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Facing disaster

Published: Jul 14, 2007

The 27 May earthquake shook a kingdom, not just a city.

Phil King

South central Java was the subject of media frenzy over the heightened activity of Mount Merapi throughout the month of May 2006. The alert status for this active volcano located thirty kilometres north of the royal capital of Yogyakarta had been raised to its highest level in early May, and thousands of people residing on its slopes had been evacuated to refugee camps in anticipation of a major eruption. In an ironic twist of fate, it was an earthquake, not a volcanic eruption, which devastated the Special District of Yogyakarta at 5.50 am on Saturday 27 May.

Tenang, tiarap, tutup wajah

‘Earthquake: Stay calm, lie face down, cover your face.’ This might have been the advice printed on government posters, but most people in Yogyakarta and surrounding areas screamed, panicked and ran when the quake hit. They were the fortunate ones. Thousands of people who were in bed or unable to get outside were crushed to death by collapsing walls and roofs. In the southern districts of Bantul and eastern Gunung Kidul and the central Java district of Klaten entire villages were levelled. The scene in these largely agricultural areas was surreal. Along arterial roads shop-houses were in various states of collapse. Tiled roofs rested on the ground as though supporting walls had never existed. In the sub-district of Terbah, Gunung Kidul, what looked like a large landslide on the escarpment was in fact the trail of destruction left by a massive boulder. As I passed through the sub-district of Wedi, Klaten on the afternoon of the quake, the air was still filled with the smell of cement and brick dust. Frantic searches for survivors were still underway. Other people just sat silently by the roadside in various states of shock and disbelief.

The shockwaves from the quake’s epicentre 30 kilometres off the coast were most concentrated in a line running along the eastern portion of the Yogyakarta plain. Plered, centre of the seventeenth century Mataram court of Sultan Agung, was devastated and the site of the Mataram royal cemetery, Imogiri, was all but levelled. Further north the sub-districts of Piyungan, Patuk (Gunung Kidul), and Wedi (Klaten) fared little better. By comparison, the city of Yogyakarta got off lightly. The southern limits were rocked and parts of the royal palace or kraton were badly damaged. To the east the airport and a number of large malls built along Jalan Solo also suffered. Beyond this, however, damage was relatively minor.

For many city residents, the most terrifying aspect of the quake was the general panic. Rumours of an impending tsunami spread through the city. Soon roads were jammed with tens of thousands of people running, riding, or driving north. Screams of ‘the water has reached the southern ring road’ or ‘it’s already reached Malioboro’ were punctuated by the sound of vehicles colliding. Police were forced to take up positions on major roads to the north, holding up signs saying that there was no tsunami and encouraging people to return home. Eventually most did, though many chose to sleep outside for fear of further quakes during the night.

By the end of the first day most city residents still had little knowledge of the full scope of the disaster. Power was out in many areas and mobile phone networks were overloaded. Panic buying of food and petrol was underway with queues well over a hundred metres long stretching out of those petrol stations that were operating. On the street, the price of a one litre bottle of petrol had trebled by nightfall. Ironically, much of the demand for petrol was coming from residents eager to survey the damage to their city. There appeared to be much hand-wringing at the ruined malls. The full extent of the disaster that had befallen the city’s hinterland was yet to be discovered.

Lending a hand

With local government temporarily crippled and disaster relief services tangled in red tape, the week following the quake saw private citizens and local NGOs working to deliver aid to badly hit areas. By Monday Yogyakarta was strangely quiet, due to the flood of people moving southward to lend a hand in whatever way they could. Universities and schools in this ‘city of students’ were closed as students set about sourcing and distributing aid. Private vehicles loaded to the brim with instant noodles, tents and medicine poured into Bantul to assist relatives or other victims. But for every village that received aid three more down the road received nothing. Homeless people huddled between piles of rubble and rice fields. In Klaten people were asleep on the streets wearing what they had left the house in that morning. In Imogiri large chicken coops became temporary homes. For three days after the quake Yogyakarta was drenched by heavy rain, but even those whose homes were still standing preferred a wet night outside as aftershocks continued to rattle the region. Rumours of another ‘big one’ circulated for days.

Within days the overwhelming response saw much of the Bantul region gridlocked. Ambulances trying to ferry the injured to hospitals were unable to move and aid vehicles fell prey to quake victims who raided open trucks and utes stuck in traffic. The destruction of markets such as at Piyungan at the foothills of Gunung Kidul meant that food was difficult to source, even for those with money. As local government recovered a few days after the disaster, food and other essentials piled up in village halls, with local officials refusing to distribute goods until enough was available to ensure that every registered victim could receive their rightful share.

Those whose identity cards were buried under tons of rubble found they had no official avenue for seeking aid. To make matters worse, many people were unwilling to leave their destroyed villages to seek aid for fear of thieves. In Gunung Kidul, residents of isolated villages were gripped by rumours that the Wonosari jail had collapsed and the inmates were now on the run. With no power and few lamps, the night brought real concerns about pilferers and cattle thieves. Village patrols of evacuated areas were organised. Across the disaster zone numerous thieves (suspected or otherwise) were swiftly dealt with. 3M - the slogan for the national mosquito eradication program - was plastered on signs with a new meaning: maling masuk mati (thieves will be killed).

A millenarian omen

A week after the quake, Gunung Merapi was back in the news as the southern crater rim collapsed in the middle of the night. The mountain roared back to life with a series of large eruptions commencing at 9 am on Thursday 8 June. Two hours later Yogya was rocked by an aftershock measuring 4 on the Richter scale that saw offices evacuated and many badly damaged houses collapse completely. The events were scientifically unrelated.

In the city life is now back to normal, but for many Yogyakartans it is very much an apocalyptic scenario. This year marks the one-thousand year anniversary of the cataclysmic eruption of Merapi that supposedly ended the first Mataram dynasty. Speculation is rife. People say that these natural disasters demonstrate the failure of the current court to successfully balance the sacred powers of both the mountain and the guardian of the southern ocean, Nyai Loro Kidul.

There can be no speculation that the earthquake has demonstrated the resilience of the victims and the compassion of their neighbours. As I write two weeks after the quake, aid requests are steadily shifting from food to tools such as crowbars and shovels to help with reconstruction. Refugees are returning to their villages with their urban neighbours in tow to help. Thousands remain psychologically scarred by the events of 27 May and many more will be without permanent housing for months or years to come. Despite this, thousands more are now joking about the day that Mount Merapi tried to overcome its indigestion with a fart in the southern ocean rather than its customary burp.

Phil King (acicisjogja@jmn.net.id ) is the resident director of Australian Consortium of In-country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS) in Yogyakarta.

Inside Indonesia 88: Oct-Dec 2006

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