Sulawesi on slow path to recovery a month after disaster

Urgent need for shelter as rainy season looms and survivors battle with loss of loved ones and trauma of earthquake.

Palu Indonesia
Evening prayers at a temporary mosque in a Red Cross camp in Petobo, a month after the Sulawesi disaster [Ian Morse/Al Jazeera]

Petobo, Indonesia – Muhammad Rizal points to some coconut trees more than 100 metres away from where he’s standing.

“Those [trees] used to be next to our house,” the 23-year-old market trader said, standing on the ruins of his home in Petobo, where last month’s earthquake turned the landscape into a violent stew of homes, schools, mosques and people.

Rizal’s home slid across the ground, and took his wife with it.

“The person I loved most here was my wife,” Rizal said. He had just messaged her a photo of their three-year-old son. “I couldn’t come back for a long time. I felt sick to my stomach.”

Rizal and his extended family are some of the more than 200,000 people who lost their homes in the disaster and are struggling to find shelter to last not only through the looming rainy season but beyond.

“We are now running up against the clock,” said Andreas Weissenberg, Asia representative for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “The rainy season is set to begin in the coming weeks and we need to deliver shelter materials as quickly as possible.”

The Indonesian Red Cross has so far distributed almost 16,000 tarpaulins and more than 2,200 emergency shelters so people have somewhere to live until the government has finished building temporary shelters, probably in the next three months.

‘No way’

Indonesia‘s Minister of Social Affairs Gumiwang Kartasasmita has estimated that Palu will need at least two years to rebuild settlements that were destroyed in the earthquake, tsunami, and liquefaction.

Indri Afiali, 58, fled her home in Petobo for the hills above Palu a month ago. Chinese and Swiss government tents arrived with the army not long after.

“We really hope this can become a new home,” she said. “It’s simple but that’s all we need.”

Residents say food supplies are still lacking and even as markets open, the loss of livelihoods means money is tight, especially when fixing a house has been added to the budget.

“There’s no way we’re going to sleep in our house,” said Rusman Faransi, 52, who lives with 30 other people from 11 families in five tents outside what used to be their family homes in Palu. “It has to be fixed first. We’re waiting for the government. They collected data on our homes, but we haven’t heard from them again.”

Volunteers say the traumatic experience that people have been through is likely to have a lasting effect on the lives of communities from the mountains to the cities.

“I was asking people, ‘Would you go back to your house if it was fixed?'” said Kathy Mueller, spokeswoman for the Red Cross. “And they’re saying ‘no’. They would rather live under a tarp strung between trees than go home because they’re that scared.”

Traumatised children

After the earthquake, every building left standing became a hazard to be avoided. Some businesses have not seen their employees come back for fear of another collapse.

Muhammad Rizky, 15, has been to his high school a few times over the past week, but has not been able to stay for long. Two of his classmates died when their homes collapsed on them when their village was pulled into the mud.

Children from Abdurrahman's school have lessons in a tent after the school building was destroyed in the Sulawesi disaster [Ian Morse/Al Jazeera]
Children from Abdurrahman’s school have lessons in a tent after the school building was destroyed in the Sulawesi disaster [Ian Morse/Al Jazeera]

“I played [football] with them,” he said. “My school is cracked everywhere. The principal said he was scared and has been sending students home early.”

Aduma Situmorang, senior operations officer with Indonesia’s Save the Children branch, said they have been promoting lessons on natural disaster and hygiene.

“The biggest gap right now is that access to the school is still difficult – not only to the building but to quality programming,” she said.

In Sigi district, entire villages have been destroyed, and the primary school where Abdurrahman was once the principal was completely levelled.

The city has given him a tent with space for two classrooms for the school’s 117 students.

“Our old school needed six classrooms, so even if more students came, we don’t have space,” he said. “All these kids already live in tents outside their homes. They’re still traumatised and not all come, only a few dozen.”

‘Piece of Petobo’

Some parents have forbidden their children from spending more than an hour at school, if at all.

Sasriwati lived in Petobo and ran with her family to Palu’s hills after the earthquake. She slept the first night under the stars, before building a hut out of scrap metal and wood from the ruins and debris below.

She said she does not let her daughter spend too long in school. “We’re waiting until one month after the earthquake because we’re scared.”

Muhammad Rizal standing on what used to be his home in Petobo, a month after the Sulawesi earthquake and tsunami [Ian Morse/Al Jazeera]
Muhammad Rizal standing on what used to be his home in Petobo, a month after the Sulawesi earthquake and tsunami [Ian Morse/Al Jazeera]

A Red Cross-run camp has now grown up in the field around her hut on Palu’s outskirts, and many of her neighbours are also from Petobo. Just 45 minutes from the city, there are white-and-blue tents, a wooden mosque, petrol stalls and food vendors along the road.

“This is like a new home for us,” Sasriwati said. “If you ask me, we should still call this place ‘Petobo’. But some others think it should be called ‘A Piece of Petobo.’ We left the others in the real Petobo.”

It took a few days for Rizal to find his house in the stricken village. He stuck a black flag in the ground, found a hammer, and broke through cement to find his wife’s body.

“Now, we’re using the same hammer to salvage parts to build a new house,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera