New Indonesia correspondent Anne Barker wasn’t due to officially start work for a couple of days when a large earthquake and tsunami struck the central province of Sulawesi. She scrambled to join cameraman Phil Hemingway and producer Ari Wu on a challenging and distressing five days in the disaster zone, where more than 1,500 people died and thousands more were left homeless and traumatised.
First time covering a major disaster
Life as a foreign correspondent is always unpredictable, a big story breaks and you drop everything to cover it, but I wasn’t quite in that headspace yet as I’d only just arrived in Indonesia when the quake hit.
It was Friday and I’d just taken all my luggage to an apartment I was going to move into on the Monday, so I only had a small bag of clothes to get me through the weekend at the hotel.
That night I found out I was going to Sulawesi first thing the next morning, so I just had to take what I had and travel light, which is better anyway.
I was still setting up my phone as we left.
It was difficult to fly into Palu, one of the worst-affected places, so we took two flights to get to Mamuju, a few hundred kilometres to the west, and prepared to drive in.
We hired a car, bought a generator, two jerry cans of fuel and stocked up on food, water and supplies.
I hadn’t covered a major disaster like this before and couldn’t really imagine what I’d confront when I got there, so I didn’t really shop very well.
Phil bought apples and I bought chocolate and biscuits, which I later discovered weren’t great for keeping you going for several days.
We drove for 3-4 hours until after dark and stayed in a hotel that night.
The next day we still had another seven hours to get to Donggala, one of the first towns that had been badly hit.
We had a satellite phone we could use for calls and a BGAN satellite terminal to feed footage, but it takes a lot longer than the LiveU unit, which relies on the mobile network.
Food, water and accommodation in short supply
Around dusk we left Donggala for what is usually a one-hour drive to Palu but it took more than two and a half hours because the road was so badly damaged and there were a lot of people on the road.
We’d been given the name of a hotel where we might be able to stay but when we got there we discovered it had collapsed in the earthquake.
We tried a couple of other hotels without luck and then found one that would give us a room to store our gear, but we weren’t allowed to sleep in it because of the constant aftershocks.
There were about 20 other people sleeping on mats in the lobby and some more sleeping outside and we all had to share one bathroom, with one toilet which didn’t flush and a “mandi”, a giant bucket of water with a scoop to use for washing and flushing the toilet.
You just had to grin and bear it, but considering it was being shared by so many people the bathroom was actually kept quite clean.
The second night Phil’s tent poles snapped so he slept in the car and I tried sleeping in the hotel room where we were storing our gear, but I was woken up by a big aftershock.
It had survived a magnitude-7.5 earthquake and I was weighing up whether it would stay standing, but Phil came in and told me to get out of there.
My colleague David Lipson flew in on the Tuesday and brought in some simple mattresses so the third night we slept outside on the mattresses with mosquito nets.
It was just as well we brought in the cans of fuel as there were huge queues, one up to one kilometre long in Palu, and we needed it to run the generator to charge our phone and camera batteries.
Witnessing mass death and grief
When we first arrived in the disaster zone, I was shocked at the scale of devastation.
I hadn’t seen a disaster zone quite like this.
Half the town’s buildings were still standing but there were many areas, like the beach, that were absolutely devastated.
Seeing the scale of devastation there, where there were houses completely washed away or washed further up the beach, was shocking.
I remember seeing bits and pieces left behind in the ground, like a toilet, or foundations, a mattress with the sea washing over it.
And then things like photos and albums; personal, intimate stuff that you’d be horrified if it was yours to see scattered all over the beach.
Apart from when my dad died, and years ago in Darwin when I saw the body of a man hit by a car, I’d not really seen dead bodies.
Here though, I went to the morgue and saw a lot of wrapped bodies and it was a shock for me.
I’d read about the smell of death but never encountered it.
Now I know that smell and I feel it will never leave me.
The beach was full of grief-stricken people looking for family members.
We interviewed one woman who pointed to a house where she’d lost her whole family, they were all gone, and she was distraught.
Surprisingly though, people were incredibly comfortable talking to us on camera, unlike what I’ve found in Australia.
Here, nine out of ten people were keen to be interviewed, even in their worst grief.
It was as if they saw us as a kind of counsellor, they were grateful to have someone sit and listen to their story.
But it was hard.
I felt terrible intruding into their life and grief and then at the end of it you stand up and walk away while they are still sobbing.
You are not a counsellor, you’re not pretending to be a counsellor, you are a journalist reporting on a story and you have the luxury of being able to walk away.
An emergency hospital trip
It was baking hot the whole time we were there, and it was hard to cope with.
I’ve lived in the tropics before, but this really hits you.
On the second day of filming at the beach, our Indonesian producer, Ari Wu, nearly collapsed from dehydration and I had to take him to hospital.
Obviously, no story is worth jeopardising someone’s health and you always put the safety of you and your crew first.
It turned out he’d not eaten or drunk enough, and his electrolytes dropped.
We had a disaster pack with electrolytes in it with us but hadn’t realised that was the problem.
The hospital was inundated with injured people.
They put Ari on a drip and after sleeping for about two and a half hours he felt better, and we could leave and get back to work.
Phil was editing and sending footage back to Sydney and we needed to get back to him ASAP, so I could record and send my voiceover.
The deadline was looming.
Frustratingly, our driver had gone missing, so we ended up having to beg a ride back and got lost along the way.
On big stories like this you often think you can just soldier on and forget about the luxury of food and drink until the end of the day after you’ve fulfilled your filing commitments, but Ari’s experience was a stark reminder that you can easily end up in trouble if you don’t look after yourself.