Earthquake victims are forced to wait as politicians put photo opportunities first

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The Independent Online

As soon as the injured began to emerge from the helicopter, Joe Turner and his team went into action, providing first aid, assessing injuries, and dressing wounds. The American medics flew for 40 hours to Sumatra from the US to help the survivors of the earthquake that devastated the Indonesian island of Nias on Monday night. But for Mr Turner and his colleagues, the frustration was that they expected to be doing this work on Nias.

As soon as the injured began to emerge from the helicopter, Joe Turner and his team went into action, providing first aid, assessing injuries, and dressing wounds. The American medics flew for 40 hours to Sumatra from the US to help the survivors of the earthquake that devastated the Indonesian island of Nias on Monday night. But for Mr Turner and his colleagues, the frustration was that they expected to be doing this work on Nias.

Their first chance to help came when a helicopter full of wounded happened to land at the military airfield in Medan, about 200 miles from Nias, where Mr Turner and his team have spent the past two days pleading with the Indonesian authorities to let them go to Nias. But the medics have been refused, with places on the limited number of helicopters flying to the island reserved for a host of low-ranking Indonesian officials and politicians eager to parade before the cameras as they visit the devastation.

"It's frustrating for those of us who feel we can help," said Mr Turner. "We're hearing the whole island needs medical help. I've got a team that's ready to go. We've got our own food and water, our own satellite phone. I've got a team that's tough." The Indonesian government admitted that its relief effort for Nias has been too slow. During his own walkabout amid the destruction on Nias yesterday, the Social Affairs minister, Bachtiar Chamsyah, was confronted by hungry earthquake survivors, furious at the government's failure to get food and water to the island.

"The problem is distribution," Mr Chamsyah later said. "We admit the distribution has been slow. We can understand that people are dissatisfied, but thanks be to God the situation is getting better." Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the President, also visited the island's main town of Gunung Sitoli. He and his wife were confronted by two small girls weeping uncontrollably. One said she had lost her brother and sister and the other said her father was buried under rubble.

Three Britons were among 11 foreigners missing for three days who were found alive on the island, a renowned surfers' resort. "They're well, considering the circumstances," said Christian Karlsson, for the Swedish embassy - two Swedes were among those found. "They've been sleeping outside ... They've boiled water and food. I'm not sure what they've eaten." The British embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, said some Britons were still unaccounted for. "We're not aware of any British casualties but we're still checking," said Faye Belnis at the embassy.

"There's very little water and people are panicking. They're hungry, there's no food," said Jude Barrand of the relief agency SurfAid International. One of the most serious problems for the injured who arrived in Medan by helicopter yesterday was dehydration. The weather is hot and extremely humid in this equatorial region, but there is almost no clean drinking water to be had on the island.

When one woman was pulled alive from the rubble by French firemen, her first words were "Hot! Hot!" Then she said: "My daughter and my sister are dead." Others pulled alive from ruins include a 13-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy. "He was dehydrated, he was nervous, but also excited," said Olaf Lingjarde, the Norwegian fireman who found the boy.

Many others are feared to be still in the rubble, but with the hot conditions here, there is little hope many of those who still missing will survive. "We're almost out of the search-and-rescue phase now," said the medic Mr Turner. "We're getting into search-and-retrieve."

The Indonesian government lowered its estimate of the death toll to between 400 and 500. Earlier it had predicted a final tally of more than 1,000. But at the same time the United Nations raised its confirmed death toll to 624.

A series of aftershocks has hit the area, unnerving traumatised survivors. Many are refusing to sleep indoors for fear their houses may collapse, and have spent nights under tarpaulins, despite heavy rain.

An Australian surfer who was sailing near the epicentre of the earthquake gave the first description of what it was like. Marcus Keeshan said it sent shudders through his boat, then made the ocean swirl around him. "The water started rushing ... with incredible force. The boat was dragging anchor," he told Australian radio.

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