More than 100 people were missing and about 30 confirmed killed in eastern Uganda on Tuesday after a landslide the previous day buried villages in a coffee-growing area on the slopes of Mount Elgon, the government said.
On Monday, the Uganda Red Cross said at least 18 people had been killed in the disaster, but on Tuesday government officials said the number of fatalities was higher and that 109 people were still missing.
Heavy rain triggered a mudslide on Monday afternoon that cut through trees and bushes, burying two villages in mud, officials said, adding that 178 people had survived.
The search and rescue operation was called off on Tuesday after officials said the chances of finding any more survivors were slim.
“It is feared the landslide and floods buried about 29 homes with about 30 people dead,” Stephen Mallinga, the minister of disaster preparedness and refugees, told a news conference.
He said the timing of the landslide – in the early afternoon – had prevented a much higher death toll.
“When the landslide occurred at about 2 p.m., many people had gone to the market and some children were at school. Both the market and the school were not affected,” he said.
Up to 400,000 people could require humanitarian aid as the rain intensified, forcing them to abandon their homes for fear of further mudslides, he added.
Banana leaves stuck out of the mud at the buried villages where a solitary shiny roof of a house was also visible as survivors fretted about the possibility of more landslides.
“I fear that the thing could come again and sweep me away. It happened in seconds. The trees were shaking and the soil was going down,” said 26-year-old Julius Wabuteya.
He said he had found his pregnant wife knee-deep in mud and had managed to pull her out and rush her to hospital to seek treatment for her injuries.
Others were not so lucky. Mary Lubango, who wailed in grief at the scene of the landslide, said she had lost several relatives when the landslide struck.
“I’m crying for my brothers and sisters, my grandsons, nephews and nieces. I suspect they are buried there because that is where their houses were,” she said, pointing to a mound of dirt.
Some villagers had fled the area the night before after cracks appeared in the earth, suggesting a landslide might be imminent.
There were concerns that continued rain could trigger further mudslides and that more people would have to flee the area. Some 220 people have already been displaced by the landslide.
Landslides caused by heavy rains are frequent in eastern Uganda, where at least 23 people were killed last year after mounds of mud buried their homes. Scores of people were buried alive in a similar disaster in March 2010.
The affected area, which lies across the border from Kenya, produces coffee in what is the third biggest economy in east Africa and the continent’s largest exporter of the beans.