of decomposing corpses and livestock carcasses was beginning to suffocate.

Light four-seater choppers flew about, manoeuvring dangerously in escarpment between towering hills. In one of the classrooms of Nametsi Primary School, which remained intact, UPDF were treating six survivors. In the compound, some troops were cooking.

President Museveni, whom I missed at the scene, I would later learn, disembarked from the helicopter commando-style with an AK 47 riffle slinging across his chest with the barrel pointing upward.
The endless stream, into the disaster zone of mainly people from neighbouring sub counties, made the place appear a pilgrimage destination except each left with the sadness of visiting a mortuary.

The reek of rotting bodies hung over my nose the second night after visiting Nametsi. As I left the flattened area, and now ponder over the selfless work of those struggling to retrieve decomposing bodies without pay, it struck me how names of those volunteers would not find space on our list of national heroes.

They will require thorough psycho-social therapy to cope. Maybe true for every person who has been there. That notwithstanding, I left professionally fulfilled I was one of many who endured to tell the tragedy of hundreds buried alive with no one to mourn them.

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