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Indonesia calls off rescue efforts in quake-hit city

Villagers walk next to a landslide area caused by the recent 7.6-magnitude earthquake in Pariaman outside the city of Padang on October 4, 2009. Heavy rain across Indonesia's earthquake disaster zone hampered relief efforts on October 5 as health officials sought to contain the risk of disease caused by the thousands of buried bodies. Photo courtesy AFP

Indonesia's 'unlucky' president takes quake blame
Some superstitious Indonesians are blaming a supposedly "unlucky" president -- and not shifting tectonic plates -- for the latest earthquake in this disaster-prone country. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, popularly known by his initials SBY, has long been burdened by murmurs that he carries with him the shadow of cosmic misfortune. A string of disasters both natural and man-made since his election in 2004, including the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 220,000 across Asia, has seen quips that SBY stands for "Selalu Bencana Ya", roughly meaning "Always A Disaster".

The latest catastrophe, believed to have killed upwards of 1,100 people with another buried 4,000 under rubble, is viewed by many in this Muslim-majority country of 234 million as yet more proof that SBY's stars are crossed. "SBY, because of his birth date, will always attract disasters to this country, according to the Primbon (a Javanese almanac of mysticism)" Permadi, a veteran politician from the opposition Gerindra party and practising shaman, told AFP. "Just look at the numbers of his birth date -- the ninth of the ninth, '49 -- that's unlucky. The more he holds on to power, the more great disasters will happen," he said.

If Yudhoyono stays president, "a much bigger disaster will strike Jakarta for sure," Permadi said, referring to the Indonesian capital. "If SBY had a big heart, he would step down." Not everyone believes this theory -- and many see SBY's birthday as enviably lucky -- but such talk of supernatural misfortune has deep resonance in Indonesia, where Islam and Christianity are for many merged with older traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism and animism.

The criticism has been long-standing enough that Yudhoyono lectured local government heads in the quake-hit region of West Sumatra two years ago that they should blame the region's volatile geology, and not him. "Magma doesn't move because SBY has become president. It's malicious to link it to me being president," he was quoted as saying at the time. Even the Jakarta Post, one of the top-selling English dailies, suggested a link between the disaster and the extravagance of politicians in a Sunday editorial entitled "The Gods Must Be Angry".

"Whether you subscribe to the theological or secular explanation, the 7.6-magnitude quake that killed more than 1,100 people came on the eve of the multi-billion-rupiah inauguration ball for newly elected members of the House of Representatives and the Regional Representative Council in Jakarta," it said.

Political analyst Bima Arya Sugiarto said that while some, particularly opposition politicians, try to paint the president as a spiritual liability, there are benefits for him in Indonesians' gaze beyond the physical world. Criticism of the often slow aid response, and the poor planning that allowed shoddy buildings to spring up in the first place, has been muted by fatalism and a widespread belief that the disaster is God's will, Sugiarto said. "The mystical perspective or the religious perspective is more dominant than public criticism of government policies," he said.

by Staff Writers
Padang, Indonesia (AFP) Oct 5, 2009
Indonesia called off the search for survivors in the quake-hit city of Padang on Monday as officials sought to contain the risk of disease caused by thousands of trapped bodies.

Local officials and foreign specialists who rushed to Indonesia's Sumatra island after Wednesday's devastating 7.6-magnitude earthquake said the aid effort had switched to relief and rebuilding.

The United Nations has said at least 1,100 people were killed in the disaster, but estimates of the final toll range up to 5,000. The official toll stood at 650 dead and 672 missing, according to the health ministry.

"The effort to find survivors in Padang was stopped last night but they are still going on outside Padang," Indonesian disaster management agency spokesman Priyadi Kardono told AFP.

Swiss Rescue spokeswoman Michele Mercier said the group's 115-strong team was packing up and preparing to go home.

"Nobody from the teams we know found a survivor, unfortunately. We recovered six bodies," she said.

Foreign aid and emergency teams continued to pour into Padang, bringing tonnes of medical supplies, drinking water and food for the tens of thousands of people made homeless by the quake.

Rubble and ruins in the city of one million people on Sumatra's west coast was being scoured for hundreds of bodies believed to be interred in the wreckage.

Two heavy excavators were trying to reach scores of bodies believed buried under the wreckage of the landmark Ambacang Hotel, which resembled a stack of pancakes. One body was pulled from the hotel's rubble early in the morning.

"We're still looking for the exact location where there are many bodies trapped," senior Indonesian rescue worker Retno Budiharjo said.

West Sumatra provincial Governor Gamawan Fauzi said: "This is the fifth day, there'll be no survivors under the rubble... unless there's a miracle."

Health officials said they were racing against time to prevent outbreaks of disease caused by decomposing bodies and a lack of clean water.

