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Thursday 21 November 2019

Indonesia considers turning quake-hit areas into mass graves

The disaster agency said the death toll from a powerful earthquake and tsunami has climbed to 1,649.

Toppled homes in Palu (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)
Toppled homes in Palu (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

By Stephen Wright and Tassanee Vejpongsa, Associated Press

The Indonesian government is considering making earthquake and tsunami-devastated areas into mass graves as the death toll from last week’s disaster continues to climb.

As search teams pulled more bodies from obliterated neighbourhoods in the city of Palu, the disaster agency said the toll had reached 1,649, with at least 265 people still missing.

More nations sent aid and humanitarian workers fanned out in the countryside, while more black body bags were arranged in a row in the crumpled neighbourhood of Balaroa, destined for a mass grave.

Rescue workers carry a body to be buried at a mass grave (Dita Alangkara/AP)

Relatives cried as mourners placed long pieces of white cloth, to represent a Muslim burial rite, inside the bags.

Among them was 39-year-old Rudy Rahman, who said the bodies of his 18 and 16-year-old sons had been found. His youngest son remains missing.

“They were found in front of my brother’s house opposite the mosque,” Mr Rahman said. “They found them holding each other. These two brothers were hugging each other.”

Balaroa was one of the areas hardest hit on September 28 by the magnitude 7.5 quake, which threw homes in the neighbourhood tens of metres and left cars upright or perched on eruptions of concrete and asphalt.

A devastated mosque in Palu (Aaron Favila/AP)

Many children were in the mosque at the time of the quake for Koran recitation. An assistant to the imam had said none survived.

Indonesia’s leading security minister, Wiranto, said the government is mulling the possibility of turning Balaroa and Petobo, another neighbourhood in Palu, into mass graves.

Petobo disappeared into the earth as the force of the quake liquefied its soft soil. Liquefaction also struck a large section of Balaroa.

Wiranto said efforts to retrieve bodies are problematic in those neighbourhoods, where homes were sucked into the earth, burying possibly hundreds of victims.

He said it is not safe for heavy equipment to operate there.

Wiranto also said the government is discussing with local and religious authorities and victims’ families the possibility of halting the search and turning the areas into mass graves.

The victims can be considered “martyrs”, he said.

A Japanese military plane landed at Palu’s airport on Saturday morning, and soldiers unloaded tons of supplies, including medicine and small portable generators, in boxes emblazoned with the Japanese flag and the words “From the People of Japan”.

Japanese military personnel unload aid (Tatan Syuflana/AP)

Several other nations have also sent planeloads of aid. Video showed the military dropping supplies from helicopters in places and a large Red Cross ship docked at a port in the region.

In the dusty one-road village of Pewunu, excited children shouted “Red Cross! Red Cross!” as one of the aid group’s medical teams arrived and set up a makeshift clinic in a field where evacuees were sleeping under tarpaulins. One villager said they survived by ransacking shops.

Volunteers laid out a big white tarpaulin on a stage in front of the village office, set a green desk on it and interviewed people about their needs as dozens milled around.

Doctors performed medical checks on elderly residents who emerged from tents and climbed the stage’s stairs with canes or others supporting them.

People living in the camp said two residents died in collapsing houses in the village. They said they had clean water and noodles but not much else.

“There were supplies, but these were looted. All along the roads toward here, they were looted by outsiders,” said Bahamid Fawzi.

“All this while in this crisis, we don’t have water, we don’t have food,” he said. “After that, we started ransacking the stores and the shops. Not because we’re thieves, but because we really needed it. There’s no water, no food — like it or not, we had to do it.”

The earthquake and tsunami swept away buildings along miles of coastline and knocked out power and communications for days.

In a rare move, Indonesia’s government appealed for international help to cope with the tragedy on Sulawesi island.

The United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs said more than £38 million is required to deliver “immediate, life-saving” aid.

PA Media

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