- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2005

GUNUNG SITOLI, Indonesia — Residents of a predominantly Roman Catholic island on Indonesia’s west coast searched for survivors and prepared to bury the dead a day after a severe earthquake flattened most of the island.

“What will I tell my children?” said Datot Mendra, a 55-year-old restaurant owner whose wife, sister and two other relatives were killed in the quake. “I can’t face it. My faith in Jesus is helping me through this.”

Mr. Mendra’s wife was among about 20 bodies wrapped in white sheets, candles flickering at their heads, laid out on the street outside the Santa Maria church in this town on Nias island.

Most of the deaths from the 8.7 magnitude earthquake in the Indian Ocean on Monday night were on Nias, 75 miles south of the epicenter. By the end of the day yesterday, the island’s death toll stood at about 330, but government officials said it could climb as high as 2,000.

An unidentified official from nearby Aceh province told Indonesia’s Metro TV that about 100 people also died on neighboring Simeulue island. Both islands are just west of Indonesia’s much larger Sumatra island.

Dave Jenkins, a physician from New Zealand who runs the relief agency SurfAid International in western Sumatra, said he feared for about 10,000 people living on the tiny Banyak islands, close to the quake’s epicenter. By late yesterday, there had been no contact with the islands.

Although the scene outside the church was almost serene, elsewhere on this island of 600,000 the atmosphere was anything but. Rescue workers using candles and flashlight hunted through smoldering rubble for survivors in flattened buildings. Power was out, and electric cables lay tangled in the street.

Although most of Indonesia is Muslim, Christianity persists in some areas — a vestige of Dutch colonization. The Nias islanders, particularly the well-organized southern villages, initially put up strong resistance when the Dutch tried to take control. But the Dutch finally conquered the island in 1909, and then Nias slowly started to convert to Christianity.

The Monday quake, which struck an hour before midnight, toppled every building in the main street of Gunung Sitoli, a church-studded seaside town that is the island’s largest.

A soccer field in the center of town and close to the palm-fringed Indian Ocean beach was transformed into a triage center where a dozen seriously injured islanders were lying on doors salvaged from wrecked homes.

The Dec. 26 Indian Ocean epic earthquake and tsunami, which killed more than 126,000 in Indonesia’s Aceh province on Sumatra and thousands more throughout the region, left 340 dead and 10,000 homeless on Nias.

From the air, it appeared that about 30 percent of the buildings in Gunung Sitoli were destroyed in the Monday quake, and there was significant damage in the island’s second-biggest town, Teluk Dalam. Inland areas appeared to be largely unaffected.

The International Organization for Migration said it was sending trucks loaded with water, milk and other food items and medical supplies to the Sumatran port town of Sibolga, from which they will be ferried to Nias.

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