Scenes from Palu, an Indonesian City Devastated by Last Week's Tsunami
Survivors loot a local supermarket in Palu, Central Sulawesi. All photos by author

Scenes from Palu, an Indonesian City Devastated by Last Week's Tsunami

Our photographer was in the disaster-torn city on Saturday, only 24 hours after disaster struck. Here's what he saw.
October 1, 2018, 9:30am

This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.

The police officer stood there, baton in hand, and stared at the chaos unfolding in front of him.

Hundreds of people, all of them tired, thirsty, and shaken by the deadly earthquake and tsunami that tore through the coastal districts of Donggala, Sigi, and Palu—all on the northwestern coast of Indonesia's Central Sulawesi—last week were looting a local supermarket. The crowds poured out of the Bumi Niur supermarket, carrying bags of food, drinks, and, in some instances, televisions, in their hands. There was little the officer, a member of the National Police Mobile Brigade (BriMob), could do to stop the crowds.


"No one is allowed to take money and other valuables," he shouted. "Just take the food and drinks you need."

I arrived in Palu over the weekend to find a city still struggling to survive. The disaster had left more than 800 dead after the city was hit with the twin tragedies of a magnitude 7.4 earthquake and a 6-meter-tall [19-feet-tall] tsunami. Disaster officials believe that the final death toll will likely be in the thousands.

On Sunday, relief crews had yet to arrive with heavy machinery to help in the search for survivors. Those who lived far enough from the coast to escape the tsunami's wrath were searching the rubble by hand, looking for missing relatives. The city's residents who lived closer made the heartbreaking trip to Talise Beach, in East Palu, to search for their missing friends and family.

For those lucky enough to remain uninjured, supplies in the over-crowded relief camps were basically nonexistent, said Reski, a man I saw looting the Bumi Niur supermarket.

“We're running out of food and especially water," he told me. "One aid truck came by, but it wasn't carrying enough for even just two families at my camp."

There were nearly 50,000 people at evacuation camps in Palu alone by Sunday. The camps provided a sense of relative safety to the local residents, but little else. Without necessary supplies, it was only a matter of time before the crowds turned on the local supermarkets, pharmacies, and convenience stores.


The police, who are severely outnumbered, said there was little they could do. But the Indonesian military (TNI) said it didn't condone the looting.

"If people are looking for basic needs, they can go to places that sell them," said Muhammad Tohir, a spokesman for the TNI in Palu. "But they need to be assisted by the police and TNI."

By Monday morning, the government relief teams had arrived with food and medicine. The road linking the affected districts with Gorontalo, the neighboring province, had just reopened. The gas stations started to reopen as well, but supplies were limited and some people, tired of the wait, had pried open the storage tanks themselves.

Across town, disaster crews were digging a mass grave to bury the dead. The hospitals were packed with the bodies of the deceased, each of them covered with a white sheet. Families arrived throughout the day to check under the sheets for the missing. The injured, fearful of collapse, refused to even enter the building and asked to be treated outside.

And Reski walked away with his day's supplies under his arm.

“We loot to stay alive," he said.

Traffic outside the Bumi Niur supermarket

A soldier walks through the Mutiara SIS Al-Jufrie Airport, which was only recently reopened.

The scene outside the airport as residents try to leave Palu.

More looting

Families search the bodies of the deceased (beneath the tarps and sheets) outside of a local hospital.

Personal belongings scattered in the street by the tsunami

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