At Sulawesi quake’s epicentre, survivors struggle to survive with limited aid
Small children scream with excitement as they run down the dirt track, their little arms flying in the air.
Above them, a rescue helicopter is flying towards their village of Lende Tovea in Donggala, Central Sulawesi. It belongs to the Natural Disaster Management Agency (BNPB).
More help at last, they seem to think.
But as their squinting eyes follow the chopper across the sky, they are hit by the terrible realisation that their wait for food, milk and other relief supplies will drag on. Nothing was dropped from the aircraft. It just passed them by.
It has been nearly two weeks since a devastating 7.5-magnitude earthquake destroyed their homes, killing their friends and family. Still some 2,000 residents of Lende Tovea – one of the few villages at the quake’s epicentre – have received limited help from the Indonesian government.
"Each family has received two eggs, a litre of rice and four to five packs of instant noodles. It’s not enough," said Erwin Tajudin, a resident of Lende Tovea’s Sub-community 1.
Most aid, he added, came from university students and rescue workers who made it to his village via damaged roads and landslides. Pointing at a collapsed mosque, the 54-year-old said almost every building in his community was destroyed, including his home.
"There is nothing left – all gone. So I hope our government will help us."
On Sep 28, the earthquake shook Sulawesi and triggered a calamitous tsunami. Donggala and neighbouring Palu were hardest hit. The latter saw thousands of homes, shops and hotels either flattened by the tidal waves or swallowed by mud from soil liquefaction.
The destruction was massive. More than 2,000 people were killed, 82,775 displaced and 671 missing, according to the National Disaster Management Agency.
"Holding our son, my wife and I rushed out of our house just seconds before it collapsed," said Erwin. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)
Relief supplies from various countries have poured into affected areas, but residents trapped in remote neighbourhoods have said not much has come their way.
BNPB official Budhi Erwanto told Channel NewsAsia the disaster management agency has been distributing aid supplies since Sep 29, but he admitted many areas are yet to be reached by rescue officials.
“Aid distribution was sporadic at first because we didn’t have enough manpower at local levels but it’s starting to become manageable now," he said.
"Relief supplies were piling up inside local warehouses initially. So right now, we need to empty them fast as plenty more is arriving."
In Donggala, two districts are badly hit by the disaster. One of them is Sirenja, where Tajudin lives with his wife and a 16-month-old son. Landslides near the epicentre have also blocked roads in Donggala, making overland aid distribution impossible in certain areas, including parts of Lende Tovea.
Its coastal community has been cut off by road since the earthquake rocked Sulawesi. Home to the white, sandy beach of Labuana, the area was once full of campers every weekend. Today, its 85 families almost have nothing but rubble to shield them from the sun.
Piles of collapsed homes stretch along dry dirt tracks, where more than 300 residents struggle to survive on rice and instant noodles. Fish – their main source of protein – is not an option as most fishing equipment was destroyed during the earthquake.
A school in Lende Tovea remains closed after the disaster destroyed its classrooms. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)
“Hardly any help has reached us and we need rice badly,” said Rusmin Kana, head of Lende Tovea’s Sub-community 3.
Due to roadblocks, relief supplies were dropped far away from his community. Villagers had to collect them by boat. They included sacks of rice, instant noodles and some fuel.
“It’s not enough and we need more help from the government,” Kana said. “I see helicopters fly past my village every single day but none of them has landed.”
According to BNPB official Erwanto, Labuana Beach is not a suitable landing spot for helicopters. Therefore, aid supplies were instead delivered to a nearby village where local officers further transported them by land.
“Air delivery is for an emergency where road access is impossible. Each sortie contains 200kg to 300kg of relief supplies,” Erwanto said, adding more help is needed from aid volunteers in locating affected areas that are difficult to access.
For smoother operations, the Indonesian government has issued a policy on foreign assistance, aid workers and volunteers in quake-hit Sulawesi. Regulations were introduced by the National Disaster Management Agency on Tuesday for international aid groups.
“Foreign NGOs are not allowed to go directly to the field. All activities must be conducted in partnership with local partners,” the announcement said.
“Foreign citizens who are working with foreign NGOs are not allowed to conduct any activity on the sites affected by disasters.”
A mosque in Lende Tovea crumbled after a 7.5-magnitude quake hit Central Sulawesi on Sep 28, 2018. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)
On Wednesday, the foreign ministry clarified the policy is “not intended” to prevent them from entering quake-hit areas but “to ensure they first coordinate with the national team or agencies in Indonesia leading the rescue and recovery effort”.
Currently, foreign governments wishing to offer assistance are required to coordinate with the National Disaster Management Agency. NGOs, on the other hand, have been instructed to liaise with the Indonesian Red Cross Society or international organisations with affiliates in Indonesia.
"It is important that recovery efforts are well coordinated," said foreign ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir.
As the government tries to improve the coordination, the wait for help drags on in Lende Tovea. With their mosque destroyed, villagers gather under a mango tree for the evening prayer. Everybody appears in high spirits.
"We have to remain positive," Tajundi said.
"If we keep thinking about the earthquake, we’ll be stressed because we’ve lost everything."