‘Smells of death’ in the days after the disaster

This aerial photo shows Indonesian soldiers burying earthquake victims in a mass grave in Poboya, Indonesia, on Tuesday, October 2.

The stench is at its most putrid around the mass grave and morgue.

Agence France-Presse photographer Jewel Samad said the sweltering temperatures — which have daily soared into the low 90s, with stifling humidity — don’t help.

“The heat is very uncomfortable, adding to the smells of death,” he said.

Samad and a colleague embarked on their trip to Palu, Indonesia, on Saturday morning, the day after an earthquake and tsunami sent a massive wave crashing onto the city of 330,000, wiping out the infrastructure and many of the buildings along the coast.

A man salvages items from the debris of a destroyed house in Palu, Indonesia, on Tuesday, October 2.

The disaster has killed more than 1,200 people, according to the latest tally. More than 60,000 are displaced. Nearly 100 people remain missing.

Thirty-six hours after leaving Bangkok, where Samad is based, he and his colleague arrived in Palu.

A collapsed bridge is submerged in Palu on Monday, October 1.

They spent the first night sleeping on the ground in a parking lot, the second in a storage room with five other people. There was no fan or light. His team decided it was better to use their generator to charge laptops, phones and other necessary equipment.

They have a house now, he said during a Tuesday interview, but travel and communication have been understandably difficult, despite Samad bringing both a mobile and satellite phone.

After a failed attempt to provide CNN an interview via phone — the phone kept cutting out for several seconds at a time — Samad painted the scene in Palu through a series of texts, which have been edited for spelling and grammar.

Survivors look through debris in a devastated area of Palu on Monday, October 1.

Samad’s photos show the obliteration wrought on Palu. Parts of the coastline look like the scene of a massive explosion that nary a building survived. Boards and pieces of siding and tin roof are strewn up and down the beaches.

A turquoise boat sits alongside a road as motorcycles — the most effective means of transportation in general, but especially now with so many roads damaged — pass by.

“Part of the city is OK, but many, many houses and other infrastructure will indeed need to be rebuilt,” Samad said.

People drive past a washed-up boat in Palu on Monday, October 1.

One of the most disturbing scenes Samad has documented is the mass grave, where Indonesian troops are taking victims they can’t identify.

Men in camouflage dragged the bodies — contained in brightly colored body bags that belie the victims’ state of affairs — into the grave. One overhead shot shows as many as three dozen bodies. The bulldozer that dug the grave sits nearby.

Bodies have largely been collected along the streets that Samad has visited, though officials continue digging through rubble, he said.

Indonesian soldiers bury victims in a mass grave in Poboya on Tuesday, October 2.

Many residents have left the area or are making efforts to leave. Hundreds more reside in camps, and others are setting up makeshift camps in yards, parks or in the courtyard of a local mosque. Residents are “salvaging whatever usable items they can,” Samad said.

“The majority of the residents are sleeping outside of their houses or in camps,” he said. “They are still afraid to sleep inside as there are aftershocks.”

He’s felt three or four aftershocks since Sunday, including “one quite strong one” Tuesday morning, he said.

A man bathes his son at a makeshift camp in Palu on Tuesday, October 2.

In one camp that Samad visited Tuesday, women were cooking and washing dishes, while children played soccer. Samad saw several people praying, many supplanting the traditional rugs with any piece of cloth they could find, he said.

A police truck arrived to distribute chicken outside one of the camps. The scene was “a bit crazy,” he said, as “people were scuffling with each other to reach for live chickens.”

There has also been some looting, he said.

“One was a clothing store where survivors were taking shoes in boxes and whatever you could get their hands on,” he said.

People scuffle to get live chickens that were being distributed from a police truck in Palu on Tuesday, October 2.

Those scenes are not representative of the entire city, however, and it appears people are getting many of the necessities they need, he said.

“I have been to a few camps, and people there said they were getting foods (noodles/rice), and water is being brought to their tents,” he said. “I would say they’re getting enough, foodwise.”

The residents who remain have been friendly with foreigners and seem to welcome the journalists documenting the destruction for the rest of the world.

“Not distraught or sad,” Samad said. “When they see the camera, they try to smile. They try to joke. They come to talk. Their mood is quite OK.”

A survivor walks past a damaged area in Palu on Monday, October 1.

The 40-year-old has been a photographer since he was 15. He’s spent time based in New York City and covered President Barack Obama’s White House. He recently shot the Asian Games and the World Cup.

This is his eighth time covering an earthquake, he said. One thing that stands out in Palu are the queues for gasoline, he said.

“In all other quakes that I have covered, I see people lining up for food/water. Here in Palu, people have been lining up hours and hours to get gasoline. I don’t know the exact reason, though. I haven’t seen anyone lining up for food, so far.”

People line up at a Palu service station to get gasoline on Monday, October 1.

This isn’t his first time covering disaster in Indonesia. He was assigned to cover the aftermath of the 2004 earthquake and tsunami in Aceh, which killed almost a quarter-million people in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Maldives and Thailand. In Samad’s estimation, the situation in Palu is a “much better scenario than Aceh.”

“It’s getting better. It’s looking up,” he said.

Around 11:30 p.m., after a third day of capturing images around Palu, Samad said he was going to call it a day. The nights have been quiet in Palu, and he’s been nursing a sore throat, so he planned to capitalize on the silence and his newfound living quarters to catch up on his rest.

“I’m going to turn in now,” he texted with a smiley face emoji, ending the interview.

A man walks past a collapsed mosque as he salvages items in Palu on Monday, October 1.

Jewel Samad is an Agence France-Press photographer based in Bangkok, Thailand. Follow him on Instagram.

Photo editors: Sarah Tilotta and Bernadette Tuazon