Landslide survivors trying to rebuild in Papua New Guinea | WORLD
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Landslide survivors trying to rebuild in Papua New Guinea

Locals and visiting aid workers report devastation

An arial view of the area affected by a landslide in Yambali village, Papua New Guinea Getty Images/Photo by Emmanuel Eralia/AFP

Landslide survivors trying to rebuild in Papua New Guinea

Aaron Waterreus had never been to Papua New Guinea before his New Zealand urban search and rescue team arrived May 30.

Days earlier, on May 24 at 3 a.m., a mountainside in remote Enga Province collapsed, engulfing the village of Yambali in acres of boulders, dirt, and rubble. The landslide crushed an untold number of people in their homes and the local pub. At least 670 people are missing and feared dead. The Papua New Guinea government in Port Moresby requested Waterreus’ team’s assistance in assessing the geotechnical stability of what was left of Mount Mungalo.

Through drone footage and a helicopter fly-by, Waterreus’ team and other agencies determined the May 24 landslide was just the beginning. While at the site, they could see cracks in the mountain grow in number and size.

“It’s not a case of ‘if.’ It’s a case of ‘when,’” Waterreus said. “It might be tomorrow. It might be next week. It might be next year. This event is not isolated and it’s not over.”

With that in mind, government officials have begun evacuating nearly 8,000 survivors and people from nearby villages. But the bigger issue is where to move them. They can’t relocate downhill from the landslide. The landslide already covered about 35 acres, and with the monsoon season approaching, it will likely slide further. While authorities wrestle with these decisions, locals continue to grapple with what they’ve already lost. The local church suffered its own losses, but church leaders are offering both physical and spiritual support.

Engan people depend on farming to live, passing on their land from father to son. But hundreds of families lost their inheritance and livelihood under 20 feet of rocks and dirt, and other tribes already claim most of the surrounding land. Ongoing tribal conflicts complicate an already gargantuan task of relocating so many people.

The landslide has endangered the local and national economies. The quarter mile of blocked highway has cut off food, fuel, and supplies to 100,000 people in the Porgera Valley west of Yambali and to the Porgera Gold Mine further up the Highlands Highway. When the mine is in operation, it employs over 1,000 local workers. Papua New Guinea’s gross domestic product depends on the output of its longest-running gold mine.

Poko Kurai, pastor of the Tulipato Lutheran Church, reported that 28 members of his church were killed in the landslide, but only 9 of their bodies had been recovered as of Monday. More than 90 people in the church were injured. The church building was spared, but many members’ houses and gardens were buried, leaving them nowhere to live and nowhere to farm. Poko said that, after housing materials, some of the most needed items are basic living necessities like pots, blankets, tools, and clothes.

Waterreus, while acknowledging that emergency organizations deal with trauma every day, admitted it was staggering to be standing where a disaster had become a mass grave. Before the area was closed for health concerns, people were still digging in the rubble with sticks, crowbars, shovels, and their bare hands, trying to reach their loved ones’ bodies so they could bury them properly.

“You’re used to seeing two, three people at an accident scene. But when you have people stretching into the hundreds, potentially into the thousands, it weighs heavily on you,” Waterreus said.

Waterreus saw many people smeared in gray ashes and visibly mourning, as well as others pushing on with daily life, building huts or cooking by the side of the road.

“We might be there with the best of intention, but we’re also intruding into their place and their life, particularly when they’re going through a period of intense grieving,” Waterreus said. “We tried to tread really lightly, and respect their privacy, and just be humble in their presence.”

Recovery efforts didn’t just focus on finding those covered in the rubble and assessing future slides. New Zealand’s engineers used their time in the sky to map out an alternate road to the blocked Highlands Highway. A route about two miles away on the other side of the mountain would provide a more resilient lifeline for the Porgera Valley, Waterreus said, adding it would fulfill the goal of risk reduction for the future: “Build back better.”

About 10 years ago, with support from 16 local Enga churches, translators from multiple denominations began laying the groundwork for a new translation of the Enga New Testament. Wycliffe Bible Translators estimate that at least 370,000 people speak the central Engan dialect, the largest vernacular language of Papua New Guinea and the dominant language of the Highlands region.

Three days after the landslide, a truckload of completed Enga New Testaments and audio versions on solar-powered audio players headed to Enga Province. Adam Boyd, the translation advisor, wrote on his blog, “When the truck was about two hours from its final destination, I received a call from the driver informing me that a bridge had collapsed just hours prior, making it impossible to complete the delivery at this time.” Relief vehicles and supplies would travel the same road, delaying necessary assistance to survivors in Yambali.

The bridge has since been repaired, allowing supplies, work crews, and the long-awaited Bibles into the area. On July 11, translators will hold a New Testament dedication event less than two miles east of the landslide. Boyd and his team will distribute hope for a better future in the common language. On his blog, Boyd wrote some of the reactions from Engans who accessed the new translation online. “God greatly blessed those who were involved in this project of converting a foreign language into our mother tongue,” said one. “It is an overwhelming achievement in the history of our churches and the Enga community as a whole."

Amy Lewis

Amy is a WORLD contributor and a graduate of World Journalism Institute and Fresno Pacific University. She taught middle school English before homeschooling her own children. She lives in Geelong, Australia, with her husband and the two youngest of their seven kids.

These summarize the news that I could never assemble or discover by myself. —Keith

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