Indonesia quake survivors desperate for help as death toll climbs
More than 1,400 people have been confirmed dead from the earthquake and tsunami that struck Sulawesi island
Ten-year-old Mohammad Zaki was climbing on a beachfront playground at dusk on Friday when the ground beneath him seemed to disappear.
Badly injured and disoriented, Zaki was then hit by a rush of ocean water, as hulking waves crashed down on this coastal city. He scrambled across the debris and when the chaos passed, found that he was bleeding heavily, his clothes ripped from his body. He staggered toward the city and was found by a police officer.
“He had to climb on top of a car from a hole in the ground,” said Rosmawati, his 33-year-old aunt who sat next to his hospital bed, fanning his wounds in the crushing humidity with a piece of a cardboard box. “He was brave.”
Zaki has been waiting five days for an operation to repair a severe laceration on his stomach, one of dozens of patients waiting for additional treatment at the state-run Undanta hospital – still without fuel to run its generators and so without electricity.
“I’m still in pain,” he said from his bed in the hospital’s hallway.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited this battered city for the second time on Wednesday, and the neighbouring region of Donggala for the first, where twin disasters – a 7.5 magnitude earthquake and a tsunami that followed – have taken 1,407 lives and counting.
“The most important thing in a post-disaster situation is fast handling!” Widodo, better known as Jokowi, said in a tweet. He has appointed his vice-president to lead recovery efforts, and the government’s disaster management agency has deployed over 6,000 people to the area, ushering in convoy after convoy of fuel, planes filled with clean water, instant noodles and basic medicine.
They have begun to coordinate the arrival of foreign C-130 transport planes, and police and army officers now line the streets to quell the looting and disorder that were rampant in the aftermath.
Still, residents believe these efforts pale in comparison to the mammoth task ahead of this community, which cannot shake their feelings of forlorn abandonment, after no help came for nearly six days.
Across this region on Wednesday, sign after sign, some hung up on fences and some held up by weary survivors, continue to beg for help: “we’re hungry,” “don’t forget us,” “we are victims too.” Of those who have been officially confirmed dead, only about a third have received any kind of burial, some in mass graves high up in the hills surrounding the city and the lucky few by family members who have found them. Thousands more may be dead, buried under the mud below.
“We expect this data to continue to change,” Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for Indonesia’s disaster agency, said of the death toll. Another 70,000 have been rendered homeless, camped out in makeshift shelters fashioned out of tarps and bamboo poles.
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Foreign aid will begin to trickle in to Palu city, Donggala and the surrounding region. Around 29 countries have offered help, said Sutopo, and 17 of those have met the Indonesian government’s specific needs. Seven C-130 transports, offered by four countries including Singapore and Japan, will head to the region to airlift out survivors, reunite some with families in Palu and transport in much needed goods. Other countries, like Australia, have pledged doctors and medical equipment.
For now, though, medical centres like the Undanta hospital are messy and overwhelmed. The hospital’s entrance was littered with oxygen canisters and hypodermic needles, and patients lay on stretchers under the blazing sun, waiting for treatment. In the car park, dozens of corpses wrapped in body bags and tarps were being loaded into dumpsters by volunteers and soldiers to be taken to mass burial sites. Inside, one elderly man lay on his hospital bed in a diaper, rice scattered all over the thin blue mattress.
Some doctors and nurses wore latex gloves and splashed their hands with rubbing alcohol. Others used gardening gloves, some worked barehanded and in flip flops. When the disaster first hit, “nothing was on” said Muhammad Sakti, a doctor coordinating the medical team here. “We couldn’t work.”
Most patients here were buried under collapsed buildings, doctors said. Some suffered from open fractures, others needed amputation. Lifesaving operations were prioritised,
Needs are still acute.
“We need fuel,” said Sakti, admitting he was exhausted, “not just for the hospital, but for all. We need, electricity, water.”
The government, he said, has promised fuel supplies, but as of now, “it’s just a promise,” he added with a laugh.
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On Wednesday, Widodo toured Palu, including the now-wiped out settlement of Petobo, where hundreds are still believed to be buried underneath thick mud. He visited the remains of the Roa Roa, an 80-room hotel that collapsed completely during the earthquake burying about 50 or 60 guests underneath. His black SUV was mobbed as he pulled away from the site, and he handed packets of biscuits to children.
Moments after he left, Talib, a 24-year-old rescuer, standing by military personnel guarding the area, broke down.
“I had hoped that while Jokowi was here, all the help would come here,” he said, fighting back tears. He had arrived at the site of the hotel earlier that day with his own climbing equipment to scale the wreckage, a lone volunteer searching through the rubble. Heavy equipment, he pleaded, needs to arrive to free the trapped inside, even though they are likely dead.
“If it was a member of your family, wouldn’t you cry too?” Talib added. “This is the sixth day, brother.”
When soldiers who were there for Jokowi’s appearance began to disperse, Talib scaled back up the wreckage of the hotel again and restarted his search.