As the situation in Sulawesi grew more desperate after last Friday’s earthquake and tsunami, troops were ordered to fire on looters while shocked and traumatized children cried for their missing parents.
Many children were separated from their families, aid workers said Thursday, while much-needed supplies started to trickle in to shattered communities.
The official death toll had reached 1,424 on Thursday with more than 2,500 injured after the earthquake struck last Friday sending destructive waves barreling into Sulawesi island.
The double disaster left buildings in the seaside city of Palu in rubble and destroyed transport links. Aid had been slow to arrive and desperate people had started looting shops.
On Thursday, armed police stood guard outside petrol stations to enforce order as people formed long, winding queues. Trucks carrying supplies had reportedly been ransacked en route to Palu.
Police detained dozens of suspected looters while the military warned that soldiers would fire on anyone caught stealing.
Rescuers continued to comb through destroyed buildings, but hope is fading that anyone will be found alive under the rubble. Hundreds have been buried in mass graves as authorities race to avoid an outbreak of disease as corpses rotted in the tropical heat.
At least 600,000 children had been affected by the quake, Save the Children said, with many sleeping on the streets among the ruins. Many children were orphaned or separated from their families as buildings collapsed and people were swept away by huge waves.
Aid organizations have been working with the government to identify and reunite them with their relatives, the group said. “It’s hard to imagine a more frightening situation for a child,” said Zubedy Koteng, the group’s child protection adviser.
“Many children are in shock and traumatized, alone and afraid. Young children searching for surviving relatives will have witnessed and lived through horrific experiences which no child should ever have to see.”
At first the government refused to accept international aid, saying the military could handle things, but as the scale of the disaster became clear, President Joko Widodo agreed to allow in foreign aid groups and governments.
Twenty-nine countries have pledged aid, according to Indonesia, but the delay in inviting help and severed transport links means little foreign help has arrived.
Palu airport opened to commercial services Thursday, but only a limited number, with aid flights given priority. An Indonesian navy ship also docked in the city Thursday, carrying water, rice and food, which soldiers loaded onto trucks.
“We have to get to places where people need aid really quickly,” said first admiral Dwi Sulakson.
Desperate survivors, some in tears, tried to get on the vessel which was set to return to the city of Makassar in southern Sulawesi and scuffles broke out with soldiers.
The United Nations has pledged $15 million from its emergency response fund. The Red Cross is dispatching ships loaded with supplies including field kitchens, tents, body bags and mosquito nets.
Rescuers were focusing on half a dozen key sites around Palu, including a shopping mall and the Balaroa area where the sheer force of the quake turned the earth temporarily to mush.
At the badly damaged Mercure hotel, a team used sniffer dogs to try to detect signs of life under mounds of rubble and twisted metal. French NGO International Emergency Firefighters provided equipment to help in the hunt, including scanners and sound detectors.
“There is always hope,” said the group’s president Philippe Besson. But he added that “the building is really extremely unstable … since yesterday, there has been so much wind that the building was starting to move on its own.”
Martinus Hamaele was keeping vigil outside the shattered hotel, desperate for news of his missing daughter, Meiren. “We kept shouting ‘Meiren, Meiren, it’s me – your dad and your brother,” he said. “But there was no response, just silence.”
Authorities set a deadline of Friday to find anyone still trapped under rubble, at which point the chances of finding anyone alive will dwindle to almost zero.
Power had returned to parts of Palu, phone networks were back up and even some markets opened for business on Thursday.
With AFP and agencies.