SA rescuers get the boot from disaster-hit Indonesia
Aid groups frustrated as 'new rules' come in and foreign search-and-rescue staff told to leave Palu
When the 27-strong Gift of the Givers team arrived in disaster-ravaged Palu in Indonesia three days ago, the SA charity workers were focused only on what they do so well: search and rescue.
But their specialised skill and equipment have gone to waste after Indonesia’ disaster agency told foreign aid workers on Tuesday that their help was not needed.
They were told they should go home, frustrating relief efforts after a quake and tsunami killed more than 2,000 people.
Ahmed Bham from Gift of the Givers was told that new rules barred foreign urban search-and-rescue (USAR) teams from playing any part in retrieving the dead.
They were told “all foreign USAR teams should make their way obviously back to their countries. They don’t need them in Indonesia.”
Authorities believe 5,000 people could be missing in Palu and 200,000 survivors desperately need food, water and other lifesaving supplies, following the September 28 twin disaster.
“We’ve got experienced search-and-rescue teams here in Indonesia with really specialised equipment. I’d like to use them,” said Bham in the city.
The team arrived three days ago from Johannesburg, but days of delay have frustrated their wish to join the search.
“A lot of days were wasted ... where we could have assisted and used our expertise and skill.
“There seemed to be, I won’t say red-tape, but it was just like, ‘you can’t work here, you can’t do this, you can’t do that’. It’s something we haven’t experienced in other major disasters like this.”
Indonesia initially refused international help but President Joko Widodo reluctantly agreed to allow in overseas aid once the picture became clearer on Sulawesi island.
‘They can’t work’
Indonesia’s disaster agency issued a set of rules over the weekend instructing international staff to leave Palu, and requiring foreign donations be channelled through local partners.
“The truth is that they have put out a statement saying foreign personnel should be withdrawn,” World Vision Australia chief advocate Tim Costello told Australian broadcaster ABC on Tuesday.
“It is very odd as foreign journalists are free to walk around and report. This is what’s very strange.”
He said aid was reaching survivors but “it is still, for us who are used to these crises, too slow”.
Bham said most of the international teams he had seen in Palu were at the airport.
“They can’t work. They are starting to make their way back to their countries,” he said.
Disaster agency spokesperson Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said no foreign aid workers had been asked to leave Palu yet.
“But in Lombok there were many (asked to leave),” he said on Tuesday.
A string of earthquakes in Lombok in eastern Indonesia over the summer killed more than 550 people, sparking a major aid response.
“The president said we didn’t need foreign aid anymore but they kept coming.”
Getting vital supplies to the affected areas has proved hugely challenging as flights into Palu were limited by its small airport, leaving aid workers facing gruelling overland journeys.
More than 70,000 people have been displaced since the 7.5-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami tore through Palu.