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Over 100 people are feared dead and at least 450 are now missing following a devastating landslide that hit villages around the Mt Elgon area, 170 miles East of Kampala the Ugandan capital.

By Norman Miwambo

While the Western world has covered the recent disastrous events in Chile and Haiti where earthquakes have caused havoc and several world leaders have offered help, a similar disaster near Mount Elgon on the Uganda-Kenya border, has gone almost unnoticed as scores of people are feared dead and hundreds more are missing following a devastating landslide. Now Ugandans are using bare hands to try and save those still stuck under collapsed buildings in areas almost impassable because of lack of proper roads.

Over 100 people are feared dead and at least 450 are now missing following a devastating landslide that hit villages around the Mt Elgon area, 170 miles East of Kampala the Ugandan capital.

By yesterday many people were still lying buried under the earth as villagers used their bare hands to try and free the survivors. “Very many people were buried in under the earth and it will take a long time to get the victims out because people here are using their bare hands in an attempt to rescue the landslide victims,” an eyewitness on the ground told this reporter in a telephone interview.

The villages most affected are Nametsi, Namakansa and Kubehwo, about 170 mile east of the Ugandan capital Kampala. Villagers were said to be struggling to rescue their neighbours who were caught up in the landslide disaster. The landslide, which struck on Monday night after 10 hours of heavy rains, mostly overwhelmed the village of Nametsi near the Kenyan border, burying houses, people and livestock.

Parts of Uganda and neighbouring Kenya have had sustained rainfall over much of the past two months, which is usually a dry period between rainy seasons and floods are already plaguing large areas.

Villagers blamed their misfortunes solely on the absence of good road networks. By mid-Wednesday, villagers were anxiously in search of over 450 people believed to be still missing. An eyewitness involved in the search and rescue operation told this reporter that an official from the Uganda Red Cross had put the number of people still missing to about 250.

“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,” Kevin Nabutuwa who works with the Uganda Red Cross said. Lack of funds to deal with a disaster of such magnitude was blamed by some on the fact that the Yoweri Museveni regime has turned the country into a limited company as many businesses are owned and controlled by the Museveni family and friends and that they have no means to deal with such a disaster.

The Ugandan leader visited the villages on Wednesday, ordering the remaining residents to move away from sliding hillsides. Dressed in military fatigues and armed with a Russian Kalashnikov AK 47 automatic rifle, Mr Museveni, who shot his way to power in 1986 and changed the country's constitution to enable him stay in power for as long as he wanted, visited the areas in a Presidential Helicopter. A concerned Ugandan informed this reporter that: “He [Museveni] has instructed the use of his helicopters to ferry residents to an area away from the disaster.” Unconfirmed reports said President Museveni blamed local politicians for allowing people to settle at the edge of Mt Elgon. But contrary to his accusations, people have been living in the area because of its soil fertility and arable farming.

Museveni said settlements in the flood valley of the nearby River Manafa had left many people particularly vulnerable. The Ugandan president piled the responsibility for the landslides to farmers for stripping the land clear of thick plant life that retains water.

Extraordinarily heavy rains also battered eastern Uganda in 2007 and forced 2,000 people from their homes, affecting at least 50,000 people in what humanitarian officials said were the worst rains in 35 years.

Moses Gidudu, a survivor said: “I lost nine children including my wife. We had been married for over 20 years. Because of the bad weather, I couldn't [return to my home so] I stayed in the local pub where I got the sad news about my family. I tried to run home, but on my way I found a group of people who were escaping the tragedy. They told me: “'you better get back where you have been because you can save nothing. All your family has been buried under the rubbles.'” He added: “I collapsed and when I regained consciousness, I was in a clinic where sympathisers had taken me.”

Another eyewitness, Rose Namutosi told us: “I woke up very early in the morning and went for gardening a distance away from our home and left my five children and husband in the bed [as many wives in this area leave their husbands to look after the kids]. When I came back, all of them had been covered in the rubble. All the bodies of my children haven't been recovered and we only managed to get the leg of my husband.”

President Museveni, who attended the burial of one of the victims, Diana Namalwa, at Bukalasi Church, ordered that the rest of the dead bodies be buried in a single mass grave because many were unrecognisable.

Kevin Nabutuwa, of the Uganda Red Cross said: “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.

This disaster is not the first serious scenario exposing Ugandan citizens to such risks. Previously, money from donor countries allocated to the country's health departments to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria from The Global Fund has been embezzled by Ugandan officials, including Museveni's ministers and family friends.