Students Return to School in Indonesia’s Quake-Stricken Sulawesi

Keisyah Aprilia
Palu, Indonesia
181008_ID_Schoo_1000.jpg A piece of wall from a school that moved from its original location because of liquefaction is pictured in the village of Balaroa in Palu, Indonesia, Oct. 8, 2018.

Education officials began the grim task of figuring out how many children would be coming back to class as students started returning to their schools on Monday, 10 days after a massive earthquake and tsunami battered Indonesia’s Sulawesi island.

Rescuers have recovered 1,948 bodies of people who were killed in the magnitude-7.4 quake and tsunami on Sept. 28, Willem Rampangilei, chairman of the National Disaster Management Agency, told reporters.

“I don’t want to be absent from classes for too long, especially because I’m in the final year,” Aisya, a student at the state-run SMAN 4 senior high school in the provincial capital Palu, told BenarNews.

She said she received a WhatsApp message asking her to come to school even though there were no classes.

“Many teachers and students were affected by the disaster. Some may have left Palu,” said Syam Zaini, the school’s principal.

As of Monday the official number of missing people stood at 835, Rampangilei said. But other officials estimated that 5,000 people were unaccounted for and may have been buried in villages where houses were swallowed by torrents of mud in a process called liquefaction, in which the temblor turned water-logged soil into quicksand.

Teachers and students asked each other whether their families were safe. Some children came without wearing their compulsory uniforms.

At one elementary school, no pupil or teacher showed up. The building near the coast was badly damaged by the tsunami and was covered in mud.

At another school in Palu, principal Kasiludin said authorities told all teachers to show up for work, beginning on Monday, to count the number of students.

“We won’t force the students to come back because many are traumatized,” he told Reuters news agency. “But we must start again soon to keep their spirits up and so they don’t fall behind.”

At least seven students and one teacher from the school died, he said.

Across the city, nine schools were destroyed, 22 teachers were killed and 14 were missing, according to the disaster agency. At the SMP Negeri 15 Palu middle school, fewer than 50 of its 697 students showed up, it said.

From neighborhoods to memorial parks

Rampangilei said the government expected to end the emergency search operation on Thursday, amid fading hopes of finding any more survivors.

“The emergency response period will end on Oct. 11 and whether this will be extended will depend on the local capability and capacity to care for the displaced and other people affected,” he said.

“We will evaluate and we’ll discuss this with the local government, because they are the ones who will decide, whether it needs to be extended,” he added.

Rampangilei said the local government should discuss the plan to end the search with community leaders.

“What should be considered is that there are many bodies buried in those locations and it’s been 14 days,” he said.

“Our main consideration is health. We should not create new health problems,” he said.

The government of Central Sulawesi province said that three areas – Balaroa, Petobo and Jono Oge – where houses were swallowed when the ground became like quicksand – would be turned into memorial parks.

“Monuments will be built in those locations and at the end of the emergency response period there will be a mass prayer gathering,” it said.

Also on Monday, rescuers called off the search at Hotel Roa-Roa, according to the news agency AFP.

The hotel emerged as an early focus of efforts to extract survivors, with seven people pulled alive from its ruins in the immediate aftermath. Rescuers said 27 bodies were recovered from the 80-room hotel, including three pulled from the debris on Sunday.

Among the confirmed dead were five paragliders who came to Palu for a competition, including an Asian Games athlete and a South Korean, the only known foreign victim in the disaster, AFP said.

Returning to work

Civil servants also began returning to work in Palu, a coastal city of about 374,000 people, and other affected areas such as Sigi and Donggala regencies.

Some residents were applying for new identification cards at the Population and Civil Registry Office in Palu.

“My wallet was gone, along with my ID card during the earthquake,” Irfan, one of the applicants, told BenarNews after having his photograph and fingerprints taken.

Arief Edie, an official at the Home Affairs Ministry, said the government would make it easy for residents affected by the disaster to obtain new ID cards, family records and death certificates.

“The government is present to provide public services,” he said, adding that people would not be charged.

At the provincial health office, civil servants have started doing administrative work.

“Most of the civil servants were badly affected, but about 40 percent of the staff have returned to work,” provincial health chief Reni Lamajino said.

“About 70 percent of community health clinics (Puskesmas) have been activated,” she said.

Meanwhile, dozens of victims have been treated at the KRI Dr Soeharso 990, an Indonesian naval hospital ship, which has docked at Palu’s Pantoloan port since last week.

The ship, which has 40 beds, has 93 medical personnel, Antara news agency reported.

The head of the provincial social affairs department, Ridwan Mumu, said the government had begun discussing the idea of turning the three villages into monuments and open green spaces.

“One thing is for sure, there have been suggestions that there should be no settlements,” he said.

Ridwan said survivors whose relatives were believed buried there should let them go. 

“This is all for public good. We should not insist on continuing the search under the current circumstances,” he said.

Aid has been pouring into the region, including from foreign countries, but it had not reached some of the more remote areas. Officials said helicopters had been running supply drops to more isolated areas outside Palu.

The search continued on Monday, with six more bodies found in Balaroa, said Iwan Setiawan Abbas, who led the search effort in the area.

“Yesterday we found 15 bodies and the previous day 28 bodies,” Abbas said, as he surveyed a tangled mess of concrete and steel bars.

Tria Dianti in Jakarta contributed to this report.


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