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In Indonesian village, help begins to trickle in
29 May 2006
by Ellen Nakashima

Sraten, Indonesia: It was half past 1 in the afternoon, more than 24 hours after a powerful earthquake shook the center of Indonesia's main island, and village chief Subagyo Hadi was pacing in front of crumbled houses.

Weary villagers, some with gashes on their heads, backs and legs, rested on mats on the ground. Aftershocks made them jump. And Subagyo, his eyes bloodshot from a sleepless night, said no medicine, no rice, no tents had arrived.

Suddenly, two white vans rumbled onto a dirt path, right past Subagyo. A team of volunteer doctors and paramedics hopped out and began to unload boxes of gauze bandages and iodine and an orange stretcher.

The death toll from Saturday's 6.3-magnitude earthquake grew to about 5,000 people and the number of injured was put at more than 20,000, the worst natural disaster to strike Indonesia since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. As in the tsunami's wake, the first groups to deliver aid to the quake survivors were often nongovernmental groups acting on their own.

While the government worked to coordinate assistance for an estimated 200,000 people displaced by the quake, officials said several factors should make this recovery effort easier. Few roads were damaged. The area's principal airport, in the provincial capital Yogyakarta, could reopen Monday or Tuesday, and two other regional airports were intact. Relatively few government officials were among those killed, and government offices are scheduled to open as usual Monday morning, officials said.

International aid workers began to arrive Sunday, some flying in from Aceh province, where they had been helping rebuild after the tsunami. The International Federation of the Red Cross brought in 1,000 tents and is preparing a mobile field hospital that can hold 50 beds. The World Food Program is trucking in 200 tons of food from Jakarta and other cities. Oxfam, which has a branch in the area, has distributed 600 tents, 1,600 tarps and 6,000 hygiene kits.

The Indonesian Red Cross had 400 trained volunteers who could respond if the Mount Merapi volcano north of here erupted, and three-quarters were reassigned to assist quake victims, officials said.

Siti Nurzainal, health director for Bantul, the hardest-hit district, which includes villages like Sraten, said she appreciated the relief efforts. She said she had 41 medical teams, each with up to 10 paramedics and doctors, fanning out across Bantul.

In Sraten on Sunday afternoon, the two medical vans pulled to a stop near a group of injured villagers and collapsed houses. In this village of 300, eight people were killed and almost every house was damaged or destroyed.

Wahyo Praptono, a physician at a clinic, his 18-year-old daughter, Tuti Winarti, and 13 paramedics traveled to Sraten from the neighboring province of Central Java. Tuti, who wants to be a physician and has friends who live in the quake zone, had urged her father to help.

"This is purely a humanitarian mission," Wahyo said. "We have the medicine. We have the medics. At 5 a.m., we hit the road."

The volunteers ended up in Sraten after displaced villagers camped along roads told them where to find other victims. On their way to Sraten, they said, they treated more than 150 people.

"We have come to offer a little medical treatment," Wahyo said through a loudspeaker. "Those of you who are injured, please come over. We will try to help the best we can."

Men, women and children walked or hobbled over to the improvised open-air clinic.

"Does it hurt?" a paramedic asked Kromo Sintomo, a gap-toothed man in his seventies with a nasty injury to his forehead.

Kromo gave a stoic smile as a paramedic cleaned the wound. "I was trying to escape," Kromo explained. "I wanted to run. I was confused and couldn't run away."

He winced as Sugiyanto, the paramedic, swabbed antiseptic on the deep gash.

"You can see his scalp," Sugiyanto told Wahyo, the team leader.

"Cover it up!" Wahyo said. Then he told the village chief that Kromo should be taken to a hospital.

As Sugiyanto patched up Kromo, another paramedic fashioned a splint for an elderly woman with a fractured arm by wrapping gauze around strips of plywood he retrieved from the rubble.

"Take a deep breath because it will hurt," he told her as he put the splint on her forearm. This woman also needed hospital care, Wahyo said.

As evening fell, the sky darkened, thunder boomed and lightning flashed. In a soccer field in Seloharjo village, 600 people huddled under tarps on the sodden, muddy grass. Stakes of wood were set ablaze and stuck in the ground as torches. The people had fled their homes, now damaged or demolished, and they did not want to go back. Not yet.

The persistent aftershocks -- more than 500 since the quake -- kept them up all night.

"Every 15 or 20 minutes, there was a tremor," said Giyono, a carpenter.

In a red Land Rover parked at midfield was another mobile health clinic, this one run by Gaia Foundation of Yogyakarta, a nongovernmental organization. Normally the mobile clinic serves street children. But with the quake's death and injury toll rising, the clinic doctors decided to head to the countryside, where the damage was worst.

The doctors stitched wounds and treated fractures, said Andri Sulistiyo, the clinic director. In two days, they have treated 500 injured people, he said.

In Sraten, meanwhile, Subagyo marveled at the efficiency of Wahyo's team. It was not expected, he said, but it was a relief.