PALU, Indonesia (Reuters) – A day after last week’s powerful earthquake and tsunami pummeled the Indonesian city of Palu and surrounding areas, a terrified young girl was dropped off in the courtyard of a military hospital.
It was uncertain who brought her there, but the girl, who appears around four years old, was deeply traumatized and has remained so as officials try to find her family.
“She won’t tell us her name,” the head of the Wirabuana hospital, Colonel Ahmad Zumaro, told Reuters.
“If you talk to her, she always cries, especially if you ask her about her mother or father.”
Her tragic ordeal is just one example of many such cases that authorities and aid groups have grappled with since the 7.5 magnitude quake and tsunami hit Sulawesi island last Friday.
Reuniting families and locating missing relatives – children and adults alike – is a process fraught with difficulties, say government officials and aid workers.
There is no list of those buried to cross-check against missing persons.
Moreover, many survivors lost their identification documents in the disaster.
Accompanied by child welfare officers, Reuters visited the girl in the hospital’s courtyard. Lying on an army cot, she was listless and quietly sobbing in a punishingly hot canvas tent.
Fanning her with a piece cardboard was a man, Ahuridin, who said he was the girl’s uncle, one of three men who had said they were related after authorities posted a picture of her on Facebook.
Zumaro questioned whether the claims were genuine.
Febraldi, an official from the ministry of social affairs who interviewed the man claiming to be the uncle, said his assertion would have to be checked.
“He keeps her calm,” said Febraldi. “But he must prove she is from his family.”
Authorities want him to show them a photo that proves he is indeed the uncle. DNA testing is too expensive, said a child protection officer from Save the Children, Zubedy Koteng.
“There is no proper verification or documentation for people who have been separated,” he said.
Save the Children runs a center in Palu where about 30 traumatized youngsters are being cared for, but Koteng says far more needs to be done in outlying areas.
“A big problem is access. There are so many areas that aid has not reached. We don’t have enough support.”
For parents searching for missing children, the task is just as challenging and fraught.
At a command post and camp for displaced people outside the mayor’s office in Palu, Bambang Wijayanto and Evi Paungkey are searching for their daughter Amelia Pratiwi, 26. The bank worker was with friends at a cafe on Palu’s Telise beach when the quake and tsunami struck and hasn’t been seen since.
Samsur, a local government official, patiently took down details and then pulled out 11 IDs, bank and membership cards taken from bodies from a plastic bag and put them on a table. “Do you recognize any of these?,” he asked.
The meager attempt to verify the fate of the daughter highlighted another hurdle for those searching for the missing – there is no verified list of those killed in the disaster. Of the dead, 1,571 have been buried but many deceased were not identified before they were interred, Central Sulawesi police spokesman Hery Murwono said.
The dead had to be buried quickly to avoid an outbreak of disease, he said. Many were already decomposing in the hot, humid climate.
“There are photos,” he said. “But the shapes of bodies and faces have changed.”
For the parents of Amelia, the search will continue. They estimate they have scoured 70 per cent of the affected region’s camps for displaced people, as well as all of Palu’s hospitals.
“I still have hope. As a mother, I still have to believe she’s alive,” said Paungkey. “I have to be optimistic.