Much-needed aid is trickling through to remote communities on Indonesia‘s ravaged Sulawesi Island for the first time since a massive earthquake and tsunami struck last Friday, leaving at least 1,649 dead.
When the earthquake hit a village in Sigi district, mud from 15 metres underground came to the surface and started to drag homes and people into the earth in waves of mud and rock.
Some items and bodies were found 4km from their original location.
“Rescuers here tell us they don’t even know where to start digging,” said Al Jazeera’s Jamela Alindogan, reporting from the scene. “They fear half of the population here is dead.”
Now, a pile of rock and mud is all that is left of their homes, schools and other buildings.
Aid workers have delivered food, drinking water and other essential items to the community, which is still struggling to come to terms with the scale of the disasters, but longer-term help will also be required.
“Kid’s can’t go to school. Their school collapsed because of the earthquake. Their teachers have also left and are displaced,” said Nur Aini, a local survivor.
Aid efforts are now ubiquitous across Palu, Sulawesi’s main city, but the slow pace of relief has caused anger.
Husni Husni, a spokesman for the International Federation of the Red Cross, said logistical issues have delayed the delivery of humanitarian assistance.
“The major challenge has been access to Sulawesi itself,” he told Al Jazeera. “The ships from Jakarta to Makassar (a port on Sulawesi) take three days and then from Makassar to Palu takes more than 24 hours, and that’s the major challenge right now.”
Safe drinking water is the most urgent need in Palu, according to Husni, who said relief agencies are planning long-term assistance for those affected.
“We’re always combining disaster response with long-term programmes. Recovery and long-term community-based programmes so that [communities are] resilient, so that they know how to cope with future disasters,” he said.
“Right now, we’re not only doing a short-term period of support but also we’re thinking recovery and longer-term support. We’ve launched an appeal of 22 million Swiss francs (two million dollars) to support people affected by this disaster for 20 months ahead, to support them with livelihoods, shelters and also some basic protections including safe water and bedding,” he told Al Jazeera.
From towns to mass graves
On Saturday, Indonesia’s top security minister, Wiranto, said the government is considering designating Balaroa and Petobo – two Palu neighbourhoods essentially wiped off the map – as mass graves.
Rescue efforts have halted as officials say there is little hope of finding survivors a week after the disaster struck, but searches for remains continue.
Petobo disappeared into the earth as the force of the quake liquified its soft soil. Liquefaction also struck a large section of Balaroa.
Hundreds of bodies are thought to be buried beneath the ruins of the two towns.
Wiranto said it is not safe for heavy equipment to operate there and that the government is in discussion with local and religious authorities, as well as the victims’ families, to halt search efforts and have these areas declared as mass graves.
Earlier on Saturday, officials issued fresh warnings about the possible outbreak of disease as decomposing body parts continue to be pulled from the rubble in Palu.
“Most of the bodies we have found are not intact and that poses a danger for the rescuers. We have to be very careful to avoid contamination,” Yusuf Latif, a spokesman for the country’s search and rescue effort told the AFP news agency.
“We have vaccinated our teams, but we need to be extra cautious as they are exposed to health hazards. This is also a health concern for the public. It is very hard to control the crowd … people might be exposed to danger.”
More than 70,000 people have been left homeless after the magnitude-7.5 quake struck, launching waves as high as six metres that slammed into Sulawesi at 800 km/h.