Thousands still missing as Congo flood survivors search for relatives

By Djaffar Sabiti

NYAMUKUBI, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) -The death toll from flooding in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo crept higher on Tuesday as aid workers found more bodies among the muddy devastation and wounded residents succumbed to their injuries in an underequipped local clinic.

The floods, in a remote, mountainous area of South Kivu province, ripped through the riverside villages of Nyamukubi and Bushushu five days ago, razing houses, destroying crops and killing more than 400 people.

It was the deadliest natural disaster in recent Congo history.

Survivor Paul Serushago was still searching for the bodies of two family members on Tuesday, digging with a spade in the mud and debris that reached halfway up the doorway of their home in Nyamukubi.

"We've been looking for them since Friday and we haven't found them yet," he said, taking a short break from the back-breaking work.

The scale of destruction has highlighted the vulnerability of people to climate change in many parts of Africa, where poor urban planning and weak infrastructure means communities often cannot withstand increasing bouts of extreme weather.

In Nyamukubi, entire neighbourhoods have been run over with boulders, and the stink of dead bodies wafts from the earth, a Reuters reporter at the scene said. The homeless are packed into the few public buildings left intact, with poor sanitation.

The Red Cross believes that over 8,000 people are in need of assistance. Aid efforts have been hobbled by a lack of access and resources.

"We're not able to deal with this many bodies as urgently as needed. We're searching for bodies with spades, with hands," said John Kashinzwe Kibekenge, spokesperson for the Red Cross in South Kivu province.

More than 5,500 people remain unaccounted for, local administrator Thomas Bakenga Zirimwabagabo said.

Government officials brought blankets, food and a few coffins to Nyamukubi on Tuesday. They donated money to a local clinic where three people died on Tuesday, and gave around $1,100 each to 200 affected families.

But the delegation did not take part in burials as planned or visit Bushushu, where the death toll is believed to be greater because it was market day when the flood hit.

Residents are terrified. Many wept for lost loved ones, trampled crops and ruined houses. Some asked the government to rehouse them away from a zone where water rushes off the lush hillsides, swelling the river that runs past their houses.

Aid workers put the dead in mass graves dug over the weekend, drawing complaints from civil society groups and prompting the government to promise assistance for more dignified burials.

(Writing by Sofia Christensen, Edward McAllister and Alessandra Prentice; editing by Christina Fincher, Angus MacSwan and Mark Heinrich)