Survivors of Sulawesi

These are the images of Sulawesi the world has seen, now for the stories of survival you haven’t heard

This part of Central Sulawesi in Indonesia was idyllic and tropical, a place where jungle-covered mountains met a brilliant blue bay. That was before one of the worst double disasters to ever strike the Asia-Pacific hit on Friday 28 September.

Survivors of the earthquake and tsunami have lost their loved ones, homes and livelihoods. It will take months, perhaps years, to recover from this tragedy that literally wiped entire villages off the map.

The 7.4 magnitude earthquake hit shortly before 6pm local time flattening homes and damaging or destroying hospitals, roads and infrastructure. At least three communities were swallowed up when liquefaction, caused by the quake, turned the ground into liquid like quicksand. That was followed by a powerful tsunami, with waves of up to six metres high, and more than 720 aftershocks.

To date, the disasters have claimed the lives of 2,087 people and injured more than 10,600. Another 1,084 people are missing presumed dead.

At least 68,400 houses have been damaged or destroyed and over 206,000 people have been displaced from their homes.

As the rainy season looms, thousands of families are living in makeshift shelters, many made of little more than flimsy plastic, bamboo, cloth and grain sacks. With the rainy season comes the risk of a spike in diseases including cholera, diarrhoea, malaria and dengue. It also brings with it the risk of landslides and flooding.

Thank you to the many, many Australians who so generously gave to our Earthquakes and Tsunami Appeal. In a little over six weeks, thanks to our amazing community of supporters, we raised one million dollars.

Right now, those funds are being used to help us deliver, through our Indonesian Red Cross colleagues, vital support to the people of Sulawesi.

Sometimes small acts change the world. Like these.

The survivors

Hundreds of thousands of people will live with the memory of this earthquake and tsunami for the rest of their days.

But people here are also as brave and tough as they come. Homes are already being rebuilt from the shattered splinters and muddy remains, and the little they have is shared with friends and family. Where there is disaster and despair, there is always hope, resilience and stories of miraculous survival.

Siti Nurul Humairah was born a week after the quake and to her community she is a miracle baby. Siti, who was two months premature, is lucky to be alive after a cupboard fell on her mum, Fatnidah, during the quake. This little girl is named after a volunteer medic who helped her family.

“I’m so very happy that I’m still alive and that me, my husband and our baby survived. It gives us hope,” Fatnidah says.

Rahmawati and her husband Ridwan were at the beach when a six-metre high wave came rushing towards them. Rahmawati was pulled underwater and pushed against buildings. Somehow she managed to pull herself onto a floating fridge before grabbing a branch. “I managed to haul myself into the tree where I was stuck for two hours after the tsunami receded. A kind survivor helped me down otherwise I may have been stuck there all night.”

Tragically, their three-year-old daughter, Aura, died after she was snatched from Ridwan’s arms by the tsunami. By fortune, their two other daughters, aged 12 and 16, who had stayed at home, survived.

Pak Junaidi saw a massive wall of water blot out the horizon as the tsunami rolled towards his house. “I was looking out the window when I saw the waves coming. I grabbed my wife, who was in the room with me, but the waves ripped through the house and carried us inland,” says Pak Junaidi. “When I was finally able to get out of the water, I ran straight towards the evacuation zone. I found my wife and family there afterwards.”

Eliza (17) was in the bathroom when the tsunami struck and by the time she escaped the streets were full of people trying to run to safety. She stopped a passing motorcyclist and begged the man to take her mother to higher ground. “I told him to save my mother. I’m still young. I could still run. But I couldn’t bear the thought of losing my mother.”

One of Eliza’s school teachers found her and took her to a safe area. “I cried all night thinking about my family, thinking I would never see my mother again.” The next day some of Eliza’s relatives found her and she was reunited with her mum.

Tri lives in Balaroa, what was a vibrant neighbourhood of hundreds of homes. When the earthquake struck she grabbed her six-year-old daughter and climbed onto a rock. They watched as their house and their entire neighbourhood disappeared, sinking into the ground as the soil turned into liquid.

Tri says the support from local responders and Indonesian Red Cross relief supplies have meant a lot to her and the few others from her community who survived.

Listiya Widita Santoso was nursing her baby when the earthquake hit. Although she fell several times, she managed to crawl outside with her baby in her arms. Listiya’s husband ran inside to rescue four other children from the house. Everyone survived.

Asriyah (57) was pinned to the ground when the wall of her house collapsed and her upper leg fractured. When this photo was taken, a Red Cross doctor and paramedic had just set her leg in plaster and this was the first time she had been able to sit up in two weeks. Just metres away are the ruins of her home.

