Randi Renaldi, 7, with his father in a field hospital after having his left hand and right middle finger amputated. (Adam Dean for The New York Times)
By Hannah Beech and Muktita Suhartono
SIGI, Indonesia — The sun was setting on the mosque in Sigi, and Randi Renaldi, 7, knelt and reached his fingers out in supplication. Then the ground wobbled and swayed. The mosque crumpled, the dome came crashing down, and a concrete slab slammed down on Randi’s outstretched hands.
At the same moment in the same district on the central coast of Sulawesi Island, Priska Susanto, 15, had just finished praying on her first day of 10th-grade Bible camp. Here, the ground churned, melting into a terrifying sludge that heaved and dragged the church for a kilometer, finally swallowing the building up to its spire.
The starfish-shaped island of Sulawesi in Eastern Indonesia, which suffered a 7.5-magnitude earthquake followed by a tsunami that crested over electricity poles, is a place of divided faiths. It is also a place where catastrophe after catastrophe, both natural and man-made, have been inflicted on Muslims and Christians alike.
In little more than half a century, Sulawesi has endured dozens of earthquakes, landslides, floods, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions; anti-Communist pogroms that claimed at least half a million lives nationwide; and sectarian strife that culminated in the heads of schoolgirls deposited near a church and police station.
Nearly 2,000 people have been confirmed killed by the twin natural disasters on September 28. Many more are believed to have been buried under soil, swept away by waves or trapped in a tangle of crushed buildings that will take months, if not years, to clear. No sirens or warnings sounded the evening that disaster struck.
“Sulawesi is the place with the most complete disasters,” said Raman Kilo, a volunteer with the Indonesian Red Cross in northern Sulawesi, who was helping dig out the Bible camp.
Muslims and Christians in Palu have been known to wonder whether the natural disasters that the region has endured were the result of having disturbed older traditions than the Abrahamic faiths that came with Arab traders and European colonialists.
Last month’s tsunami deluged the opening ceremony of a cultural and adventure sports festival in Palu, where residents complained that the inclusion of an ancient healing ritual — a perversion of animist beliefs for commercial pursuit — had disturbed Sulawesi’s natural balance.
On the festival’s first opening day three years ago, crocodiles swarmed the bay. The next year, a typhoon raged. This year, the tsunami swept away revelers and security guards.
Then, on October 3, Mount Soputan, in the island’s north, sent up a plume of ash four kilometers high. Sulawesi, like much of Indonesia, is on an arc along the Pacific Ocean named the Ring of Fire, the most seismically active region on earth.
“Nature always gives its sign,” said Rusdy Mastura, the former mayor of Palu. “It doesn’t like being disturbed.”