What happens in a disaster zone after the news crews go home?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Deep inside the jungles of western Sumatra, 27-year-old Sofiyan is looking for the remains of what was once his village. The track towards his home clings to a steep mountainside which winds its way under a forest canopy so thick that the sunlight has difficulty reaching the jungle floor. The village of Cumanak used to stand in a fertile flat valley of rice paddies surrounded by durian and coconut trees, but all that remains of the settlement now is an undulating carpet of brown mud littered with broken tree trunks.

Four months ago, Cumanak was one of three remote settlements buried by an enormous landslide, triggered when an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale hit just north of the western Sumatran capital, Padang. It was the fifth major quake to strike Indonesia in as many years, killing more than 1,300 people, half of whom hailed from Cumanak and its two neighbouring villages.

For two weeks, televisions crews, aid agencies and rescue personnel flocked to the valley. Bodies were pulled from the rubble and survivors were taken to displacement camps on the plains below, where they joined thousands of others who had also been made homeless. But for those who lived through the Sumatran earthquake, the real battle for survival has only just begun.

"The people from the government pass through here now but they never seem to stop," says Sofiyan, who like many Indonesians only uses one name. He knows his village will have to be abandoned but what he really needs, he explains, is for the roads further up the valley to be cleared of landslides. "For those who lived, we have the harvest to think about. Further up the mountain I have lots of crops. But at the moment I cannot get to them. Without the money from those crops, how will I rebuild my family's home?"

In Cumanak, which has now been declared an official graveyard, there was little the rescuers could do – those buried under the wet mud would have died within minutes, not hours or days. So instead, the bulldozers and sniffer dogs headed to the nearby provincial capital Padang where hundreds lay trapped in the ruins of supposedly modern-built buildings such as the Ambachang Hotel where survivors were discovered alive five days after the initial quake.

As is so often the case with earthquakes, the immediate response to a massive tectonic shift is understandably what preoccupies governments, aid agencies and the international media. If rescue teams are sent to the area quickly enough, lives can be saved straight away.

At the time of writing, the world's disaster response teams – many of whom would have travelled to Sumatra in October – were frantically packing their bags for their next big assignment, a 7.0 quake that devastated the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince on 12 January. The news coverage is once again dominated by Armageddon-esque images of an already desperately poor people struggling to survive in their shattered buildings. Later it will focus on remarkable tales of survival, of people trapped under tonnes of concrete surviving off little more than condensation and sheer will power. And then the cameras and the emergency response teams will leave.

It will be the aid agencies and the people of Haiti itself who will ultimately have to pick up the pieces and begin a long, and often tortuous road, back to recovery. For those who survived Indonesia's latest significant quake, particularly those in the more remote and rural areas, the rebuilding of homes after such a widespread natural disaster becomes an often painstaking process and one that rarely leaves them better protected from natural disasters than they were before.

In terms of numbers killed, the Padang earthquake was comparatively merciful, at least by the standards of Indonesia, which lies in one of the most tectonically active areas of the world, often referred to as the Ring of Fire. The quake struck shortly after five in the afternoon on 30 September 2009, at a time when school children and office workers were outside on their way home. Had it struck two hours earlier, or at night, the death toll would likely have been much higher.

But the time of day has little bearing on how much structural damage is caused by a quake. Across the region, 80 per cent of houses have been badly damaged, affecting at least 1.25 million people from 250,000 families. The Indonesian government estimates that the total cost to rebuild will be somewhere near £450 million.

Fikri Anto is the chief of Tungkal Selatan, a settlement of 750 people in Pariaman district, the area closest to the epicentre of the quake. Only 18 out of 158 houses there survived the tremors which shattered the rudimentary foundations of the villagers' simple brick and concrete houses. The Indonesian government has promised to pay those with badly damaged houses 15m rupiah (£980) to rebuild, but Mr Anto is cautious about such assurances.

"Immediately after the quake struck we were told we would receive 30 days of emergency money for food," he said. "So far we have received just five. Everyone seems to concentrate on the places where people died, but those people are already dead. It is the living who need help."

