THIRTY-FOUR students were found dead inside a church on the island of Sulawesi, in Indonesia — some of the more than a thousand killed by an earthquake and a tsunami last Friday.
The extent of the devastation after the natural disasters that hit Sulawesi is still being uncovered, but the death toll is expected to rise steeply, and tens of thousands have been left homeless. On Wednesday morning, 1407 people were confirmed dead, and 113 missing.
An earthquake measuring 7.5, followed by a six-metre-high tsunami, hit the island near the city of Palu at about 6 p.m. on Friday evening. Anything above the order of 7.0 magnitude is classified as a major earthquake.
Adding to the disaster on the island, the volcano of Soputan erupted on Wednesday afternoon. It is thought to have been triggered by the earthquake.
Some of the worst-affected areas of Sulawesi, such as the city of Donggala and the Balaroa neighbourhood in Palu, are yet to be reached by rescue efforts. This has led to fears that thenumber of dead will increase by hundreds, if not thousands, once communications are possible.
Indonesian rescue workers discovered the bodies of the 34 students on Tuesday. They were members of a group of 86 students who had been declared missing from a Bible camp at the Jonooge Church Training Centre, in Sigi Biromaru district, the news agency AFP reported. The other students are still missing.
A spokeswoman for the Indonesia Red Cross, Aulia Arriani, said that the hardest part for rescue workers was having to travel for more than an hour through mud to reach the victims, and then carry them back to waiting ambulances.
More than 48,000 people have been displaced by the disaster. It comes only months after an earthquake on another Indonesian island, Lombok, left more than 300 people dead (News, 10 August).
Food and water shortages are causing further problems on the island: parts of Sulawesi are without drinking water or food supplies. The United Nations’ humanitarian agency, UNOCHA, said on Monday that 191,000 people were in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.
Donggala’s head of administration, Kasman Lassa, told The Guardian: “Everyone is hungry, and they want to eat after several days of not eating. We have anticipated it by providing food, rice, but it was not enough. There are many people here. So, on this issue, we cannot pressure them to hold much longer.”
The Archbishop of South-East Asia and Bishop of West Malaysia, the Most Revd Ng Moon Hing, urged Christians to pray for Sulawesi, as did the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Revd Dr Olav Fykse Tveit.
Archbishop Moon said: “One of the churches of GAI [Gereja Anglikan Indonesia, the Anglican Church of Indonesia] is in the disaster area, but no one is allowed in. The military has taken over due to looting and chaos.”
The Dean of the GAI, the Very Revd Dr Timothy Chong, told the Anglican Communion News Service that his churches were “ready to take a lead in relief work once everything in Palu has been stabilised”.
He went on: “The response to this tragic event was unlike Aceh and Lombok, as the people still respected law and order. Here, in Central Sulawesi, law and order have failed, and the military has to maintain the security of the province.
“Without the chaos, aid would have been able to be dispatched faster, and stability in the region could have been accelerated, but now, with the lawlessness, their sufferings are prolonged.”
The General Secretary of the Christian Conference of Asia, Dr Mathews George Chunakara, said on Monday: “As we learn the extent of this disaster, our thoughts and prayers are with the people and communities in the Central Sulawesi region, especially the families of those dead or still missing.
“We pray to the all-merciful Lord for the quick recovery of the wounded; for bestowing spiritual accompaniment and aid for all those who have lost their livelihood and shelter. We pray for the strengthening of those who are involved in the rescue operations.”
Oxfam estimates that as many as 1.5 million people could be affected by the tsunami and earthquake.
Oxfam’s humanitarian manager in Indonesia, Ancilla Bere, said on Sunday: “It is likely that thousands of people across a large area will need urgent help after this powerful earthquake and tsunami.”
Christian Aid’s head of humanitarian programmes for Asia and the Middle East, Madara Hettiarachchi, said on Monday: “Right now, many survivors are being forced to sleep in the open, in fear of further aftershocks. Many communities are cut off from the outside world, with power supplies and telecommunications down. Food and water supplies will be running low. Medical services are under severe strain.”
Tearfund is supporting 40 churches on Sulawesi to provide temporary shelters and emergency kitchens for survivors.
The Vice General Secretary of the National Communion of Churches in Indonesia, the Revd Krise Gosal, said: “Churches in Indonesia are uniting with one heart to express their solidarity with the people in Palu, Donggala, and Sigi. Neighbouring churches further south have collected contributions from their interfaith communities, such as water, dry foods, rice, clothes, baby supplies.
“But it is still very hard to get past landslides and damaged roads with supplies and the loss of lives is devastating.”
World Vision emergency response teams have arrived in Palu to help rescue efforts. A spokesperson, Radika Pinto, said: “Thousands of homes, schools, hospitals, and hotels have been destroyed. Most people are building makeshift shelters in the hills away from the water because they are terrified of another tsunami.”
The charity’s experts have predicted that it will take two years for Sulawesi to recover, and at least £6 million worth of aid.
Medair has sent its emergency response team to the island. The director of Medair UK, Neil Casey, said: “Their initial task is to make a rapid assessment of needs, but, given the extent of devastation being reported, we expect to mount a full-scale emergency response providing sanitation, shelter, and food needs.
“It is a race against the clock. Many people are left displaced, and the risk of disease outbreaks is looming. Food, water, shelter, health care, and cash assistance are urgently needed.
“We are facing severe access constraints but we are doing everything in our power to reach the worst hit, most remote communities on the island with urgent assistance.”
A 14-day state of emergency has been declared.
On Sunday, Pope Francis said that he prayed for the people of Sulawesi: “I pray for the deceased, which are unfortunately numerous; for the wounded; and for those who have lost their homes and employment. May the Lord console them and sustain the efforts of those who are taking part in the relief efforts.”