Hungry and wet, villagers wait for help after deadly Indonesian quake

People took refuge in makeshift camps in hills around Mamuju after the quake, but now supplies are running out.

Rescuers have stepped up the search for survivors, deploying sniffer dogs to find anyone left alive in the rubble following Friday's earthquake [Daeng Mansur/AP Photo]

Medan, Indonesia – Villagers in Indonesia’s West Sulawesi are running short of food and water after taking refuge in the hills following a deadly earthquake in the early hours of Friday morning, and fears of aftershocks that could trigger tsunamis.

The 6.2-magnitude earthquake that hit the Majene and Mamuju regencies as many people slept has killed 84 people, with dozens still feared missing and more than 19,000 left homeless.

“We urgently need supplies for babies and children like milk, porridge, blankets and nappies,” Muhammad Ansar Tahir of the Ansor Youth Movement of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation, told Al Jazeera. He says his group has so far identified about 30 makeshift camps in the area.

“[On Sunday,] a pregnant mother had to give birth in a tent in one of the camps.”

Just a day before the quake, a 5.9-magnitude tremor also struck the area, damaging homes and other buildings.

Irlan Suhendra, a 23-year-old economics student, has been in a camp in the mountains on the outskirts of South Tubo Village in Mamuju since Thursday.

“We had actually gone to the camp the night before the first earthquake, but we thought it was safe to go back, so I was sleeping in my home when the second earthquake hit. I woke up and tried to open the front door but the walls were shaking too much and I couldn’t,” he told Al Jazeera.

Families took refuge on higher ground fearing a tsunami. But their tarpaulins provide limited shelter from the monsoon rains and supplies are running short with the relief effort focused on the cities [Courtesy of Irlan Suhendra]

Finally, when the trembling stopped, Suhendra was able to escape his home with his younger brothers and grandmother. “We were scared of liquefaction like in Palu,” he said.

In 2018, more than 4,300 people were killed or declared missing when a 7.5-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit Palu in Central Sulawesi, turning the ground to liquid mud that swallowed buildings.

Suhendra spent Friday night under a tarpaulin the villagers had brought from home and said that no one was able to sleep due to heavy rain and the fear of aftershocks. They have been in the camp ever since with 44 people sharing four tents. The tents are made up of a single tarpaulin strung between trees and sometimes do not reach the ground allowing rainwater and insects to get inside.

While they have sporadically returned to their homes, which are located about 300 metres (984 feet) away down a steep hill to bring food and gas bottles to the camp, their gas supply has now run out and heavy rain has made cooking or heating water difficult due to the damp conditions.

Suhendra told Al Jazeera that they have so far only received a few provisions from the regional government, such as noodles and drinking water, but are having to eat the noodles without cooking them.

Monsoon rains have battered the island of Sulawesi since Friday, hampering aid efforts and slowing down search and rescue operations. Rain is forecast to continue for the rest of the week.

Families like Suhendra’s escaped the earthquake by taking refuge in the hills while search and rescue teams are still scouring the rubble for survivors [Courtesy of Irlan Suhendra]

Ade Chandra, the deputy chief of police in Pasangkayu, North Mamuju, which is a six-hour drive from the epicentre of the earthquake, told Al Jazeera that damage in the local area has made the logistics of delivering aid difficult. “We are bringing in aid through the local port and from Palu. Unfortunately, the road from Makassar is damaged and there are constant landslides,” he said.

“Our focus now is on security in the area and transporting aid. We are focusing on supplying those in the camps with daily necessities and especially baby products like formula.”

‘Digging with our hands’

Groups of volunteers like Tahir have also stepped in to assist with the government response, and said they are focusing on two kinds of support in conjunction with the Disaster Mitigation Agency and the Indonesian Search and Rescue Agency: assisting with the evacuation and delivering supplies and donations to the camps.

“We are using heavy machinery in some cases as many of the buildings that have collapsed are several storeys high and are too heavy to lift otherwise. In other cases, we have been digging with our hands to get people out. We have found people with light injuries, heavy injuries and some who were deceased,” he said. “If we find people with light injuries, we direct them to one of the camps.”

The authorities have set up more formal camps in the city for those displaced by the earthquake [Bamu Saseno/AP Photo]

Tahir also said that they have received private donations of supplies from local businesses and individuals, and that they were working hard to identify the locations of the various camps to deliver the donations as soon as possible.

As the camps have been erected by local communities and not by the government, it is difficult to locate them all quickly and easily, he said, and volunteers must conduct ground sweeps of the local area.

Suhendra said that his family and neighbours in the camp are “traumatised and still panicked” by the events of the last few days. His village of South Tubo is home to 270 families, who have dispersed to different camps in the mountains. He added that social media hoaxes that have depicted tsunamis hitting the surrounding area have only added to their trauma.

“I haven’t returned to normal yet. I was hit by rocks when I was running to escape the earthquake and they shredded the skin on my legs and feet,” he told Al Jazeera. “I’ve just been using sticking plasters to cover the bleeding.”

Muhammad Ansar Tahir of the Ansor Youth Movement of Nahdlatul Ulama says his group has identified about 30 makeshift camps in the hills and mountains around Mamuju and says they are in urgent need of basic food supplies [Courtesy of Muhammad Ansar Tahir]

While Suhendra was speaking to Al Jazeera, a 4.2-magnitude struck 10km (6.2 miles) away from Mamuju, prompting a flurry of panic in the camp.

With his family and neighbours preparing for their fifth night in the camp, Suhendra said he had a “suggestion” for the government.

“They need to penetrate into the villages. All the aid is centralised in Mamuju City. We need rice and milk for the babies but aid is not getting to us. Our people need help.”

Source: Al Jazeera