NAMETSI, Uganda — During heavy rains, village elders told schoolchildren to seek shelter in the hospital. That sanctuary turned into a death trap as a landslide engulfed the building, leaving more than 50 pupils missing and among hundreds feared dead as avalanches of mud slammed into three villages.
When Beatrice Nabuduwa’s 12-year-old daughter failed to come home after school Monday, the mother assumed her child had stayed over at an aunt’s because of the rain. By Wednesday, the grieving mother accepted the reality of the situation, and said she wished God would have taken her life instead.
“In the morning I was shocked to learn that the whole village was under mud,” she said in Nametsi, where mud debris towered more than 16 feet (4.8 meters) high in some places. “I have failed to find her or her body.”
Rescuers in this remote corner of eastern Ugandan used hand tools to dig through the thick rivers of mud that engulfed the hospital and buried worshippers as they prayed in a church. Workers late Wednesday found the bodies of six more students from the hospital, raising the confirmed death toll to 92, said Kevin Nabutuwa of the Uganda Red Cross.
The president swooped into the villages by helicopter and ordered remaining residents to move away from the sliding hillsides. 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 Nabutuwa.
People wailed and wept in the village of Nametsi as rescuers dug through mud more than 16 feet (5 meters) high that had buried most structures here. Police, army soldiers and aid workers worked to recover bodies in villages that are a three-hour walk from a main highway.
President Yoweri Museveni said some of the tragedy could be blamed on the fact people had settled in the flood valley of the nearby River Manafa, and because farmers had stripped the land clear of thick plant life that better retain water.
Rescuers earlier Wednesday 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, the Red Cross official.
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.
Shopkeeper Michael Nabude recounted how he 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.
“All my property, including my shop, is buried,” Nabude said.
The region has long suffered from landslides but rarely has the death toll been so high.
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.
“We cannot get big equipment here because there are no roads, so people are walking on foot. They are using portable items and they have done a wonderful job,” he said during his visit to Nametsi.
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.