Indonesians seek talismans of former lives in quake rubble

BALAROA, Indonesia, Oct 17 (Reuters) - Wooden beams tilted at crazy angles poke out of piles of shattered concrete littered with battered motorbikes and household items, from crumpled pots and pans to smudged notebooks and soft toys.

After an earthquake of magnitude 7.5 hit Indonesia's coastal city of Palu, a pile of broken pink concrete is all that remains of fruit vendor Kaharuddin's home.

He stared quietly at the rubble in his hometown of Balaroa, saying it concealed the body of his one-year-old daughter, who was among the hundreds missing after the Sept. 28 disaster.

"I'm just waiting here and hope that I can find my child," said Kaharuddin, 40, who goes by one name, like many Indonesians. "Or maybe I have to accept that one will have to remain buried here."

20 PHOTOS
Indonesians seek treasured items in quake rubble
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Indonesians seek treasured items in quake rubble
Ikhmal Yudanto, 15, stands on his mother's car at his destroyed house hit by an earthquake, in Balaroa neighbourhood, Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 11, 2018. Yudanto is helping his older brother to recover the car, which has been stuck in the ground since the earthquake. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A toy lies among debris of a destroyed house in Balaroa neighbourhood hit by an earthquake and ground liquefaction in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Khairuddin, 49, stands in front of his destroyed house hit by an earthquake, in Balaroa neighbourhood, Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 11, 2018. KREUTERS/Jorge Silva
A stopped clock, showing the time a few minutes after the earthquake, lies among rubble in Balaroa neighbourhood hit by an earthquake and ground liquefaction in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 7, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Darmi, 48, and her brother Rusli, 43, stand outside her destroyed house hit by an earthquake as they look for clothes and other belongings in the rubble, in Balaroa neighbourhood, Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A woman holds a stuffed rabbit toy after it was found at her destroyed house where she said she had lost her three children after the area was hit by an earthquake, in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 7, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva/File photo
A destroyed house is seen in Balaroa neighbourhood hit by an earthquake and ground liquefaction in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Masdiyana, 47, sits on a bench of her mother's former home which was destroyed during an earthquake in Balaroa neighbourhood, Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 10, 2018. Masdiyana has been trying to salvage items from her mother's home, picking vegetables and fruit from the garden. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Two men recover a portrait of their dead parents from the rubble of their former house hit by an earthquake in Balaroa neighbourhood in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 7, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Belongings are seen among rubble in Balaroa neighbourhood hit by an earthquake and ground liquefaction in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 7, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Muhammad Nur, 27, his wife Nita Puspita, 25 and Nita's sister Widya Wijayanti, 14, stand in front of their former home, obliterated by ground liquefaction looking for useful items, in Petobo neighbourhood, Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A motorbike helmet lies among rubble in Balaroa neighbourhood hit by an earthquake and ground liquefaction in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 7, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Kaharuddin, 40, waits for excavators to dig up a pile of concrete that used to be his home and was destroyed by an earthquake in Balaroa neighbourhood, Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Juliana Lasarudin, 48, stands next to her car in front of her destroyed house after it was hit by an earthquake, in Balaroa neighbourhood in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A piece of a wall of a destroyed house is seen in Balaroa neighbourhood hit by an earthquake and ground liquefaction in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A destroyed house stands in Balaroa neighbourhood hit by an earthquake and ground liquefaction in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 7, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Nofal Surya, 37, sits on bricks that used to be his home hit by an earthquake, in Balaroa neighbourhood, Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A car stands next to a road that was upended by the earthquake and ground liquefaction in Balaroa neighbourhood, in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A destroyed house is seen in Balaroa neighbourhood hit by an earthquake and ground liquefaction in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva SEARCH "QUAKE SURVIVORS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Hesti Andayani, 27, sits on a pile of tiles that she says used to be part of her second-floor bedroom after her home was destroyed by an earthquake, in Balaroa neighbourhood, Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
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Four days after the quake, he said, rescue workers found the remains of his wife, Hastuti, still holding in her arms the bodies of their other two daughters, aged four and two.

