An earthquake-affected child drinks water at a makeshift camp in Palu in Indonesia's Central Sulawesi on October 4, 2018, following the September 28 earthquake and tsunami. A total of 1,424 people have been confirmed dead and over 2,500 injured after the monster earthquake struck, sending destructive waves barrelling into Sulawesi island. / AFP PHOTO / Jewel SAMAD
Agence France-Presse

Many children have been separated from their families and are “in shock and traumatised” following Indonesia’s devastating quake-tsunami, aid workers said Thursday, as much-needed supplies trickled in to shattered communities.

A total of 1,424 people have been confirmed dead and over 2,500 injured after the monster earthquake struck Friday sending destructive waves barrelling into Sulawesi island.

The disaster reduced buildings in the seaside city of Palu to rubble but, with transport links badly affected, aid has been slow to arrive and looting has broken out.

On Thursday police armed with guns stood guard outside petrol stations to ensure order in long, winding queues. Trucks carrying supplies have reportedly been ransacked en route to Palu.

Authorities initially turned a blind eye but have now taken a tougher stance, with police rounding up dozens of suspected looters and the military warning that soldiers will fire on anyone caught stealing.

While rescuers continue to comb through destroyed buildings, hope is fading that anyone will be found alive under the rubble. Authorities say over 100 people are still unaccounted for.

Hundreds have been buried in mass graves as authorities race to avoid a disease outbreak from corpses rotting in the tropical heat.

‘Shock and traumatised’

At least 600,000 children have been affected by the quake, Save the Children said, with many sleeping on the streets among ruins.

Attention has focused on the huge number of children left orphaned, or separated from their families in the chaos as buildings collapsed across Palu and people were swept away by huge waves.

Aid organisations are urgently 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, who is in the city.

“Many children are in shock and traumatised, 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.”

The Indonesian government initially refused to accept international help, insisting its own military could handle the response, but as the scale of the disaster became clear President Joko Widodo reluctantly 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.

Trickle of aid

Palu airport — which was only accepting military flights in the early stages of the disaster — opened to commercial services Thursday but only a limited number, with aid workers given priority.

An Indonesian navy ship docked in the city Thursday carrying water, rice and food, which was loaded by soldiers onto trucks.

“We have to get to places where people need aid really quickly,” said first admiral Dwi Sulakson.

Desperate survivors, some crying, waited to get a spot on the vessel which was set to return to the city of Makassar in southern Sulawesi, and brief 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.

Targeting looters

In a country with a long-standing problem with “fake news”, authorities vowed to clamp down after false reports related to the disaster circulated online, including one saying another quake had hit Sulawesi.

Ferdinandus Setu, communications ministry spokesman, said authorities had received several reports about suspected cases and were working to “ensure that Indonesia’s internet sphere is free from hoaxes.”

Rescuers seeking survivors are 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 among those keeping vigil outside the shattered hotel, desperate for news about 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 have set a tentative deadline of Friday to find anyone still trapped under rubble, at which point the chances of finding anyone alive will dwindle to almost zero.

There have been small signs of things returning to normal. Power has returned to parts of Palu, phone networks are back up and even some markets are open for business.

Indonesia sits along the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, the world’s most tectonically active region, and its 260 million people are vulnerable to earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions.

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