Starvation, injury trouble tsunami-hit Indonesians
UNITED NATIONS: Starvation, injury and disease are pushing massive numbers of refugees in tsunami-devastated Aceh closer to death “every minute”, the United Nations warned on Friday as the number of Indonesians confirmed killed in the disaster climbed towards 100,000.
Indonesia’s Health Ministry said up to 100,000 people across the island of Sumatra may have died from Sunday’s earthquake-triggered tsunamis, with the remote northern province of Aceh the scene of most fatalities.
Although the official death toll still stands at 79,940, the figure is predicted to jump much higher as assessment teams reach previously inaccessible areas and determine how many died in the initial flooding.
But the most immediate concern for the Indonesian government and international aid agencies is to help the countless survivors who are battling starvation and injuries that have been left untreated for nearly a week.
“The indications are the disaster is going to be a lot worse than we have anticipated already,” United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) communications director John Budd said by telephone from Jakarta. “Aceh really is ground zero.”
Budd said up to 500,000 people were “extremely vulnerable” because of a lack of shelter, while 900,000 children were suffering from a combination of illness, injury, trauma, separation from families and being orphaned.
He said there was a desperate shortage of food and fuel across the province, which had already suffered from a lack of infrastructure due to a decades-long violent struggle between separatist rebels and the government. “There’s no food, there’s no fuel, it’s a cruel situation. If we get food in, say, rice, there is no pure water or fuel to cook it. We are desperately trying to break this cycle,” he said.
Budd described a near-total collapse of the medical infrastructure in Aceh, with just one very basic hospital functioning in the capital of Banda Aceh.
“It is getting extremely grim. The problem is untreated injuries. They can be quite minor, but if there is no proper treatment, the potential for them to die is extremely high,” he said. “There are no medical supplies getting in there. The medical infrastructure has collapsed. The potential for that (many deaths) happening is increasing every minute.” In one dramatic example of the extent of the collapse of the medical system in Aceh, Budd said 19 of 25 people working in the local government’s communicable disease department had been killed in the floods. Asked about the widespread fear of cholera, diarrhoea and outbreaks of other diseases causing a second wave of mass deaths, Budd said the risk was enormous. The government also expressed concern about potential epidemics from rotting corpses, with Welfare Minister Alwi Shihab saying all hands were needed to immediately bury thousands of bodies.
“We call on all sides, be that the government, volunteers or the people, to immediately bury the bodies at the nearest convenient place to where they were found,” Shihab said. “The longer the bodies are not buried, the more likely an outbreak of disease will take place.”
With international aid agencies still struggling to get aid into Banda Aceh, Budd said many people were leaving the city to escape the threat of disease and to search for food. Near Meulaboh, an isolated town of 40,000 people southeast of Banda Aceh where fears have been high that almost the whole population may have been wiped out, survivors were close to starving after not eating since the disaster. “This is my first meal in five days,” said construction worker Iskandar Ibrahim as he devoured rice brought by an AFP photographer who had travelled 12 hours through dense jungle on a motorcycle to reach the town. However others encountered by the AFP photographer offered signs of hope. “Please let people know that we are still alive because people think the whole of Meulaboh has been destroyed and no one survived,” Indonesian army sergeant Lazuardi said.
Meanwhile, local television footage showed the total devastation at Lhoknga, a small town of 7,000 people 15 kilometres west of Banda Aceh that had been cut off from the capital after bridges were destroyed. A large boat stood in the middle of a coastal road amid the wreckage of countless buildings. A reporter with Metro TV, who arrived on a boat from Banda Aceh, said there were “hundreds of bodies” rotting in the sun. The reporter quoted local officials as saying that only about 100 of the town’s population had been accounted for. afp