As many as 5,000 people may still be buried under the mud, disaster relief officials estimate. Indonesia called off the search for victims on Friday, two weeks after the quake, citing health concerns, despite residents' pleas to continue.

The town in the province of central Sulawesi was among those hardest hit by the phenomenon of ground liquefaction, when the shaking earth turns soft, damp soil into a roiling quagmire, dragging thousands of houses and people under mud and asphalt.

The destructive waves of soil smashed thousands of homes, cars and buildings into each other, carrying some of them hundreds of meters from their original position within minutes.

"It felt like the earth was alive," said Darmi, 48, who saw half of her two-story home collapse. "It was opening up, swallowing people, and then closing again. And the noise was so loud. This loud cracking ‘k-k-k-k’ sound."

29 PHOTOS
Aftermath of earthquake in Palu, Indonesia
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Aftermath of earthquake in Palu, Indonesia
A ship is seen stranded on the shore after an earthquake and tsunami hit the area in Wani, Donggala, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia October 1, 2018 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Muhammad Adimaja/ via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN INDONESIA. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Sand is placed over dead bodies of the victims of the earthquake and tsunami during a mass burial at the Poboya Cemetery in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 2, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An aerial view of an area devestated by an earthquake in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia October 1, 2018 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/ Hafidz Mubarak A/ via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Survivors rest outside the airport as they wait to get a flight out of Palu, Indonesia's Central Sulawesi on October 1, 2018, after an earthquake and tsunami hit the area on September 28. - Indonesian volunteers began burying bodies in a mass grave with space for more than a thousand people on October 1, victims of a quake-tsunami that devastated swathes of Sulawesi and left authorities struggling to deal with the sheer scale of the disaster. (Photo by Jewel SAMAD / AFP) (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A search and rescue team evacuates a victim from the ruins of the Roa-Roa Hotel in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia September 30, 2018 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/BNPB/ via REUTERS. THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT.
Motorists pass over a temporary bridge over a cracked road in Palu, in Central Sulawesi, on October 1, 2018, after an earthquake and tsunami hit the area on September 28. - Mass graves were being readied on October 1 for hundreds of victims of the Indonesian quake and tsunami as authorities battled to stave off disease and reach desperate people still trapped under shattered buildings. (Photo by BAY ISMOYO / AFP) (Photo credit should read BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images)
A search and rescue team evacuates a victim from the ruins of the Roa-Roa Hotel in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia September 30, 2018 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/BNPB/ via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT.
TOPSHOT - People drive past a washed up boat and collapsed buildings in Palu on October 1, 2018, after an earthquake and tsunami hit the area on September 28. - Mass graves were being readied on October 1 for hundreds of victims of the Indonesian quake and tsunami as authorities battled to stave off disease and reach desperate people still trapped under shattered buildings. (Photo by JEWEL SAMAD / AFP) (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Rescue team members carry the dead body of a paraglider near the ruins of Roa-Roa hotel after the earthquake in Palu, in Indonesia's Sulawesi Island, October 2, 2018. REUTERS/Beawiharta
A rescue team member walks in front of the ruins of Roa-Roa Hotel after earthquake hit in Palu, Sulawesi Island, Indonesia, October 2, 2018. REUTERS/Beawiharta
A ship is seen stranded on the shore after an earthquake and tsunami hit the area in Wani, Donggala, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia October 1, 2018 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Muhammad Adimaja/ via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
SOUTH PALU, PALU, CENTER SULAWESI, INDONESIA - 2018/10/02: Rescue team members are seen working on Roa-Roa hotel after the earthquake. A deadly earthquake measuring 7.7 magnitude and the tsunami wave caused by it has destroyed the city of Palu and much of the area in Central Sulawesi. According to the officials, death toll from devastating quake and tsunami rises to 1,347, around 800 people in hospitals are seriously injured and some 62,000 people have been displaced in 24 camps around the region. (Photo by Hariandi Hafid/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
PALU, INDONESIA - OCTOBER 1, 2018: Search and Rescue Officers are seen searching for victims of earthquakes and tsunamis that have been hit by the RoaRoa Hotel building by flashing the gap with portable lighting in Palu, Indonesia on October 1, 2018. (Photo credit should read RIAU IMAGES / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
An aerial view of liquefaction, or shifting ground, following an earthquake in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 1, 2018 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Picture taken October 1, 2018. Antara Foto/Irwansyah Putra/ via REUTERS. ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
PALU, INDONESIA - OCTOBER 1: Ambulances are prepared to evacuate victims hit by the Roa Roa Hotel building which collapsed due to the impact of the earthquake and tsunami that occurred on October 01, 2018 in Palu, Indonesia. PHOTOGRAPH BY Riau Images / Barcroft Images (Photo credit should read RIAU IMAGES / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
Local residents affected by the earthquake and tsunami retrieve gasoline at a gas station in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 2, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
