Quake toll soars as new panic causes flight

The death toll on earthquake-hit islands in north-west Indonesia soared to an estimated 1 300 on Friday as panic that another disaster was imminent sent thousands of people fleeing for hills.

Foreign rescue teams continued hunting for people still alive beneath the debris although hopes were ebbing away five days after the magnitude-8,7 quake struck, while many survivors complained of hunger even as a major relief effort kicked into gear.

Rumours of an imminent new earthquake, or a repeat of the December 26 tsunami that killed 270 000 people around the Indian Ocean, sparked hysteria on the stricken island of Simeulue, sending thousands running for the hills.

Simuelue district chief Darmili said the majority of the 78 000 islanders have left their homes and are unlikely to return while the trauma of the earlier quake is still on their minds.

“What is certain is that now a majority of the population of Simeulue are now refugees,” Darmili said.

Although only 17 people are reported as killed on Simeulue, aid officials said entire villages were destroyed and the situation is far worse than originally thought.

“In some areas, we have 70% to 80% structural damage and in some villages, up to 100%,” said Michele Lipner of the United Nations’s aid coordination office.

The damage is far greater on neighbouring Nias, a popular surfing destination off the south-west coast of Sumatra, where the UN says more than 1 000 people are estimated to have died.

With full contact yet to be established to many areas, the true extent of the damage is not yet known, said Francois Desruisseaux, the UN aid coordinator on Nias.

“As of yesterday, we estimate that a total of 1 300 people, most of them in Gunung Sitoli, are dead. But this is a rough estimate,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Singapore Civil Defence Force, which has been combing rubble for survivors alongside French, Norwegian, Australian and Indonesian rescue teams, said the search will go on in Nias’s capital, Gunung Sitoli.

“Our team is still there and there’s been no instruction for them to leave. We’re still at work there,” he said.

Meanwhile, after overcoming logistical bottlenecks caused by a damaged airport and stormy seas, equipment, food and medical supplies began pouring into Gunung Sitoli, which has become a teeming hub for aid distribution.

A ship carrying 350 tonnes of food, including, rice, cooking oil and fish, was unloaded late Thursday.
French Red Cross teams arrived with water-purification kits, bottled water and generators, the UN’s Desruisseaux said.

But despite clearing work by army engineers, blocked roads to smaller towns across the rugged tropical island means many are still without food and medical assistance even a short distance outside the main city.

There is an “enormous number of wounded” on Nias, especially in the south of the island, the head of a French Red Cross delegation, Nicolas Pazery, said. “There is a lot of urgent work, especially open fractures. There are also burns because there have been fires.”

Yuni Elias Waruwu (38), who was sheltering in the village of Lasara just beyond Gunung Sitoli’s city limits, complained that his family, including his eight-months-pregnant wife, are without adequate nourishment.

“My friends are now in the fields looking for food because we have not been eating properly and I have to feed my wife because she is very late in her pregnancy,” he said.

Waruwu said among 17 people—all camping outside because, like many others, they are too afraid of another disaster to return to their homes—one packet of dried noodles is shared between four.

The former journalist, whose leg was injured in the disaster, complained about the lack of help.

“We can never rely on government aid because they are just too busy with themselves,” he said.

Marian Amri, a 26-year-old mother of three who was among 200 people trying to leave the Nias port of Gunung Sitoli by boat with her family, also said there are food shortages.

“It’s difficult to find water, difficult to eat,” she said.

For Muslims on mostly Protestant Nias, spiritual sustenance was on hand as mosques held the first Friday prayers since the quake, which many saw as a divine warning.

“This is not God’s anger, we must unite our vision as Muslims that God would never unleash his anger on us because he is almighty and all-loving,” preacher Ali Rajab told worshippers at the Jami Hilir mosque in Gunung Sitoli.

“This is a warning, a test to see if we can persevere in the face of such trials,” he said.—Sapa-AFP

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