International

Distraught Indonesians in grim search for family members

Standing on white tiles smeared with blood, Baharuddin looks absently at the bodies strewn across a hospital courtyard in front of him in Palu, Indonesia.

People attempt to identify the bodies of their relatives at a  hospital in Palu, Indonesia
People attempt to identify the bodies of their relatives at a hospital in Palu, Indonesia (AFP)

Standing on white tiles smeared with blood, Baharuddin looks absently at the bodies strewn across a hospital courtyard in front of him in Palu, Indonesia.

"I have one child, he's missing," the wiry 52-year-old told AFP. "I last spoke to him before he went to school in the morning."

He is looking for one small body among these dozens of corpses lying in an open courtyard at the back of the medical centre, baking under Sulawesi's fierce tropical sun.

Only one building separates a triage area for the living from this makeshift morgue.

It is a mosaic of yellow, blue and black body bags punctuated only by hands reaching up in rigor mortis.

This police hospital in Palu has become a focus point for shell-shocked residents hoping for news of loved ones after the 7.5 magnitude quake and subsequent tsunami on Friday.

The official death toll stands at over 800, but everyone knows that figure will only continue to rise.

In a police tent, people clutching photos and passports ask after relatives.

Outside an elderly woman -- her head covered in a t-shirt to ward of the stench -- crouched in the dirt and sobbed.

By midday Sunday, 320 bodies had been through the centre, hospital authorities said, but a stream of ambulances, police and army vehicles unloaded corpses with alarming regularity.

Many people returned day after day to undertake the grim task of looking through the bodies.

Amamsyah, who was searching for four missing cousins, said he was desperate for news.

"I've been here three times, everyday," Amam, 28, who like many Indonesians only has one name, told AFP. "I hope I find them -- I'm going to fight to find them."

But it is a race against time.

The Indonesian authorities announced Sunday that they would soon begin to dispose of the bodies, a desperate bid to prevent a catastrophic situation from getting even worse.

"Today we will start the mass burial of the victims, to avoid the spread of disease," said Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman for the Indonesian National Board for Disaster Management.

Bodies like these can easily fuel the spread of typhoid or cholera.

The authorities say they will take finger prints and digital images to allow for facial recognition technology at a later date, making sure the dead do not remain anonymous.

For those hoping to say one last goodbye in person, or deliver a proper burial, time is painfully short.

But Baharuddin is not giving up on his son. "I'll keep searching for him until I find him," he says.