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Some Palu quake victims still looking for a place they can call home

Almost a year after a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Palu in Indonesia, some people are still living in temporary accommodation.

Some Palu quake victims still looking for a place they can call home

Local children playing at the Balaroa shelter. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

PALU, Sulawesi: Mr Sauddin Lapojo could not remember the last time aid workers came to the victims' shelter at Petobo on the outskirts of Palu, which was struck by a devastating earthquake and tsunami on Sep 28 last year.

It has been months, he said, since the last food supply was delivered, much to the disappointment of the 1,630 families living at the massive shelter.

“I lost everything I owned that day. My house, my livestock, my farms, my motorcycles,” he told CNA, recounting the fateful day.

READ: One year on, businesses in quake-hit Palu still reeling from economic slowdown

Local residents watching videos on their smartphones at a tent in Balaroa shelter. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

During the earthquake, Petobo experienced a rare phenomenon called liquefaction.

The 7.4-magnitude quake made the soil lose its solidity and temporarily behaved like liquid, causing houses to be swallowed in thick layers of mud or topple on top of each other. Officials said more than 2,000 houses were buried in Petobo.

The 180ha liquefaction site now resembles a flat hill, having risen ten metres above the original landscape and burying entire communities. 

It is dotted with half buried houses jutting out of the surface, a peculiar sight reminiscent of the disaster that claimed the lives of more than 3,000 people. 

A cow grazing on Petobo's liquefaction site in Palu, Indonesia's Central Sulawesi. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

When CNA visited in late August, there was an eerie quietness in the area, broken by the haunting sound of bells hanging on cows grazing on the grass and shrubs which had flourished amid the destruction.

The government had recently bulldozed the wreckage and covered the liquefaction site with soil because nearby residents had complained about the foul stench of decomposing bodies. There could still be hundreds buried underneath the layers of debris and mud. 

One year on, the survivors have yet to come to terms with their loss, as they grapple with uncertainty about their future.  

A government official told CNA that permanent housing for all quake victims is in the pipeline, along with financial aid and stimulus programmes, but the victims said they were not getting their hopes up.  

READ: At Sulawesi quake’s epicentre, survivors struggle to survive with limited aid


The living conditions at the Petobo shelter are very basic, with barrack-like wood structures with tin roofs. Painted uniformly in white, each building is divided into nine rooms, and each room is fitted with a door and a tiny window for ventilation.

To make life more bearable, many families at the shelter have built additional structures, from porches where they lounge on a hot searing day to small shops.

Mr Basmin Ntosa said the government only allocated one room for every family at the temporary housing facility, regardless of how many people in that family.

He said the 12 sq m room is too small for his family of 10. Some elders, meanwhile, live alone with no one caring for them.

Liquefaction survivor Mr Basmin Ntosa in the room he shares with nine family members at a temporary housing facility in Palu, Indonesia. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

“During the day, it feels like an oven,” said the 59-year-old. Nearby, his wife cleaned and chopped vegetables on their front porch, which he built from wood he salvaged from his devastated home and a sheet of tarpaulin from the makeshift tent he used to occupy.

The victims rely on a tank truck to deliver clean drinking water to them twice a week. They had tried to dig wells but found the water quality only suitable for bathing and washing clothes.   

Mr Lapojo, a stubby 49-year-old sporting a red baseball cap, said he has been doing low-paid manual labour jobs following the disaster. He does construction work, tends to other people's farms and occasionally works as a porter at a local market. 

The money he makes is barely enough to feed his family of five, he said.

While food aid has not been forthcoming, local government officials have showed up occasionally to collect people's details.

Locals gathering to play a game of dominoes outside a shop in Palu. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

Mr Lapojo said they would ask questions and jot down notes, and they are then required to fill out forms and show their identity cards. 

The civil servants gave different reasons each time they visited, he said.

“This is part of the requirements for your permanent settlement. We need this data so we can disburse allowances. Next time it would be cash aids. Next time it would be cash stimulus so we can start our own businesses and get back on our feet,” he recounted.

But he was not convinced. “They are nothing but empty promises. No one knows when or if we would ever receive the aid,” he said. 


The earthquake also turned nearby Balaroa - once a congested neighbourhood of 1,045 houses - into hills of mud, rubble and debris. 

Between the ruins stood the cracked houses, either submerged in water and mud, lopsided or on the verge of collapsing completely.

There were flags dotting the landscape, each planted on locations where locals suspect there could still be bodies buried underneath.  

