The city of Palu, battered by last week’s earthquake and tsunami, was now a place of fear — looters, lawlessness and a slow and difficult aid effort that has made food, fuel and water hard to come by.
Iffa Elia, her parents and her younger sister joined the exodus heading to the airport Monday. They were looking for any flight, anywhere. Yet only 24-year-old Elia made it out of Palu this time.
The rest of the family must decide whether to try again or to make do in what is left of their home.
The desperation and dashed hopes of those seeking to flee Palu are palpable as Indonesia struggles to cope with a crisis whose full extent is not yet clear.
More than 1,230 people have been confirmed dead in Friday’s 7.5-magnitude earthquake and the tsunami it unleashed on Palu and the surrounding area on the island of Sulawesi, in the center of the Indonesian archipelago.
Some survivors packed the airfield hoping to escape the misery. Others have fended for themselves as best they can.
More than 61,000 have fled their destroyed homes and are growing more desperate — setting up makeshift tents, eating fruit from the few trees that still stand and scouring for water — as aid remains scarce.
Meanwhile, looters, bandits and armed thugs grow increasingly bold as the city sinks deeper into a survivalistic mode.
“They were shouting ‘Women only! Women only!’ ” Elia, from the Palu neighborhood of Birobuli Utara, told The Washington Post about her attempt to find a flight out.
Her mother, unwilling to leave her father, decided to stay in the city with her younger sister.
Hundreds of people were pressed against a fence surrounding the runway, screaming to authorities to get them on a plane out of the city. People tried to hoist children over the metal fence, which eventually gave way.
Some swarmed onto the runway Monday, making it difficult for aircraft to land, and hugged the wheels when the planes tried to take off.
Somehow, Elia managed to find a seat on a commercial flight to Jakarta.
Elia at first gave her name to an air force official standing amid the crowd, waving her identity card at him. After several hours, she was called, and she stood in line for what she believed was her chance to get out — but two air force officials got into an argument, she said, and dispersed the line.
“It was just messed up again, and we had to start all over again,” she said.
Three C-130 military transport planes came and went. After seven hours of waiting, Elia finally found a spot on a commercial plane that was being used to deliver supplies and left for Jakarta — among the lucky few who did.
She is among the many here who say that the government has failed on multiple levels — by providing little warning of the impending disasters, particularly the tsunami, then being slow and disorganized in the mobilization of aid and, crucially, failing to keep order.
Widespread fuel shortages have been reported by aid agencies across the region, as far south as Mamuju, a nine-hour drive from Palu. Cars there were parked at gas stations, were left stranded by dry pumps or were headed away from the disaster area, packed with belongings.
Between Donggala and Palu, the “road is lined with people begging for food and water,” said Fatwa Fadillah, program manager for disaster risk reduction at Catholic Relief Services. “They are thirsty and afraid, because they don’t know when they will get reliable access to water.”
On the road to Palu, humanitarian organizations were stopping to rearrange their vehicles to hide water and fuel, amid reports of robberies along the way. Fuel trucks have been traveling to the region only after nightfall to prevent being seen and mobbed, and they are guarded by police convoys.
The death toll is likely to rise further as victims who were buried by mud — in a nightmarish phenomenon called liquefaction, in which sand and silt take on the characteristics of liquid — have not fully been tallied.
“We don’t know how many people have been buried in the mud because of liquefaction and land sinking,” said Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for Indonesia’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency.
Rescue workers have just begun to reach the region of Donggala, where about 300,000 people live. The humanitarian aid group Care said its local partner in the region reached some areas where local government and, therefore, rescue efforts were at a standstill because officials were among the victims. The area has been virtually cut off since the disaster hit, because of badly damaged roads.
On Tuesday, local television broadcasts showed angry residents screaming at Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, better known as Jokowi, for help.
Nugroho, the disaster agency spokesman, acknowledged that “not all the needs” of those displaced are being met.
“Everything is still limited — logistics, fuel, tents, mattresses, blankets, clean water, clothing and so on,” he said.
Questions are swirling, particularly among the people of Sulawesi, about their government’s disaster preparedness and ability to respond quickly to crises. Indonesia is in the Ring of Fire, an arc of fault lines and volcanoes in the Pacific Ocean. The country has been rocked by earthquakes in recent months, including a major one and strong aftershocks on the island of Lombok that killed almost 600 in August.
On Sunday, the Indonesian president authorized foreign aid, but little of that has been evident in the region.
More than 18 countries, including the United States and Australia, have pledged aid and other help. Teams from the U.S. Agency for International Development are in Sulawesi conducting assessments, and the United States has authorized $100,000 in initial disaster aid through USAID.
President Trump, speaking to reporters Monday in the White House Rose Garden, said he had dispatched first responders and the military to help with the “really bad, bad situation.”
But no significant foreign-military-led aid, including aircraft or vessels, has arrived in the region.
Indonesia’s coordinating minister for security affairs, Gen. Wiranto, said the government has asked, in particular, for additional C-130 aircraft that can transport evacuees and aid. Singapore and the United States are readying their military aircraft, he said.
Witnesses say more military convoys have been moving into Palu to deal with looters and stabilize the security situation.
Mahtani reported from Hong Kong. Ainur Rohmah in Jakarta contributed to this report.