Relief workers struggle to reach survivors of quake

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The Independent Online

Two days after the earthquake that has killed around 1,000 people on the Indonesian island of Nias, the authorities and relief workers are still struggling to get even the most basic aid to survivors.

Two days after the earthquake that has killed around 1,000 people on the Indonesian island of Nias, the authorities and relief workers are still struggling to get even the most basic aid to survivors.

Reports from Nias say that food and water have become so scarce on the devastated island that mobs of local people had overpowered police and looted government stores of what little was available.

Doctors and medical assistance are also acutely scarce. Reporters spoke of being approached by people with gaping wounds in their heads begging for medicine.

The relief agency SurfAid International - Nias is a major surfing resort - said hundreds of wounded were going without treatment because doctors and nurses had fled after the quake on Monday night, amid warnings it could trigger a second tsunami. "It's like a ghost town. Most people have run for the hills. The ones who are left are trapped in the rubble of their houses," said Jude Barrand of SurfAid.

Only limited rescue teams have been able to reach the island, and survivors have been left to scrabble in the ruins of collapsed buildings with their bare hands, trying to dig out their loved ones.

Rescue workers managed to dig one 25-year-old man out yesterday after he had been trapped for more than 40 hours without food and water. Jansen Silalalahi was pinned between a motorbike and a cupboard before French firemen from the group Firefighters without Borders managed to dig him out. He emerged smiling weakly at his rescuers. Hundreds more are feared to be buried in the rubble and, for any who are still alive, time is running out.

The United Nations confirmed yesterday that the bodies of 518 dead have been recovered so far, but the toll is expected to rise further, with most now predicting a final tally of around 1,000.

Unlike the 26 December tsunami, the damage from this earthquake has been confined to a relatively small area. Nias is worst hit, but there are unconfirmed Indonesian government reports of around 300 deaths on the more remote Banyak islands. Fears of a high death toll on the island of Simeulue appear to have receded, with only three confirmed deaths there.

Nias's remote location has made getting basic relief there difficult. The runway at the only airport has been severely damaged, meaning only helicopters can land. Bad weather has limited the number of helicopters getting through, and the widespread destruction has made it difficult even for helicopters to find landing places. One military helicopter had to turn back without offloading supplies yesterday after it could not land because of a large crowd which had gathered in the only clear area.

The only other way to reach the island is by ferry, an arduous 12-hour crossing on overcrowded ferries made worse by the weather conditions. Reports came in of people searching for boats of any description at Sibolga on Sumatra, the main port for Nias, to try to find loved ones on the island.

Once supplies are on the ground, moving them around is hampered by severe damage to the island's roads, many of which are now impassable.

The problems of getting relief in are causing rising concern among international aid organisations. "There is a huge public health risk there, because the city water supply has collapsed," Oxfam's Jeremy Delage told reporters. "Right now we're loading all the water and sanitation equipment - basic items such as blankets and shelter - but also body bags."

Some criticism has been aimed at the Indonesian government's relief effort. With Indonesia's limited resources, the Singapore air force has been running the airlift with a team of Chinook helicopters.

A team of American medics complained yesterday that it was being blocked by the Indonesian authorities from reaching Nias. "We've got a colleague over there who has no medical training," said one of the medics. "He says there are hundreds of people who need treatment, and no one to help them. And we just want to get over there and work."