However, it is hard to know for sure.  

The liquefaction had shifted houses from their original positions, some sliding 100 metres away and some travelled nearly a kilometre before piling on top of each other.

Mr Aco Degepale, a drink stall owner, recalling the earthquake that happened on Sep 28, 2018. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

One survivor, Mr Aco Degepale, said this made it hard for people to locate their houses and where their missing loved ones could be.    

The National Disaster Mitigation Agency said a total of 3,701 people in Palu and its surrounding areas lost their lives in the disaster while 701 more are listed as missing. Mr Degepale believed there could be many times more.

READ: Despair fills Indonesia's buried village of Petobo as search for bodies draws to an end

“About 4,000 people used to reside in Balaroa. Some 2,000 of those survived and were accounted for but only 800 bodies were recovered,” the 74-year-old said.

“The problem is, the number of missing people is based on reports from surviving members of the family. But what happens if an entire family is missing? Who would report them as missing?”

Another survivor, Mr Laha Mase, said bodies were still being discovered in Balaroa as recently as July.

“They found two bodies right there. A mother and her son,” he told CNA.

A man looking through a photo album found amid the debris at Balaroa's liquefaction site in Palu. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

Mr Mase was referring to the dozens of scavengers roaming Balaroa in search of metal roofs, beams, girders and reinforcement bars which they sell to scrap dealers for 2,000 to 3,000 rupiah (US$0.14 to US$0.21) per kg depending on their quality. 

Sometimes they find items of higher value such as jewellery, cash, toys, dresses and clothes, but there were also days when they stumbled upon human remains.


People had differing views about what should happen to Balaroa.

Some were against the idea of it being bulldozed and flattened like Petobo, preferring to keep the area the way it is to serve as a reminder of the tragedy. 

There are also those who would rather see the area cleared and buried along with the traumatising memories of losing loved ones and everything they had.  

“I lost my eight year-old daughter that day,” said 49-year-old Mr Jafar Basri. “She was at the mosque that evening. Had she been home she would have probably survived.”

Mr Basri said after six days of searching, rescuers finally discovered his daughter’s body pinned underneath rubble and debris.

“I would rather see the rubble cleared and converted into a memorial park. I think that is the best way to honour the dead, instead of leaving it like it is which only attracts scavengers and looters who have no respect for those killed,” he told CNA.

Scavengers digging the ground at Balaroa in search of valuables. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

Mr Basri said the rest of his family survived because they got out of their house as soon as the strong quake began jolting the city.

The ground beneath them wobbled, a sign of the liquefaction phenomenon, as the crumbling houses surrounding them began to rise, sink, spin and shift in all sorts of directions.

“It was like being in a blender,” Mr Basri described the experience, adding that his family members all suffered cuts and bruises from falling debris. 

The 49-year-old man, his wife and his other surviving daughter now occupy a tent at a shelter perched on the slope of a hill less than a kilometre away from the liquefaction site.   

His mother Mdm Jamaliah lives alone next door. 

There are as many as 300 families living in tents here, sleeping on donated mattresses and carpets.

Mdm Jamaliah Basri reciting her evening prayers in her tent at Balaroa shelter in Palu. (Photo: Jeremy Long)


The provincial government said it is sorting out permanent housing for the quake victims. 

Central Sulawesi provincial secretary Mohamad Hidayat Lamakarate told CNA that the victims would be offered permanent dwellings made out of bricks and mortar.

“We have found suitable locations for the permanent houses. We are now checking out the status of the lands to make sure there are no overlapping claims to the properties. 

"That is the only thing stopping victims from getting permanent houses. Once everything is ready, we will start building them,” he said.

Mr Lamakarate said of the 10,000 houses needed, some 3,500 have been built by humanitarian groups in quake hit areas in Donggala and Sigi Biromaru regencies just outside of Palu.

“We are also preparing cash handouts and incentives for the victims so they can get back on their feet,” he said. 

For the time being, the quake survivors in Balaroa also have the option of moving into the temporary housing facilities built by the government, he added.  

However, Mr Basri said many victims in Balaroa felt that conditions in the temporary housing facilities are no better than the tents they are occupying.

Balaroa quake victims' shelter at dusk. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

“We were told that we would have to pay for our own electricity bills if we moved to the temporary houses. If we stay here, we can get electricity for free,” he said at the makeshift coffee shop in front of his tent, which overlooks the city and the surrounding hills.

“And check out the view. If I had the money, I would buy this place.”

Source: CNA/ni


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