Indonesian quake survivors hang on for help

Thousands of desperate Indonesian quake survivors were still waiting for aid on Tuesday as they prepared for a fourth night under makeshift tents, despite pledges that help would come quickly.

The death toll from Saturday’s powerful earthquake rose to nearly 5 700, but the most urgent task was to get help to the remainder of the 200 000 displaced persons who had yet to receive medical aid or food.

As the world rallied by providing aid, emergency teams and cash pledges, the United Nations said the relief effort on Indonesia’s main island of Java was largely under control—but cautioned that problems remained.

Despite the ramped-up aid effort involving troops, volunteers and overseas medics, pockets of victims in the worst-hit areas south and east of the ancient city of Yogyakarta said they had not yet received badly needed supplies.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited survivors camping out near the damaged Prambanan Hindu temple complex and pledged that food and medical aid would reach them soon, with about 2 000 Indonesian troops deployed to help out.

“We are giving priority to the victims—those who are injured, the sick, those who need surgery and also refugees who lost their homes and other belongings,” he told reporters at the compound, a Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) heritage site.

“We are prioritising the medical treatments to save as many lives as possible,” the president said later as he toured a makeshift camp in hard-hit Klaten district east of Yogyakarta.

Doctors at a Singapore army field hospital, set up in a devastated rural area of Bantul, the district south of Yogyakarta, began receiving patients as medical-relief efforts intensified.

“We have seen about 50 patients so far,” said Major Adrian Tan.

“We’re talking about fractures and soft-tissue injuries after the rubble has fallen,” he added.

China, Qatar and the United States have also rushed field hospitals to the zone after an urgent UN appeal, with dozens of US military doctors deployed on Tuesday.

“We have got four field hospitals, and all others are requested to stand down now—it’s enough,” said Elizabeth Byrs, a spokesperson for the UN’s humanitarian coordination office in Geneva.

Area hospitals anxiously awaited the arrival of additional medical staff and supplies to treat the injured.

World Health Organisation spokesperson Fadela Chaib warned the facilities were still “overflowing” with patients, raising fears of the spread of disease in the poor sanitary conditions.

The UN issued a relatively upbeat assessment of the relief situation.

“The response was efficient and rapid because all actors were already on the ground for other operations,” Byrs said.

“I think the situation is under control,” she added. “So now the problem is logistics, rain, storage, and congestion of airports—all the usual problems we meet when there is a disaster of this size.”

The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) said about 140 tonnes of food had been delivered to the area. Other aid agencies ferried in tents, blankets, mobile warehouses, portable water treatment units and generators.

About 15 000 litres of drinking water were being tanked in every day to Bantul, where the water system was largely destroyed, said the UN, which set up a coordination centre at Yogyakarta airport to organise the flow of help.

But some victims grumbled that relief was too slow and too meagre.

In Klaten and Bantul districts, beggars held cardboard boxes daubed with the words “Asking for aid”.

“If we don’t, how do we get money?” asked Budi (18), whose box was empty as he waited for donations with a handful of other young men.

“Yesterday [Monday] we got 40 000 rupiah ($4,35)”, which villagers spent on cooking oil and food, said Wawan (28), adding that government aid of three packets of instant noodles per family was far from sufficient.

But the beggars slowed relief efforts as they put chairs, oil drums and stones in the road to slow drivers and ask for money.

The Indonesian social affairs ministry said 5 698 were confirmed to have died in the quake, with more than 10 000 others injured.
The Red Cross said 200 000 were homeless.

Indonesian authorities buried 14 unidentified victims in a mass grave in Bantul district after they were left unclaimed at the morgue of Yogyakarta’s Sardjito hospital, the state Antara news agency said.

Hopes appeared all but lost of finding any more survivors in the ruins after Saturday’s 6,3-magnitude quake.

Adding to concerns was increased volcanic activity at Mount Merapi, to the north of Yogyakarta, which belched heat clouds and sent trails of lava running down its slopes, heightening fears of an eruption.

Plumes of smoke rose about 900m into the air—nearly double the height of the previous day—and the area remained on high alert.

Scientists have warned that although the magma flow, which forms a dome at the peak, appeared to be weakening, the structure may collapse and spew out millions of cubic metres of rock and lava.

The quake was Indonesia’s third major disaster in 18 months, following the tsunami that killed 168 000 in Sumatra and another quake that killed more than 600 people in Nias last year.—AFP

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