Indonesia earthquake reveals the quiet heroism of survivors
14 June 2006
by Mark Snelling
Java, Indonesia: Nearly two weeks after the devastating earthquake, which struck the Indonesian island of Java on 27 May, the aid operation is beginning to shift from its emergency phase towards ongoing relief and recovery activities, such as shelter, food, water, sanitation and psycho-social support.
Meanwhile, the Javanese themselves have already begun setting about rebuilding their lives with strength, determination and humility.
"We saved for years to build our house, but in 30 seconds it was gone," says Wartini, a 35-year-old mother of two in Sumber Mulyo village, some 15 kilometres south of Bantul, one of the worst affected areas.
The village was completely destroyed when the quake struck at dawn, as many people still slept. Ever since, the surviving residents of Sumber Mulyo, who are now living in tents provided by the Red Cross and Red Crescent, have been busy salvaging whatever they can.
"We are collecting everything that we can use," says Wartini, as she painstakingly pries undamaged bricks from what is left of the walls of her house. Wood from collapsed roofs, even the iron rods inside the cracked and crushed concrete will all be retrieved.
"In Javanese culture, people will always help each other," says Achmer Albugis, a volunteer with the Indonesian Red Cross, known locally as Palang Merah Indonesia or PMI, who traveled 200 kilometres from his home in neighbouring Central Java province to assist in the relief effort.
"As soon as I heard about the earthquake, I contacted some friends and we decided to come," says Achmer, 54, one of at least 500 PMI volunteers who have been working day and night since the catastrophe.
They are now backed by a massive humanitarian operation coordinated by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which has mobilized at least 150 international staff to provide medical care and distribute relief supplies, tents, tarpaulins and clean water to thousands of survivors.
Despite the rapid and effective aid effort underway, as well as the remarkable levels of community self-help, it is clear that horrific memories of the quake have left their mark.
"Everyone was screaming and crying for help. There was a lot of dust and the sound of the roofs crumbling was so loud," says Oom, cradling her 5-month-old son in nearby Jetis village. Of the villages 122 houses that once stood here, only four are left.
"I still feel the shaking and I am afraid of another earthquake I find it hard to sleep at night," she says. The shaking is real - several big aftershocks since the disaster have caused widespread alarm across the region.
Oom and her family, who received help from local volunteers and a government mobile health clinic within the first 48 hours, have also received a tent, food packs and hygiene and sanitary supplies for the baby from the Red Cross.
More than 20 Red Cross and Red Crescent relief flights landed in the provincial capital of Yogyakarta and the nearby city of Solo during the first week of the relief operation alone, mainly carrying reserve stocks of supplies from tsunami-affected areas of Aceh province.
"Our target is to distribute to about 50,000 families over the next six weeks," said Nathan Cooper, who is coordinating the relief operation for the International Federation.
"Shelter is the top priority, and we've been getting tents and tarpaulins out a lot faster in recent days," he said, adding that the Indonesian Red Cross had been "very impressive" in conducting rapid village-level assessments to ensure that the aid gets to those who need it most.
The International Federation says that the relief response has greatly benefited from lessons learned and experience acquired in the aftermath of other recent major disasters, including the Pakistan earthquake.
For the international teams of doctors, nurses, relief experts, logisticians and water engineers, this a complex rapid onset emergency, with all the technical challenges of coordination, deployment and implementation that that entails.
For the people of southern Java, meanwhile, this is an altogether more private trial of courage, patience and acceptance.
"I am not angry or sad about the house, but we need help," says Wiryoyero, a 90-year-old man, who sits quietly under a tarpaulin with his wife, Isah, next to the ruins of their family home.
Plasters on his head cover the injuries he sustained after he threw himself over her to protect her from the falling debris. They were both finally pulled to safety by their son-in-law.
Isah is blind and will never see the near total destruction of the village around them yet she remains hopeful. "I am alright," she says. "It is up to fate now."