Back to Magazine

Quiet heroism in Indonesia

As survivors on the island of Java begin to rebuild after a terrible earthquake in May, Movement partners work alongside the Javanese to secure their long-term future.

“WE saved for years to build our house, but in 30 seconds it was gone,” said Wartini, a 35-yearold mother of two in Sumber Mulyo village, 15 kilometres south of Buntol, one of the areas worst affected by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake that struck at dawn on 27 May.

The village was destroyed entirely in the tragedy that killed more than 5,000 people, injured 30,000 and left 200,000 homeless on the island of Java, which is home to two-thirds of Indonesia’s 240 million people.

Now living in tents provided by the Red Crescent Society of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the people of Sumber Mulyo village are starting over.

“We are collecting everything that we can use,” said Wartini, as she painstakingly pried undamaged bricks from what was left of the walls of her house. Wood from collapsed roofs and the iron rods inside the cracked and crushed concrete will be retrieved.

“In Javanese culture, people will always help each other,” said Achmer Albugis, a volunteer with the Indonesian Red Cross Society — known as Palang Merah Indonesia — who travelled 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,” said Albugis, 54, one of at least 500 Indonesian Red Cross Society volunteers who worked day and night after the catastrophe.

They were soon backed by a massive humanitarian operation coordinated by the International Federation, which had at least 150 international staff dispensing medical treatment and relief supplies: tents, tarpaulins and clean water.

Yet despite the aid and remarkable levels of community self-help, it is evident 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,” said Oom, cradling her 5-month-old son in nearby Jetis village. Of the village’s 122 houses, only four were left standing.

“I still feel the shaking and I am afraid of another earthquake. I find it hard to sleep at night,” she said. Several aftershocks in the immediate aftermath caused widespread alarm across the region.

Oom and her family, who received help from local volunteers and a government mobile health clinic in the first 48 hours, have also received a tent, food packs and hygiene and sanitary supplies for the baby from the Indonesian Red Cross.



Gearing up the aid

In the first week of the disaster, more than 20 Indonesian Red Cross flights brought relief supplies. International aid also began arriving in large quantities.

Nathan Cooper, who is coordinating the relief operation for the International Federation, praised the Indonesian Red Cross’s rapid village-level assessments, which ensured initial aid reached those who needed it most. The operation benefited from the experience acquired in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004.

Soon after the disaster, international teams of doctors, nurses, relief experts, logisticians and water engineers began working on a complex relief operation that involved food, shelter, health services including psychosocial support, and water and sanitation facilities.

For the people of southern Java, meanwhile, this was an altogether more private trial of courage, faith and acceptance.

“I am not angry or sad about the house, but we need help,” said Wiryoyero, a 90-year-old sitting 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 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. “I am OK,” she said. “It is up to God now.”

Mark Snelling
Mark Snelling is a British Red Cross information officer.


Contact Us