For the aid agencies that have a presence in the area, the rebuilding of permanent accommodation is now their top priority. Djuneidi Saripurnawan spent the past five years co-ordinating relief work on behalf of Plan International in Aceh, the province in northern Sumatra that was devastated by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. He was just about to close the Aceh office when the Padang earthquake struck. His team quickly travelled south and began what is now a well-rehearsed immediate disaster response, distributing food and water, sending mobile health clinics into the more remote regions, rebuilding wells and constructing temporary classrooms to keep children in school. But in many ways, that was the easy part.

"The biggest problem we are facing at the moment is a lack of shelter," Saripurnawan says. "It is nearly four months after the quake and many people are still living under tarpaulins. Those who have rebuilt temporary accommodation have been using old material from their collapsed houses. What we need to start building is new homes that can resist quakes. The Padang earthquake was just a mid-level quake but it still destroyed so much."

Although Sumatra is by far Indonesia's most devoutly Islamic island (Aceh in the far north is ruled by Sharia law), women have always played a prominent role in public life and are just as likely to be seen hauling away rubble or driving bulldozers as their male counterparts. Western Sumatra is particularly unusual because it is one of the few matriarchal Islamic societies. Padang and the surrounding area is populated by ethnic Miningkabau who pass property and lineage through the female members of the family. A large number of village chieftains are therefore women who are now playing an instrumental role in the rebuilding process.

"The way this culture works helps enormously when it comes to distributing aid because in so many other disaster zones women get left out because it is the men who hold all the power," said one aid worker. "For once we get to work in an area where women are some of the key decision-makers.

Many seismologists believe the enormous faultline running along the coast of western Sumatra – the Sunda megathrust – is due another major earthquake similar in scale to the 9.1 quake that triggered the Asian tsunami in 2004. Kerry Sieh, a scientist at the Earth Observatory of Singapore, estimates that such a shift will occur worryingly soon. "To those living in harm's way [on] the coasts of western Sumatra, it should be useful to know that the next great earthquake and tsunami are likely to occur within the next few decades, well within the lifetimes of children and young adults living there now," he wrote in a recent paper.

But for many of those made homeless by the latest Indonesian quake, finding enough money to build even a semi-permanent dwelling will take years unless they receive outside assistance, which means come the next big quake they will undoubtedly be back to square one unless they invest in properly constructed homes.

Sixty-four-year-old Lukman and his wife Dainar are comparatively lucky. Their house in the village of Cubadak Air was turned to rubble alongside most of their neighbours' dwellings in the Padang earthquake. All that remains of what was once Cubadak's grandest house are the perfectly tiled blue porch and steps that once led to their family home. But behind their old home a large corrugated-iron house has sprung up, complete with separate rooms, ply-wood insulation and a rusty satellite dish (which somehow survived).

The elderly couple's five grown-up children all left the rural confines of western Sumatra years ago and like so many young Indonesians have headed to the cities of the country's most overcrowded and industrially developed island, Java. It is only thanks to their remittances, not government assistance, that Lukman has been able to rebuild something resembling what he once had, even if it does cause jealous glances from the neighbours. "It has caused tension in the village, I must admit," he says, sweeping away rubble with a thick pair of industrial gloves. "But all I can do is rebuild my life and then help others do the same. Around here everybody helps everyone else."

Ilmi Nur, a 41-year-old farm hand from the village of Cubadak, cannot rely on remittances – his three children are all under eight years old. He has been trying to rebuild his home in between tending to the rice fields which must still be looked after if his family is to have enough food. His elderly father died in the quake but his children and wife survived because they had been working in the fields alongside him when the quake struck.

His family now lives in a small wooden shack which was cobbled together from the shattered remains of the concrete house his father built 30 years ago. When it rains, as it so often does, the children frequently come down with coughs, colds and stomach bugs. "On the wage I receive it will take me between 10 and 15 years to rebuild my father's house," he says. "We lost everything in the earthquake so right now the most important thing is to make enough money to replace my children's school books. We will think about the house in a few years' time."

Sofiyan, meanwhile, remains philosophical. The landslide that buried his village swept away 11 relatives but amazingly his immediate family survived. The millions of tonnes of mud and trees that crashed into Cumanak missed them by a matter of metres.

"When I am feeling happier I know I have God to thank for that," he says before adding cautiously: "They say those that survived are the lucky ones. I guess we will have to wait and see whether that is true."

For more information visit plan-uk.org

Comments