More than 2,000 people were buried alive by a massive landslide in Papua New Guinea last week, the country’s national disaster centre said on Monday, as treacherous terrain and the difficulty of getting aid to the site raises the risk few survivors will be found.

The numbers of those buried around Yambali village in Enga province in the country’s north are based on estimates from local authorities, which have been rising steadily since Friday’s landslide.

A United Nations agency put the estimated death toll at more than 670 people on Sunday.

The National Disaster Centre raised the toll again to 2,000 in a letter to the UN on Sunday that was released publicly on Monday. The landslide also caused major destruction to buildings and food gardens, it said.

“The situation remains unstable as the landslip continues to shift slowly, posing ongoing danger to both the rescue teams and survivors alike,” according to the letter.

A house with a tin roof is seen crushed and rumpled by a large tree.
A demolished house at the site of a landslide at Yambali Village in the region of Maip Mulitaka, in Papua New Guinea’s Enga Province on Saturday. (AFP/Getty Images)

About 4,000 people were living near the affected area, said Justine McMahon, the country director for CARE International Papua New Guinea, in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) on Monday.

But it is difficult to get an accurate estimate of the local population as Papua New Guinea’s last credible census was in 2000 and many people live in remote mountainous villages. The country recently announced a census would be conducted in 2024.

Landslide tough to reach

The unstable terrain, remote location and nearby tribal warfare are hampering relief efforts.

Emergency crews, led by Papua New Guinea’s defence personnel, were on the ground, but the first excavator only reached the site late on Sunday, according to a UN official.

Social media footage posted by villagers and local media teams showed people scaling rocks, digging with shovels, sticks and their bare hands to find survivors. Women could be heard weeping in the background.

Men with shovels stand in a dirt pit in a mountainous landscape.
Local residents gather Friday after a landslide in Maip Mulitaka in Enga province. The first excavator only reached the site late on Sunday, according to a UN official. (Emmanuel Eralia/Reuters)

Six bodies have been retrieved so far. The UN said the number of possible deaths could change as rescue efforts were expected to continue for days.

Couple rescued from rubble

Media in Papua New Guinea on Monday reported that residents had rescued a couple trapped under rubble after hearing their cries for help.

Johnson and Jacklyn Yandam told local NBC News that they were very grateful and described their rescue as a miracle.

“We thank God for saving our lives at that moment. We were certain that we were going to die but the big rocks didn’t crush us,” Jacklyn said. “It’s really hard to explain as we got trapped for nearly eight hours, then got rescued. We believe we were saved for a purpose.”

About 1,250 people have been displaced by the landslide, which occurred in Papua New Guinea’s Enga province early Friday. More than 150 houses were buried and about 250 houses abandoned.

“The houses are buried under around eight metres of dirt. So there is quite a lot of debris to get through,” said CARE’s McMahon.

Dangerous conditions

Water continued to flow under the debris, the UN migration agency said, making it extremely dangerous for residents and the rescue team to clear debris.

Serhan Aktoprak, the chief of the UN migration agency’s mission in Papua New Guinea, told ABC television that emergency crews would continue to look for survivors until the residents asked them to stop.

Tribal violence in the region has raised security concerns for road travel, with the military escorting convoys of rescue teams. Eight people were killed, and five shops and 30 houses burned down on Saturday, the UN agency said.

Papua New Guinea gave arrest powers to its military in February amid an eruption of tribal violence that saw at least 26 men killed in an ambush.

The landslide hit a section of highway near the Porgera gold mine, operated by Barrick Gold through Barrick Niugini Ltd., its joint venture with China’s Zijin Mining. Barrick has said the mine has enough fuel on site to operate for 40 days and other critical supplies for longer.