In Palu, Thousands Have Lost In A Moment More Than Many Of Us Will Lose In A Lifetime

The death toll stands at more than 1,400 but the distinct smell of decomposing bodies tells you this figure is only set to rise
MOHD RASFAN via Getty Images

The stench of the decomposing bodies, still trapped under rubble in the humid heat, is growing stronger by the day. The death toll now stands at more than 1,400 but the distinct smell alone tells you that this figure is only set to rise.

Families are still frantically searching for their loved ones. This afternoon I met a 60-year-old man and his elderly wife who waited for days for rescue workers to reach the area where they lived. They guided the teams to a pile of rubble where they said several of their loved ones had been buried by the debris when the earthquake and tsunami struck.

I couldn’t even bring myself to ask them who exactly they were looking for, but you could tell from their faces they had now lost all hope of finding anyone alive. The only solace they had, the old man said, was to ensure that those who died could be given decent burials in line with local and religious practices - not be thrown into mass graves that the authorities have been digging in a desperate attempt to stop diseases spreading.

Simple wooden homes never stood a chance, but whole concrete buildings - hotels, apartment blocks and shopping centres - have also completely collapsed. Destruction stretches in every direction, and I’m still struggling to comprehend how whole families, homes and communities can be wiped out in moments.

Those who have lost everything are either sleeping on the streets or in makeshift tents. Last night it started raining and we had to move them uphill so that women, children, old people, and the scarce belongings they brought with them, would not get soaking wet.

A young mother and her two-month-old baby who were sheltering there, said that their home was now nothing but ashes and dust. They only had the clothes on their backs, and didn’t have enough food or water to drink.

Islamic Relief was able to get them basic supplies but what they ultimately want is to get out and find relatives who live further inland. The evacuation process, however, has been agonisingly slow and the price of fuel has skyrocketed, leaving residents and aid agencies seriously struggling to get around. Horror stories about mud and land slides burying whole villages are only just starting to come to light and I fear we will hear many more tales like this as time goes on.

Residents and first responders have been doing whatever they can. As soon as the news broke on Friday, teams from one of our local partners PKPU Human Initiative rushed to get here from the south side of the island. They drove for almost 17 hours and slept on the streets in a desperate bid to reach those trapped under the rubble, but without heavy machinery there to clear the damage, there was only so much they could do.

For days, the Palu area on the northernmost tip of Indonesia, was all but impossible to access. The earthquake damaged the local airport and cut, warped or folded cement roads like they were putty. The mud and landslides that followed the quake and the ensuing 10ft tidal wave largely cut off whatever remained.

This left the military with little choice but to fly in what they could by helicopter, but for far too many people the aid has just been too slow to arrive.

I travelled for more than three days, by helicopter, plane, bus and car just to get to Palu and Donggala, two neighbouring cities that were home to more than 500,000 people and have been hardest hit.

I’ve barely slept and the hard work is actually only just beginning. It is going to take many more days and weeks to clear the roads and rubble and properly demolish homes that are damaged and at risk of collapse. Only then can we start to think about rebuilding.

The process will be long and costly, which is why we need all the support we can get. Islamic Relief has launched an emergency appeal and is trying to get £1million to those in need. Initially, we will help in the emergency response by providing food, water and shelter but we will also stay on the ground long after the cameras pack up and leave to ensure these communities can rebuild their homes and livelihoods. But for people like the old couple who lost more in a moment than many of us will lose in a lifetime, no amount of money will be able to repair the damage done by this cruel and heartbreaking disaster.

Nanang Dirja is Islamic Relief’s country director in Indonesia


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