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Schools in Indonesia’s quake-hit Palu city begin counting how many children will return as death toll climbs

Almost 2,000 perished in the disaster, with bodies still being recovered and authorities saying thousands more are believed missing in two of the hardest hit areas

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 October, 2018, 11:44am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 October, 2018, 10:00pm

Children in the Indonesian city of Palu began returning to school on Monday in what was both a day of tidying up classrooms and figuring out how many students will be coming back after the major earthquake and tsunami on September 28.

The 7.5 magnitude quake brought down many buildings in the small city on Sulawesi island, 1,500km (30 miles) northeast of Jakarta, while tsunami waves smashed into its beachfront.

But the biggest killer was probably soil liquefaction, which happens when a powerful quake turns the ground into a liquid mire and which obliterated several Palu neighbourhoods.

The official death toll is 1,944 but bodies are still being recovered and authorities have said as many as 5,000 are believed missing in two of the hardest hit areas.

But no one knows exactly how many people perished, with many believing it is far greater.

At one state high school, teenagers dressed in grey and white uniforms swept up broken glass in the classrooms. Trophies had fallen from a broken school showcase and the basketball court was cracked.

“It’s sad to see our school like this,” said Dewi Rahmawati, 17, who expects to graduate next year and wants to study economics at university.

The students found out that they had to turn up to school through messages on Facebook and WhatsApp.

School principal Kasiludin said authorities told all teachers to show up for work from Monday to collect information on student numbers.

“We won’t force the students to come back because many are traumatised. But we must start again soon to keep their spirits up and so they don’t fall behind,” he said.

In times of disaster, foreign aid should be welcomed

The school had lost at least seven students and one teacher, he said.

Hopes of finding anyone alive have faded and the search for survivors amid the wreckage has turned to gathering and accounting for the dead.

The disaster agency said the official search for the unaccounted would continue until October 11 at which point they would be listed as missing, presumed dead.

The government has said it will declare those communities flattened in Palu as mass graves and leave them untouched.

Gopal, whose aunt and uncle are missing, picked through wreckage Monday knowing just days were left to find his loved ones.

“Even if they (search teams) stop looking, we will still try to find them ourselves,” the 40-year-old said in Balaroa, one of the hardest hit neighbourhoods.

“When we can no longer do it ourselves, we leave it to Allah,” Gopal, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, added.

Excavators and rescuers combed Balaroa on Monday, where a massive government housing complex was all but swallowed up by the disaster.

For now, I don’t think we’re ready. Many children are traumatised and frightened
Abdul Rashi

Rescuers have struggled to extract decomposing bodies from the tangled mess left behind.

At the SMP Negeri 15 Palu middle school, fewer than 50 of its 697 students showed up.

School principal Abdul Rashid said he was aware of four students killed in the quake.

“Classes haven’t started. We’re only collecting data to find out how many students are safe,” he said.

“I’m still waiting for the Ministry of Education to give us instructions on when to begin classes. For now, I don’t think we’re ready. Many children are traumatised and frightened.”

One boy chatting in the school compound with a few friends said he was disappointed that so few of his classmates had shown up.

“I want school to start as soon as possible so I can find out how my friends are doing,” said Muhamad Islam Bintang Lima, dressed in the school uniform of white shirt and navy blue trousers.

“I haven’t heard from so many of them. I want to think positively; I hope they are OK.”

Most of the dead from the quake and tsunami were in Palu, the region’s main urban centre. Figures for more remote areas are trickling in but they seem to have suffered fewer deaths than the city.

Number of missing soars to 5,000 as relief aid arrives in Indonesia disaster zone

Sulawesi is one of Indonesia’s five main islands. The archipelago sees frequent earthquakes and occasional tsunami.

In 2004, a quake off Sumatra island triggered a tsunami across the Indian Ocean that killed 226,000 people in 13 countries, including more than 120,000 in Indonesia.

Reporting by Reuters and Agence France-Presse