Days after quake, desperate Indonesians plead for help

Posted in Asia | 31-May-06 | Author: Peter Gelling| Source: International Herald Tribune

Indonesian quake survivors queue for food in the Klaten district of central Java May 30, 2006.
BANTUL, Indonesia Three days after a magnitude 6.3 earthquake rocked central Java, many devastated villages had yet to receive aid, residents said Tuesday.

Yogyakarta's airport reopened Monday, and land traffic was rerouted Tuesday to ease congestion caused by the large numbers of aid workers arriving in Bantul and Klaten districts, the two most severely devastated areas south of Yogyakarta.

But villagers digging through rubble in the blazing sun Tuesday afternoon said no relief agencies had made contact with them and pleaded desperately for help from the international community.

"We have barely enough food and supplies to survive," said Iwan, 37, whose village in Bantul had been leveled by the quake. "I don't know how to live anymore."

Amfani, 40, who pulled his wife out of his wrecked home Saturday morning only to watch her die by the side of the road, said he was now worried about his two young sons.

"Please send money, send food," he said, adjusting his footing as an aftershock rumbled beneath him. "My family is desperate. Our market, our only source of income, was destroyed."

A steady flow of aid did arrive Tuesday, as relief agencies and other groups surveyed the area and started distributing supplies. Helicopters buzzed above ruined towns for the first time since the quake. Ambulances raced between villages and overcrowded hospitals.

Badly affected communities are scattered over a large area, making it difficult for relief groups to reach all of them quickly.

The Indonesian Finance Ministry told United Nations officials Monday night that it would provide subsistence grants to survivors. The ministry also said it would provide grants to families, administered by local government, to help rebuild houses. It intends to complete a full action plan for rehabilitation in two weeks.

Activity in Yogyakarta, despite serious structural damage to some larger buildings like malls and universities, returned to normal as stores reopened and residents returned to their jobs. Electricity across the city had been fully restored.

The official death toll rose to nearly 5,700, with 15,000 injured and more than 100,000 left homeless. Some think those numbers will rise, however, because more wrecked villages have been discovered by the military and aid agencies southeast of Bantul.

"People are just starting to realize that there is more destruction outside of Bantul and Klaten," said Paul Armour, country manager for Catholic Relief Services, who has been in Yogyakarta since May 15. His team had come to coordinate relief for a possible eruption of Mount Merapi, north of the city.

Bodies were still being pulled out of collapsed houses in the Gunung Kibul district Tuesday, he said.

Volcanic activity at Mount Merapi remained high Tuesday. Lava bubbled out of its crater and streamed down its slopes, merging with rivers below.

Dangerous gaseous clouds were vented throughout the day.

Scientists fear the collapse of the mountain's lava dome, which they said would trigger a large eruption. The dome was weakened after the quake Saturday.

Fears of disease began surfacing Tuesday as displaced residents packed into makeshift refugee tents set up by local communities.

Anticipating the spread of disease, the World Health Organization sent a surveillance team to Yogyakarta to monitor possible epidemics of measles, diarrhea and other sicknesses easily spread in unsanitary conditions.

"These epidemics happen when displaced persons are tightly packed together and often lacking basic infrastructure, such as clean water and safe sewage disposal," said a World Health Organization spokesman, Dick Thompson.

Although the stench of decomposing bodies was evident in some areas, they were not an immediate health threat, according to aid agencies.

Most families buried relatives in community graveyards immediately upon discovering their bodies. Only one mass grave has been dug in Bantul district, where the majority of the deaths occurred, and it was being used only for unidentified people, said Sudibyo, a forensic doctor from Yogyakarta.

A number of those bodies, which were being housed at hospitals, were driven in ambulances to the mass grave in Dukuh Kurahahan village Tuesday afternoon.

The village leader, Sudiyanto, recruited help in his community to dig the large hole.

As the ambulances arrived, the group of about 20 men, buckets in hand, bailed out rainwater that had accumulated in the grave site the night before. The villagers quickly tossed the bodies into the grave. Standing barefoot in the mud, one villager said a short prayer before the group started filling in the grave, using crude shovels, sticks and their hands.

Earthquake panic in Papua

A magnitude 5.6 earthquake rocked Indonesia's easternmost province, Papua, on Tuesday, sending panicked residents into the streets, but officials said there were no reports of damage or injuries, The Associated Press reported from Jakarta.