Nanang Dirja is Islamic Relief’s Country Director in Indonesia. 

Two months ago today, a powerful earthquake off the coast of north-western Indonesia, triggered a tsunami so large that it swallowed concrete structures whole and wreaked devastation for hundreds of miles.

As one of the first aid workers on the ground in Palu in the wake of the disaster, I found it hard to how in just a matter of minutes, thousands lost their lives and hundreds of thousands more their homes. The stench of bodies that lay buried underneath the rubble was overpowering and only grew stronger with every passing day.

My first impression returning two months later, was one of awe and disbelief. The roads have been cleared of mudslides, the airport has reopened and people now fill the streets and restaurants in the main city of Palu, home to some half a million people. Electricity is up and running and much of the debris has been removed, even if new structures are yet to rise in its place.

A man I met selling things on the side of the road, told me he lost his shop but was now making enough money to hopefully reopen it soon. Another, said he lost his mother and his home, but that his car was not damaged. He used it to become a taxi driver and says business is picking up.

Just a few dozen kilometres outside the city, however, the situation could not be more different. Here, things in many ways feel like they are getting worse – not better.

In the worst affected areas, where the ground shook so violently that solid earth turned into a molten mud, acres of farmland, tracts of road and in some cases entire villages were sucked under and have not resurfaced.

Aslam a 39-year-old rice farmer from a village in Sigi district some 40 minutes drive from Palu managed to run outside shortly before his home collapsed. Him and his wife Setriani, 16-year-old daughter Agustin and 13-year-old son Safar clung onto a banana tree as the ground liquefied beneath their feet.

But his youngest, 10-year-old Siti was not strong enough to hold on and was washed away by the waves of mud.

For 10 days the family searched for her everywhere. At first they asked neighbours, then they went to shelters, and at last they started digging hole after hole in case she had been buried alive – but it was all in vain.

Sixty days later and there is still no sign of her, more than 1,300 others who are still officially missing. For these families, hope fades with every passing day, but without knowing for sure, it never disappears entirely.

Aslam says that at night he likes to think about how his daughter is alive and well somewhere, but he has no such illusions about his land. The earthquake warped once flat warped farmland and ravaged the irrigation systems in much of rural Central Sulawesi. Without the steady drip of water,  thousand of farms lie barren and no crops can survive.

It will take many more months, if not years, for these systems to be rebuilt. Until they are, the land will sit idle and farmers, many of whom have been working the land for generations, will not be able to make a living or erect their homes and communities.

Instead, they are being confined to tent cities, which are oppressively humid in the day and cold at night when old rice sacks are the only protection families have from the cold and damp ground below. Food and clean and safe drinking water are scarce. Key medicines can be hard to come by and tensions within the camps are starting to fester.


Islamic Relief Worldwide and our local partners are providing basic humanitarian supplies – like food rations and hygiene kits – to Aslam and his family and 9,000 others. We are also giving cash assistance to families to help them buy things they need or get their businesses back up and running.

But for people who have lost everything, this can never be enough. They tell me everyday that they are not ready to be forgotten and urge me to tell the world to not abandon them.

Islamic Relief is dedicated to staying here for the long term and helping to build shelters and school, but with more than 2,000 people gone, 1,300 mothers, sons, daughters and friends still missing for people like Aslam and his family the scars might take a lifetime to heal.


This article was originally published by the Thompson Reuters Foundation –