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Palu families search the rubble for loved ones killed in earthquake and tsunami

The official death toll stands at over 800, but everyone knows that figure will only continue to rise

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 September, 2018, 8:17pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 September, 2018, 10:33pm

Standing on white tiles smeared with blood, Baharuddin looks absently at the bodies strewn across a hospital courtyard in front of him in Palu, Indonesia.

“I have one child, he’s missing,” the 52-year-old says. “I last spoke to him before he went to school in the morning.”

He is looking for one small body among these dozens of corpses lying in an open courtyard at the back of the medical centre, baking under Sulawesi’s fierce tropical sun.

Only one building separates a triage area for the living from this makeshift morgue. It is a mosaic of yellow, blue and black body bags punctuated only by hands reaching up in rigor mortis.

This police hospital in Palu has become a focus point for shell-shocked residents hoping for news of loved ones after the 7.5 magnitude quake and subsequent tsunami on Friday.

The official death toll stands at over 800, but everyone knows that figure will only continue to rise.

In a police tent, people clutching photos and passports ask after relatives.

Outside an elderly woman – her head covered in a T-shirt to ward of the stench – crouches in the dirt and sobs.

Today we will start the mass burial of the victims, to avoid the spread of disease
National Board for Disaster Management

By midday on Sunday, 320 bodies had been through the centre, hospital authorities said, but a stream of ambulances, police and army vehicles unloads corpses with alarming regularity.

Many people return day after day to undertake the grim task of looking through the bodies.

Amamsyah, who was searching for four missing cousins, says he is desperate for news.

“I’ve been here three times, everyday,” says Amam, 28, who like many Indonesians only has one name. “I hope I find them – I’m going to fight to find them.”

But it is a race against time. The Indonesian authorities announced on Sunday that they would soon begin to dispose of the bodies, a desperate bid to prevent a catastrophic situation from getting even worse.

“Today we will start the mass burial of the victims, to avoid the spread of disease,” says Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman for the Indonesian National Board for Disaster Management.

Bodies like these can easily fuel the spread of typhoid or cholera.

The authorities say they will take finger prints and digital images to allow for facial recognition technology at a later date, making sure the dead do not remain anonymous.

For those hoping to say one last goodbye in person, or deliver a proper burial, time is painfully short.

But Baharuddin is not giving up on his son.

“I’ll keep searching for him until I find him,” he says.

Some Indonesians desperate to trace loved ones missing are turning to social media sites like Facebook to aid their search.

With the scale of the disaster still unclear, telecommunications patchy and some areas still out of reach, families are posting photos, descriptions of lost family members and contact numbers in the hope of learning more.

“Have you seen any of my family members in these photographs?” asks one user on one Facebook group with 6,843 members. “I want to know if they are safe there. I haven’t got any information on them until this moment. Connection is still cut off. Let me know if you see them.”

Others are trying to help friends still in Palu, the city believed to be the worst-affected.

“Please help, anybody in Palu and areas near the city. Family members of my friend are still missing until now,” says one post asking for information about a father, mother and a toddler living in the city.