Nining (37) and her daughter, Indah, survived but their home was destroyed. It meant the world to them to be receiving health and medical care at a Red Cross mobile clinic in Palu.

For so many like Nining, knowing there is support from friends, family, Indonesian Red Cross and having someone to talk to helps with emotional recovery.

Rosnawati and her parents – taking her 90-year-old grandmother with them – managed to run up to the hills behind their neighbour’s place before the tsunami struck. “I’ve heard stories from my grandmother that if an earthquake happens, we should get to higher ground as soon as we can." They stayed there for a week until they felt it was safe to return home. “The aftershocks make me nervous,” she says. There is little left of the house she has lived in for 20 years.

Mother of six and widow Tini collects supplies from Red Cross. The 55-year-old hopes she can soon restart her food stall business that was damaged in the quake. Tens of thousands of people not only lost their homes and everything they own, but their livelihoods too.

The destruction

Destruction and damage along the coastline in West Donggala.

The neighbourhood of Balaroa, a suburb of Palu, was sucked into the ground by liquefaction.

Destruction along the coastline in Central Sulawesi.

Damage in Central Sulawesi.

The entire village of Balaroa was destroyed.

People continue to search for their missing relatives and precious items in the debris.

Destruction and damage along the coastline in West Donggala.

The neighbourhood of Balaroa, a suburb of Palu, was sucked into the ground by liquefaction.

Destruction along the coastline in Central Sulawesi.

Damage in Central Sulawesi.

The entire village of Balaroa was destroyed.

People continue to search for their missing relatives and precious items in the debris.

Martin Faller, International Federation of the Red Cross Head of Operations Asia-Pacific

Martin Faller, International Federation of the Red Cross Head of Operations Asia-Pacific

What we are doing to help

Organising medical supplies at a Red Cross mobile clinic in Palu.

Organising medical supplies at a Red Cross mobile clinic in Palu.

Indonesian Red Cross staff and volunteers have been on the ground since the first earthquake hit. Landslides and damaged roads made access slow and very difficult but this has significantly improved over the last few weeks.

Red Cross teams have been conducting search and rescues, providing medical support, clean water and sanitation, distributing relief items and comforting terrified survivors. Many Indonesian Red Cross staff and volunteers are themselves personally affected by these disasters.

Red Cross ambulances and mobile health clinics have so far provided medical care to more than 6,300 people and psychosocial support to more than 3,850. Indonesian Red Cross has emptied out its regional warehouses of emergency relief items and has distributed these to thousands of affected families and their communities. So far we've given out:

  • 2.93 million litres of drinking water
  • 12,038 food parcels       
  • 15,815 tarpaulins
  • 3,640 blankets
  • 1,380 family kits
  • 1,638 hygiene kits

There are more than 700 Red Cross volunteers and staff stationed in Sulawesi and they are working around the clock, their efforts focused on the hardest-hit areas of Donggala, Palu and Sigi.

Many people turn up to Red Cross medical clinics every day with a range of injuries and illnesses.

Nada (centre) joins other kids in a colouring activity organised by Red Cross to help take their minds off the trauma.

Neti (56) is checked by Red Cross medical teams. She managed to crawl to safety after the roof of her house fell on her.

Seven-year-old Ramadhan collects clean water for drinking and washing from Red Cross. His family are now living under a tarpaulin after their home was destroyed.

Survivors register for relief supplies.

Many people turn up to Red Cross medical clinics every day with a range of injuries and illnesses.

Nada joins other kids in a colouring activity organised by Red Cross to help take their minds off the trauma.

Neti (56) is checked by Red Cross medical teams. She managed to crawl to safety after the roof of her house fell on her.

Seven-year-old Ramadhan collects clean water for drinking and washing from Red Cross. His family are now living under a tarpaulin after their home was destroyed.

Survivors register for relief supplies.

Red Cross' mission is to get help to those in need, no matter who they are, no matter where they live – that’s only possible because of the support and trust given to us by people from all over Australia.

Donations to our appeal are helping provide humanitarian support such as food, emergency shelter, relief supplies such as hygiene and dignity kits, emergency medical care, first aid and rehabilitation of damaged health centres. They will also help provide psychosocial support to traumatised survivors and the creation of safe spaces for women and children.

Those donations have also helped us to send Australian aid workers to Sulawesi to provide specialist support, as well as a team to help people to find their loved ones.

Again, to all of our generous donors thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your support.

Join our team of regular donors and help us be there whenever, wherever and for as long as it takes.

Photos by Antony Balmain (Australian Red Cross), Benjamin Suomela (Finnish Red Cross) and Iris van Deinse (IFRC).