"There is a concern that dirty water supplies can spread skin disease and other kinds of diseases. Flies on dead bodies can also spread bacteria to people," Health Ministry crisis centre head Rustam Pakaya said.

The government said it had set aside 6.0 trillion rupiah (624 million dollars) for reconstruction in Padang, where most buildings in the city centre have been damaged or completely destroyed, including hospitals and schools.

There were signs Monday that the city was taking its first tentative steps on the long path to recovery. Restaurants were reopening and teachers said they were trying to resume classes.

"I have been ordered by the governor to open the school again today, but only 60 students came out of 800," Padang teacher Karmila Suryani said.

Outside the city, aid was trickling into isolated hillside villages that were flattened in the quake or destroyed by giant landslides.

Helicopters were ferrying aid to remote communities but many survivors in rural areas were angry that they had received no aid at all.

"This is a test from God and we accept it, but we're angry and sad that help hasn't come," said 50-year-old farmer's wife Simur, from the razed village of Koto Mambang.

"In our culture it's embarrassing to beg by the roadside but what choice do we have? We need to feed our children."

Teams from Japan, Germany, Russia and Singapore have set up mobile health clinics outside Padang with dozens of doctors and nurses treating patients.

"Because of unsanitary conditions and lack of clean water or disinfectant, even minor injuries sustained in a disaster can become life-threatening without medical attention," said World Vision, a Christian relief organisation, in a statement.

The quake struck off Sumatra's west coast near Padang, which lies on part of the so-called "Ring of Fire" system of faultlines and volcanoes that make Indonesia one of the most quake-prone countries in the world.

earlier related report
Padang picks up the pieces after devastating quake
Indonesian restaurateur Yusnidar is determined to rebuild her business after Sumatra's devastating quake, despite predictions of a bigger disaster in the future.

The traumatised people of Padang began piecing their shattered homes and businesses back together on Monday, hoping that painful lessons would be learnt ahead of the far bigger quake that seismologists say is coming.

Excavators and bulldozers are still raking over the concrete and steel mounds that mark the spots where hotels, schools and homes once stood in a vast clean-up operation expected to take months.

Elsewhere, in some neighbourhoods, signs of life are returning. Streets are being swept, debris collected and some businesses reopened.

"I keep feeling the quake shaking my body and I can't stop worrying about it," said 60-year-old Yusnidar, who decided on the weekend to re-open her restaurant which serves Padang's famous Rendang beef.

"I'm sleeping by the door at the moment so that if another quake comes I can rush outside as quickly as possible."

Her eatery, the Ampera Taman in central Padang, is quiet, with only a few people sat at the six tables.

"I am quite lucky because my restaurant building wasn't damaged," she said, gesturing towards the market on the opposite side of the road that is partially collapsed and burnt in places.

Yusnidar, like others here, has heard the predictions by seismologists of the "big quake" that is set to hit Padang, but approaches it with a fatalistic attitude that is typical in this conservative, Muslim-majority town.

"I won't move from this city. I just accept what is written by God," she says.

"The thing that is important is that we have awareness that if a quake happens we should run outside and if there's a tsunami alert then we have to go to the hilly area."

Unfortunately for her and the rest of the 900,000-strong population of Padang, the 7.6-magnitude quake centred off the coast from the port city on Wednesday evening was not the major quake seismologists have predicted.

It occurred underneath the Indo-Australian plate, rather than at the meeting point of the Indo-Australian plate and the Eurasian plate where strain has been building and is expected to be released at some unknown point in the future.

The United Nations has said that at least 1,100 people were killed in the disaster, but estimates of the final toll range up to 5,000.

"This earthquake today is a flea compared to this tiger of a quake that is coming," California Institute of Technology (Caltech) geologist Kerry Sieh told AFP last week.

Back in central Padang, Syamsinar, a 78-year-old mother of four, is selling furniture and cigarettes on the pavement outside her cracked and partially collapsed furniture store.

"Who's going to buy furniture in these conditions?" she told AFP, adding that she had no choice but to stay in Padang.

"I don't have enough money to move away," she said.

Padang native Sribersihwati, 30, said she hoped builders and the local government would recognise the mistakes made in the development of the city, which has boomed in recent years.

"There should be regulations and strong monitoring from the local government regarding the construction of buildings," Sribersihwati told AFP.

"The corruption problem is a concern. Why are there so many tall buildings that didn't bother with strong construction? They built the buildings with low-quality materials," she said.

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Thousands likely dead in Indonesian quake
Padang, Indonesia (AFP) Oct 2, 2009
Indonesia said Thursday it feared thousands had died in a major earthquake as exhausted rescue workers clawed through mountains of rubble with their bare hands in a race to find survivors. The first rescue flights laden with food, medicine and body bags arrived in the devastated region on Sumatra island as another powerful quake struck further south, causing more injuries and sparking panic. ... read more

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