12/30/2004, 00.00
INDONESIA

Meulaboh, a ghost town

by Mathias Hariyadi
Rescue operations are still difficult and the twon of Meulaboh can only be reached by plane. Four fifths of all its buildings have been destroyed, and the authorities fear 20,000 people might have died. The death toll in Indonesia now stands at 45,000.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) – More than 400 soldiers are leaving for Meulaboh hoping to save survivors of the tsunami that wiped out 80 per cent of the city. The first rescuers on the scene speak of a virtual ghost town with only one building in five still standing and possibly more than 10,000 dead. The Indonesian government reports that 3,400 bodies have been recovered so far.

Melauboh is about 135 km from the epicentre of the quake that produced the tsunami that eventually swept over the region. The town—40,000 people employed primarily in the fishing industry—was isolated for three days.

Hunger and water-born diseases are now the main challenge, but United Nations officials warn that rescue and aid operations are too slow.

Ships are unable to dock because harbour facilities have been seriously damaged.

Official sources put the level of destruction in north-western Sumatra at 30 per cent.

The only way to reach the town is by the air drops.

Fuel is also in short supply.  Residents in Banda Aceh had to queue for hours to buy gas oil and kerosene. Indonesia's Energy Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro has ordered state-owned oil company Pertamina to supply free kerosene in Aceh.

But even having fuel supplies is of little help since bridges and access roads are severely damaged.

Meantime, the death toll for the whole of Indonesia has reached 45,268.

It is estimated that 60 per cent of Banda Aceh, the main town of Sumatra's Aceh province, was destroyed. Its main health facility, Zaenal Abidin Hospital, needs at least 200 medical doctors and 600 paramedics to face the emergency.

"It is urgent that volunteers come to Aceh," Dr Mohammad Andalas, a local physician, said.  "Instead of medical supplies, food, body bags, masks, and medicines, we need stretchers for the wounded and the dead".

Mass burial and cremations are under way in the stricken areas to outpace the spread of diseases and epidemics.

Attempts are being made o to restore some services. State-owned power company PLN is repairing its main plant in the area. Meantime, it has distributed generators to hospitals and government buildings.

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