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Number of bodies filling mass grave in Indonesia rises, many remaining unidentified

In the darkness of the night, soldiers pray before the mass grave where the victims of the earthquake and tsunami disaster are being laid to rest, in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, on Oct. 10, 2018. (Mainichi/Mohammad Fazlur)

PALU, Indonesia -- It has now been two weeks since a massive earthquake struck the island of Sulawesi and many here in Central Sulawesi lost their lives in the temblor and following tsunami.

As of Oct. 11, a total of 2,073 bodies, half of them remaining unidentified, had been recovered from the wreckage of cities and towns, and were buried in a group cemetery atop a mountain overlooking Palu bay that was struck by the tsunami. The Indonesian National Agency for Disaster Management plans to call off the search for the missing on Oct. 12, a day later than first announced. Palu city authorities are considering a plan to build a memorial on the site of the graveyard in order to pass on the tragedy and lessons of the earthquake-tsunami disaster.

"How many this time?" one volunteer working on burying the victims asks the driver of an ambulance. "Four," he answer. Each time the volunteers hear the sound of the emergency vehicle's siren, they stand and put on gloves and masks to prepare for receiving a new load of bodies.

A hole roughly 50 meters by 5 meters has been dug out of the mountainside for the grave, and black, orange and yellow body bags are dropped into the darkness one after another. There are so many to be buried that the hole is already half-filled. As of Oct. 11, a reported 930 victims had been laid to rest on the mountain.

At the site, there were family members still searching for missing loved ones. The house of Ed Yudharma, a 38-year-old public servant, was engulfed in the mud from the liquefaction of the ground in the quake, and the whereabouts of his 5-month-pregnant wife, 37, and 8-year-old daughter are still unknown. He opened the zipper of each body bag, confirming that each individual was not a member of his family.

"I thought that there might be a chance of finding them if I came here," he explained. "Perhaps my wife was rushed to the hospital with heavy injuries and is unable to speak."

At first, the bodies of the victims had been kept in a mortuary in the hospital for several days for identification, but now, the majority of bodies are taken directly to the grave.

The average temperature during the day in Palu is some 40 degrees Celsius, and a 51-year-old Captain Mansur in the Indonesian military said, "Decomposition of the bodies is progressing quickly, and there are concerns about the spread of infectious diseases. The bodies must be buried as soon as possible."

A 36-year-old Muslim cleric said that when he heard that the body of his 24-year-old university student niece had been transported to the mountaintop site, he rushed there to confirm her identity with the driver's license left inside of her purse before she was buried. He made the visit on behalf of her parents, who live far away from the area. After confirming her identity, he got her moved to an individual nearby.

The grave is surrounded by mountains, and the city center and ocean are visible. As lights from the sections of Palu where power has been restored glittered against the darkness of the night, national army soldiers offered a prayer.

"The first day was hard, as you would expect," recalled 52-year-old Firman, a member of the municipal environment division who has been continuously working to bury the victims since three days after the quake. "When you wonder why something like this had to happen, tears naturally begin to well up."

In order to maintain the dignity of the dead, volunteers carry each body bag with its four corners in hand. Workers labored into the early hours of the morning as they placed over 200 victims into the earth.

"I want to place a memorial here above the grave that the people of Palu can visit," said Firman, "So that no one will forget this tragedy."

(Japanese original by Hiroshi Koizumi, Johannesburg Bureau)

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