PALU, INDONESIA - OCTOBER 02: A man stands on a destroyed car as he views the rubble and debris of destroyed buildings following an earthquake, on October 02, 2018 in Palu, Indonesia. Indonesias disaster response agency confirmed on Tuesday that the death toll from Fridays earthquake and tsunami has reached at least 1,234 people while fears that the death toll could rise again. A tsunami triggered by a magnitude 7.5 earthquake slammed into Indonesia's coastline on the island of Sulawesi as people are increasingly growing desperate for food, fuel, and water, while emergency services fear that survivors may still be trapped under the rubble. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
Survivors walk on a damaged street outside Palu in Indonesia's Central Sulawesi on October 2, 2018, after an earthquake and tsunami hit the area on September 28. - The Indonesian government on October 2 said the death toll from a devastating quake-tsunami on the island of Sulawesi had risen to 1,234 people, up from the previous count of 844. (Photo by JEWEL SAMAD / AFP) (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
This aerial photo shows Indonesian soldiers burying quake victims in a mass grave in Poboya in Indonesia's Central Sulawesi on October 2, 2018, after an earthquake and tsunami hit the area on September 28. - The Indonesian government on October 2 said the death toll from a devastating quake-tsunami on the island of Sulawesi had risen to 1,234 people, up from the previous count of 844. (Photo by JEWEL SAMAD / AFP) (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - People walk along a damaged road in Palu, Indonesia's Central Sulawesi on October 1, 2018, after an earthquake and tsunami hit the area on September 28. - Indonesian volunteers began burying bodies in a mass grave with space for more than a thousand people on October 1, victims of a quake-tsunami that devastated swathes of Sulawesi and left authorities struggling to deal with the sheer scale of the disaster. (Photo by Adek BERRY / AFP) (Photo credit should read ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images)
Survivors ride past debris in a devastated area in Palu, Indonesia's Central Sulawesi on October 1, 2018, after an earthquake and tsunami hit the area on September 28. - Indonesian volunteers began burying bodies in a mass grave with space for more than a thousand people on October 1, victims of a quake-tsunami that devastated swathes of Sulawesi and left authorities struggling to deal with the sheer scale of the disaster. (Photo by Jewel SAMAD / AFP) (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
People search for valuable items at a mall that was hit by a tsunami, which was triggered by an earthquake on September 28, in Palu, Indonesia's Central Sulawesi on October 1, 2018. - Indonesian volunteers began burying bodies in a mass grave with space for more than a thousand people on October 1, victims of a quake-tsunami that devastated swathes of Sulawesi and left authorities struggling to deal with the sheer scale of the disaster. (Photo by Adek BERRY / AFP) (Photo credit should read ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A woman walks through a devastated area in Palu, Indonesia's Central Sulawesi on October 1, 2018, after an earthquake and tsunami hit the area on September 28. - Indonesian volunteers began burying bodies in a mass grave with space for more than a thousand people on October 1, victims of a quake-tsunami that devastated swathes of Sulawesi and left authorities struggling to deal with the sheer scale of the disaster. (Photo by Adek BERRY / AFP) (Photo credit should read ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A survivor looks at debris in a devastated area in Palu, Indonesia's Central Sulawesi on October 1, 2018, after an earthquake and tsunami hit the area on September 28. - Indonesian volunteers began burying bodies in a mass grave with space for more than a thousand people on October 1, victims of a quake-tsunami that devastated swathes of Sulawesi and left authorities struggling to deal with the sheer scale of the disaster. (Photo by Jewel SAMAD / AFP) (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
PALU, INDONESIA - OCTOBER 01: A man squeezes out from beneath a car that has been wedged into a building by a tsunami, on October 01, 2018 in Palu, Indonesia. Over 844 people have been confirmed dead after a tsunami triggered by a magnitude 7.5 earthquake slammed into Indonesia's coastline on the island of Sulawesi, causing thousands of homes to collapse, along with hospitals, hotels and shopping centers. Emergency services fear that the death toll could rise into the thousands as rescue teams made contact with the nearby cities of Donggala and Mamuju and strong aftershocks continue to rock the city. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
Survivors loot a clothing store in Palu, Indonesia's Central Sulawesi on October 1, 2018, after an earthquake and tsunami hit the area on September 28. - Indonesian volunteers began burying bodies in a mass grave with space for more than a thousand people on October 1, victims of a quake-tsunami that devastated swathes of Sulawesi and left authorities struggling to deal with the sheer scale of the disaster. (Photo by Jewel SAMAD / AFP) (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
A survivor salvages useable items from debris in Palu, Indonesia's Central Sulawesi on October 1, 2018, after an earthquake and tsunami hit the area on September 28. - Indonesian volunteers began burying bodies in a mass grave with space for more than a thousand people on October 1, victims of a quake and tsunami that devastated swathes of Sulawesi and left authorities struggling to deal with the sheer scale of the disaster. (Photo by Jewel SAMAD / AFP) (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
PALU, INDONESIA - OCTOBER 01: The elderly wait to board an aircraft at the airport in Palu which has re-opened after an earthquake triggered a tsunami in the area on October 01, 2018 in Palu, Indonesia. Over 832 people have been confirmed dead after a tsunami triggered by a magnitude 7.5 earthquake slammed into Indonesia's coastline on the island of Sulawesi, causing thousands of homes to collapse, along with hospitals, hotels and shopping centers. Emergency services fear that the death toll could rise into the thousands as rescue teams made contact with the nearby cities of Donggala and Mamuju and strong aftershocks continue to rock the city. (Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
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Returning to Balaroa for the first time two weeks after the disaster, Hesti Andayani, 27, was shocked to find her childhood home had slid downhill, far from its original location.

