Malaysia, May 22 – A close-knit village on the outskirts of the Malaysian capital was grieving Sunday for the deaths of 16 people, mostly children, after an orphanage was hit by a devastating landslide.
But as the search for bodies ended, questions were being asked if the orphanage had a permit to operate and whether the buildings were illegal, situated at the foot of the hill from where the mudslip thundered down.
Following heavy rain on Saturday, rocks, sand and mud swept through a tent where the orphans and some of their carers had been practising a drum performance at around 2:30 pm (0630 GMT), witnesses said.
A policeman at the scene, south of Kuala Lumpur, told AFP 16 bodies had been recovered, including a 34-year-old carer. The ages of the others killed ranged from eight to 19 years old, while ten people remain in hospital.
"The search and rescue operation is over. We have completed our mission," said a police officer at the scene, who did not want to be named.
Villager Mohamad Azam, 38, said the last four bodies were taken out at about 5:30 am.
"I know some of the boys. They are very good boys. They recite their prayers early in the morning every day." Malaysia is a largely Muslim country.
Abdul Ruhie, 14, who lived at the orphanage, said during Saturday\’s drum rehearsal they heard a loud rumbling sound and then rocks and sand started rolling down a hill.
"It happened with lightning speed," he told AFP.
"I managed to run away. I did not turn back to look but I heard some of my friends screaming. Then there was silence," he added.
"I panicked, I was in a state of shock. I can never forget this incident," he said.
"I\’m not angry with nature, this is fate, it is Allah\’s wish. I know I have to pray harder to Allah to protect me and my friends."
Abdul said that at the all-boys orphanage, they would wake up early in the morning to recite verses from the Muslim holy book, the Koran, after which they would go to school.
Their dawn Koranic recitals were blared through a loudspeaker across the valley, lined with bungalows and rows of fruit trees.
On Sunday residents said the eerie silence had hammered home the reality of the tragedy.
"I know the boys very well. They were a pleasant lot, they will greet you whenever they see you," said local resident Ishak Abdul Majid, 56.
"We used to hear Koranic verses being recited early in the morning. This morning, there was total silence," he said.
"We will miss all of them. This valley is now swept with gloom and silence."
Residents said the orphanage had been in operation for about 10 years, but authorities were unsure if it had a permit.
Mohamad Suzi Tabot, the fire department chief of Selangor State which covers the village, said: "I am not sure if this orphanage is on our records. We never came here for any inspection."
But residents said grieving should take precedence and asked why the legality of the orphanage\’s operations was only being raised after the tragedy.
They said the orphanage had been helping those without parents and boys who came from troubled families.
During weddings and funerals, the boys would be invited to perform numbers using a drum called the Kompang.
"Why raise this matter now whether it is legal or not?" asked village resident Ramli Jafar, 59.
"The hill behind the building is very steep. I doubt this building has approval."
Ramli said that when his son got married five years ago, boys from the orphanage performed with the Kompang.
"It breaks my heart to know that this has happened to them," he said.
Azam, who lives near the orphanage added: "We liked the boys…. We\’re going to miss them, they were part of our family."