Rubble buries thousands on the surfers' paradise where quake hit

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The Independent Online

More than a thousand people were feared to have been killed last night on the tiny Indonesian island of Nias, the closest land to the epicentre of the earthquake that struck off Sumatra.

More than a thousand people were feared to have been killed last night on the tiny Indonesian island of Nias, the closest land to the epicentre of the earthquake that struck off Sumatra.

Indonesian officials said that hundreds of buildings had collapsed or been damaged, trapping people in the rubble. Survivors rushed into the streets in panic.

Gauss Mendrofa, the island's deputy district head, said: "People who were standing fell over. We're not sure about casualties, but there may be people buried in the rubble."

Raja Gukguk, a police official, told Reuters news agency that up to 75 per cent of the main town on Nias, Gunungsitoli, had been badly damaged, and that "at least for now 70 per cent of buildings have collapsed". It was not known whether the Gunungsitoli museum and its unique collection of tribal culture had been spared.

The hilly, palm-fringed island is off the west coast of Sumatra, and before the earthquake had been known as a surfers' paradise thanks to the huge waves at Lagundri bay in the south of the island, and a series of surf movies.

Last night, the island known for its breakers was bracing for a tsunami. The Boxing Day tsunami that struck the island killed about 80 people.

Nias has coped with the gradual influx of tourists since 1975 by expanding its modest infrastructure without building the resort hotels that are a feature of the rest of Asia. But the tourists arriving on the remote island have also reportedly been followed by conmen.

Before the surf culture invaded the island, Nias had kept outsiders at bay with its reputation as a land of malarial swamps and a home to bloodthirsty natives.

The Christian and animist people of Nias, who built mansions as slave hunting brought them wealth in the 19th century, have fascinated anthropologists for many years. They have a tradition of ancestor worship, but also of head-hunting and human sacrifice. The last recorded instance of head-hunting was as recent as 1935.

The 600,000 Niasans have their own language which has more in common with Polynesian than any Indonesian dialect.

Their traditional class system depended on slaves ­ usually people captured from nearby villages in raids ­ which eventually attracted slave-traders from as far afield as Europe, including the Dutch, who arrived in 1665 and remained on the island for most of the next 250 years.

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