Indonesia mulls leaving ravaged villages as mass graves, toll up

Palu: More bodies were unearthed from the earthquake-and-tsunami-ravaged Indonesian city of Palu on Saturday, as authorities move closer to calling off the search for the dead trapped under flattened communities and declaring them mass graves.
Officials said on Saturday the death toll had climbed to 1,649 with more than a thousand feared still missing in the seaside city on Sulawesi island.
More than 82,000 military and civilian personnel, as well as volunteers, have descended on the devastated city, where relief groups say clean water and medical supplies are in short supply.
After days of delays, international aid has slowly begun trickling into the disaster zone where the UN says almost 200,000 people need humanitarian assistance.
But hopes of finding anyone alive a full eight days later have all but faded, as the search for survivors morphs into a grim gathering of the dead.
At the massive Balaroa government housing complex, where the sheer force of the quake turned the earth temporarily to mush, soldiers wearing masks to ward off the stench of death clambered over the giant mounds of mud, brick and cement.
Vast numbers of decomposing bodies could still be buried beneath this once-thriving neighbourhood, the search and rescue agency said.
Two soldiers who are part of the search emerged from a ditch with a body bag sagging in the middle but looking too light to be a corpse — they said they had found the heads of two adults and one child.
“There are no survivors here. We just find bodies, every day,” said Sergeant Syafaruddin, from an army unit in Makassar south of Palu.
At the flattened Hotel Roa-Roa — where early optimism that survivors might be found faded as the days wore on — rescuers reviewed CCTV footage to get a sense of where the doomed guests could be buried.
In Petobo — another village all but wiped off the map — teams struggled to extract bodies from the muck, often dislodging limbs loosened by decomposition after more than a week exposed to the elements. The search for survivors has not officially been called off.
But security minister Wiranto said the government had been discussing with local leaders and religious figures as to when the worst-hit areas would be declared mass graves, and left untouched.
“We have to make a decision as to when the search for the dead will end. Then, we later must decide when the area will be designated a mass grave,” he told reporters late on Friday.
Concerns are growing that decomposing bodies could pose a ticking time-bomb for public health.
“Most of the bodies we have found are not intact, and that poses a danger for the rescuers. We have to be very careful to avoid contamination,” Yusuf Latif, a spokesman for Indonesia’s search and rescue agency, said from Palu.
“We have vaccinated our teams, but we need to be extra cautious.” Thousands of survivors continued to stream out of Palu to nearby cities in the aftermath of the disaster.
Hospitals remain overstretched and short on staff and supplies. — AFP