"It took so long to find," she said, through tears. "I don’t know where we can live now."

Hesti, who lost her younger sister in the quake, sat on a pile of tiles that once covered part of her second-floor bedroom, surrounded by dusty jewelry and cosmetics.

"These are all the things I have left. My makeup, my necklaces, the pins for my hijab," she sobbed, referring to the headgear worn by devout Muslim women.

Searchers arrived with dozens of excavators to help dig out bodies, while some residents made frequent trips to retrieve treasured belongings from the rubble of destroyed homes.

Government district officer Yassir Garibaldi, 43, pushed and pulled at a white car stuck under a collapsed porch.

"I bought this car for my parents," he said. "They’re gone now but it's still a good car. It's the only thing of theirs I can recover."

He was forced to watch helplessly as his parents and niece suffocated to death after the quake trapped them in a concrete hole flooded with water.

"I found them the morning after the earthquake," Yassir said.

"I managed to speak with them, even gave them some water to drink. But they were crushed against each other, and the water must have been cold. After a while, they just stopped breathing."

Others must reconcile themselves to the loss of loved ones.

In Petobo, about 7.5 miles away, Ameriyah, 56, lost three of her children, a grandchild and a son-in-law. She has accepted it is unlikely that searchers will now uncover their remains.

"We've held funeral prayers for them, so we hope their souls will be at peace," she said.

Some remain inconsolable.

"I don't know what to do next. There's nothing left for me here," said Kaharuddin, the fruit vendor still looking for his daughter's body under the pink concrete rubble of their former home.

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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