NAMETSI, Uganda (AP) — It was mid-afternoon and had been raining buckets when shopkeeper Michael Nabude looked up and saw a patch of mud slide down a mountain. Fearing a landslide, he sent his family away then watched in horror from afar as a wall of mud slammed into his village, burying it and dozens of people. The death toll may reach into the hundreds.
Rescuers in this remote corner of eastern Ugandan used hand tools Wednesday to dig through the thick rivers of mud that engulfed three villages, burying worshippers as they prayed in a church and leaving more than 50 students who had sought refuge at a hospital missing under the debris of mud and boulders. The president swooped into the villages by helicopter and ordered remaining residents to move away from the sliding hillsides and military helicopters soon began to airlift them.
At least four people were plucked alive Wednesday from the wreckage, two days after the mud slides began, but more than 250 are missing, said Kevin Nabutuwa of the Uganda Red Cross. The death toll stood at 86.
People wailed and wept in the village of Nametsi as rescuers dug through mud over 16 feet (5 meters) high that had buried most structures here.
Rescuers recovered the body of a 12-year-old girl who was among the group of more than 50 missing students, Nabutuwa said. After the rains began on Monday, village elders advised students from Nametsi's primary school not to go home, and instead seek shelter in the village hospital.
When the mudslides came, the hospital too was buried.
"We expect to recover more bodies as time goes on. But the exercise is slow because we are using hoes to dig the dead bodies out of the thick mud," said Nabutuwa.
Nabude had been watching from a bar a half mile (a kilometer) away after evacuating his family to a relative's home as a wall of mud engulfed Nametsi.
"All my property, including my shop, is buried," Nabude said.
Five bodies lay beside the dirt track leading to the village, waiting to be claimed by relatives. Scores of soldiers helped rescue efforts.
The mudslides swamped the region near the Kenyan border late Monday and Tuesday after torrents of rain pounded the mountainous region. Known as Bududa, it lies 170 miles (275 kilometers) east of Kampala, the capital. Police, army soldiers and aid workers have been recovering bodies in villages that are a three-hour walk from a main highway.
The region has long suffered from landslides but rarely has the death toll been so high.
President Yoweri Museveni ordered villagers in the region to leave the area in case rain triggered more landslides. Immediately after Museveni left, army helicopters began ferrying residents to an area about 10 miles (20 kilometers) away.
Unusually heavy rains also battered eastern Uganda in 2007 and forced 2,000 people from their homes and affected 50,000 people in what humanitarian officials said were the worst rains in 35 years. Landslides were reported in some areas. Nearly 4,000 households said their crops were damaged and flood waters contaminated springs, bore-holes and wells for thousands of Ugandans. Many people reported being too afraid to use latrines in case they collapsed.
The conditions prompted aid agencies to raise alarms about the heightened risk of malaria, diarrhea, skin diseases, chest infections and intestinal diseases.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.