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Inland Indonesian villages erased by liquefaction due to quake

This photo taken by a drone shows the area where liquefaction is thought to have occurred in the village of Jono Oge, Sigi Regency, Indonesia, on Oct. 6, 2018. The main road, right foreground, was cut off and swept away by a large amount of mud. (Mainichi/Mohammad Fazlur)

SIGI REGENCY, Indonesia -- The entire inland village of Jono Oge here in Central Sulawesi has vanished.

Buildings that once lined the main road -- homes, churches, mosques, restaurants -- were carried several kilometers away on a tide of muddy earth -- once solid ground turned liquid by the earthquake that hit the area on Sept. 28. The resulting scene is tragic beyond imagination.

As of Oct. 7, the death toll from the earthquake and tsunami that hit Indonesia's Sulawesi Island stands at 1,763, but it is likely the number will rise.

In the village, a road littered with sinkholes and cracks suddenly disappears when crossing to the other side of a bridge. As far as the eye can see, there are fields of corn. It appears tranquil, bucolic, and certainly not out of the ordinary. But 52-year-old Made Widana, who kept livestock in the village, pointed to the foot of a distant hill and said, "These cornfields flowed down from over there."

According to Widana, when the earthquake struck the island, following the intense horizontal jolt, "cracks opened up in the ground, and a large amount of mud and water shot out." There is no trace left of the village residential area, completely wiped out by the liquefied earth and water. The coconut trees that dotted the village were also swept away.

The area looks as though it was hit by the tsunami, but the village is far from the coast. Rather, it was overtaken by a tide of mud.

At a church along the main road, some 200 high school students and others were at a bible study sleepover camp when the temblor occurred. Ninety were saved, but the rest are still missing. A 51-year-old father of a surviving student said that the mud that shot out of the ground "reached the roof of the church that is roughly 10 meters high."

The roof of the church was swept roughly 2.5 kilometers from its original location, and with the walls sustaining heavy damage, Christmas and other decorations were scattered around the area. Joni Tatutunda, 48, whose 17-year-old daughter Mersi is missing, began looking for her the day after the quake along with 11 relatives and other searchers. "I found a bag with a change of clothes for her," he said, an exhausted look on his face. "She has to be here somewhere."

"After the earthquake, the water came up to just below my neck," recalls Ikram, in the village of Langaleso, Sigi Regency, Indonesia, on Oct. 6, 2018. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Koizumi)

In Langaleso, a village located about 3 kilometers away from Jono Oge, trucks were immobilized in the mud. Ikram, a 56-year-old farmer, said, "I threw a rope in the darkness toward voices I heard crying for help." He saved some 30 people, including a father with his baby in his arms, but so far he has also uncovered 20 bodies of the less fortunate.

Suspected liquefaction also occurred in a district outside of the main city of Palu, home to 1,747 buildings. The boundaries of rice paddies were broken apart, releasing the water within and leaving the paddies bare. Cracks appeared, creating instant cliffs as much as 7 meters high in places that were once level ground. Some 740 buildings were engulfed by a wave of mud, the structures torn from their foundations, many with people in them.

More than a week later, search operations using heavy machinery have yet to begin, perhaps due to the dire situations all around the area.

"There have to be about 1,000 people buried," said local resident Irwan, 27, his shoulders slumping. "In one night, this became a mass grave."

(Japanese original by Hiroshi Koizumi, Johannesburg Bureau)

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