The body of a disaster victim is removed for burial in a mass grave after it was laid outside a hospital on Oct. 3, 2018, in the city of Palu on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, which was struck by an earthquake and tsunami on Sept. 28. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

Ten-year-old Mohammad Zaki was climbing on a beachfront playground at dusk on Friday when the ground beneath him seemed to disappear. 

Badly injured and disoriented, Zaki was then hit by a rush of ocean water, as hulking waves crashed down on this coastal city. He scrambled across the debris and, when the chaos passed, realized that he was bleeding heavily, his clothes ripped from his body. He staggered toward the city and was found by a police officer. 

“He had to climb on top of a car from a hole in the ground,” said his aunt Rosmawati, 33, who sat next to his hospital bed, fanning his wounds in the crushing humidity with a piece of a cardboard box. “He was brave.” 

Zaki has been waiting five days for an operation to repair a severe laceration on his abdomen, one of dozens of patients waiting for additional treatment at the state-run Undata hospital — which is still without fuel to run its generators and so without full electricity. 

“I’m still in pain,” he said from his bed in a hospital hallway.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited this battered city Wednesday for the second time, and the neighboring region of Donggala for the first, where twin disasters — a 7.5-magnitude earthquake and a tsunami that followed — have taken at least 1,407 lives.

“The most important thing in a post-disaster situation is fast handling!” Widodo, better known as Jokowi, said in a tweet. He has appointed his vice president to lead recovery efforts, and the government’s disaster management agency has deployed more than 6,000 people to the area, ushering in convoy after convoy of fuel, planes filled with clean water, instant noodles and basic medicine.

The relief workers have begun to coordinate the arrival of foreign C-130 transport planes, and police and army officers now line the streets to quell the looting and disorder that were rampant in the aftermath of the twin disasters. 

Still, residents say these efforts pale in comparison to the mammoth task ahead of this community, and they can’t shake the feeling of forlorn abandonment, after no help came for nearly six days.

Across this region on Wednesday, sign after sign, some hung on fences and some held up by weary survivors, continue to beg for help: “We’re hungry,” “Don’t forget us,” “We are victims too.” Of those who have been officially confirmed dead, only about a third have received any kind of burial, some in mass graves high in the hills surrounding the city and a lucky few by family members who found them. Thousands more may be dead, buried in mud. 

“We expect this data to continue to change,” Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for Indonesia’s disaster agency, said of the death toll. About 70,000 people were rendered homeless and are camping in makeshift shelters fashioned from tarps and bamboo poles. 


An earthquake survivor searches for salvageable items in the debris of a factory complex in Palu. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

Also Wednesday, a volcano erupted on Sulawesi island, site of the devastating earthquake and tsunami. Mount Soputan spewed a column of ash more than 19,700 feet into the sky, according to the Associated Press. No evacuations were immediately ordered.

Foreign aid is about to begin reaching Palu, Donggala and the surrounding region. About 29 countries have offered help, said Nugroho, and 17 of those have met the Indonesian government’s specific needs. Seven C-130 transport planes, offered by four countries including Singapore and Japan, will bring in much-needed supplies and remove survivors. Other countries, including Australia, have pledged doctors and medical equipment.  

For now, though, medical centers like Undata hospital are messy and overwhelmed. The hospital’s entrance was littered with oxygen canisters and hypodermic needles, and patients lay on stretchers under the blazing sun, waiting for treatment. In the parking lot, dozens of corpses wrapped in body bags and tarps were being loaded into dumpsters by volunteers and soldiers to be taken away for mass burial. Inside, an elderly man lay on a hospital bed in a diaper, rice scattered all over the thin blue mattress.

Some doctors and nurses wore latex gloves and splashed their hands with rubbing alcohol. Others used gardening gloves, and some worked barehanded and in flip-flops. When the disaster hit, “nothing was on” in the way of utilities, said Muhammad Sakti, a doctor coordinating the medical team here. “We couldn’t work.”

Most of the patients here had been buried under collapsed buildings, doctors said. Some suffered open fractures, and others needed amputations. Lifesaving operations were prioritized.

Needs are still acute.

“We need fuel,” Sakti said, acknowledging that he was exhausted, “not just for the hospital but for all. We need electricity, water.”

The government, he said, has promised fuel supplies, but as of now, “it’s just a promise,” he added with a laugh. 


A soldier guards a petrol station against looters in Palu on Oct. 3. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

Containers are lined up as people queue for fuel amid widespread shortages. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

The containers are lined up in the order in which their owners arrived to get fuel. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, Widodo toured Palu, including the now-wiped-out settlement of Petobo, where hundreds are still believed to be buried in thick mud. He visited the remains of the Roa Roa, an 80-room hotel that collapsed during the earthquake, burying about 50 or 60 guests in its debris. His black SUV was mobbed as he pulled away from the site, and he handed packets of biscuits to children. 

Moments after the president left, Talib, a 24-year-old rescuer standing with military personnel guarding the area, broke down in tears. 

“I had hoped that while Jokowi was here, all the help would come here,” he said, fighting back tears. He had arrived at the site of the hotel earlier that day with his own climbing equipment to scale the wreckage, a lone volunteer searching through the rubble. Heavy equipment, he pleaded, needs to arrive to free those trapped inside, even though they are probably dead.

“If it was a member of your family, wouldn’t you cry, too?” Talib added. “This is the sixth day.” 

When soldiers who were there for Jokowi’s appearance began to disperse, Talib once again scaled the wreckage of the hotel and restarted his search.

Mahtani reported from Hong Kong. Ainur Rohmah in Jakarta contributed to this report.