‘Families were left to try to identify the dead themselves’

More than 1,500 people are confirmed to have died in the earthquake and tsunami that struck Central Sulawesi on 28 September. Photo by Adriany Badrah.

 

On 28 September, Central Sulawesi was struck by a powerful 7.4 magnitude earthquake and tsunami, affecting mainly Palu city and the neighbouring Donggala district. At least 1,500 people are confirmed dead and more than 65,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed. Help and supplies are now flowing in but the government has faced criticism for its sluggish initial response to the disaster. On 5 October, Indonesia at Melbourne spoke to Adriany Badrah, director of peace building organisation Celebes Institute and a resident of Palu, about the recovery efforts and how residents are coping.

 

Where were you when the earthquake and tsunami struck?
I was in Palu. My home was destroyed. But fortunately I was able to save my children and parents in the midst of all the destruction. It has been very difficult, but I knew I had to be strong and resilient. I knew I just had to bounce back quickly, I had to move to help my family and the community.

 

What is it like in Palu at the moment?
After President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo came for the second time [on 3 October], things finally started happening, although local authorities are still not functioning at a maximal level. Corpses are being evacuated and more heavy equipment is coming in. Roads are being cleared for the distribution of supplies, several boats have been dispatched. Electricity supply is improving – several areas already have power, especially in the city. When I was distributing supplies in the outskirts of the city over the first few days, those areas were completely dark. But returning to these areas over the past couple of days, several sites on the outskirts of the city now have power.

 

Photo by Adriany Badrah.

 

How bad were things in the first few days?
The local government response to the situation was incredibly weak. It made minimal effort. In the first day or two after the crisis there were corpses scattered everywhere, right in the middle of the city, and they were just left there. Families were left to try to identify the dead themselves, to evacuate the bodies themselves. In these trying circumstances, rescue teams were attempting to search for survivors and take them to the few hospitals or clinics that were operating. The military did not appear to be functioning well, they did not appear to have been given any clear directions.

 

Local government officials, like Central Sulawesi Governor Longki Djanggola, Palu Mayor Hidayat, Donggala District Head Kasman Lassa and Sigi District Head Irwan Lapata were nowhere to be seen. Jokowi came within a couple of days of the disaster [on 30 September] but this was apparently not enough to push the local authorities to act.

 

When Home Affairs Minister Tjahjo Kumolo said that the government would pay for food and supplies taken from stores like Indomaret and Alfamart, this statement was not accompanied by any local government efforts to provide security. We saw complete chaos, looting everywhere. People were taking things that were far beyond their basic needs – some broke into storerooms, and into larger department stores. It actually took the military to call it out as criminal behaviour. The local government did not appear to be functioning at all.

 

Are supplies getting in now?
Yes. But a lot of it has been because of community efforts. Early on, community organisations and local nongovernmental organisations took the initiative and communicated with neighbouring regions like Poso to get supplies in. Initially it was very difficult because the mobile network was down, and we could only make contact through military posts and emergency response posts. There is still a lot of concern about looting, as there are a few points where supplies have been brought in but the supply trucks were raided. In some of these cases, raids occurred because the community needed supplies but no one was paying them any attention. Recently, there have been stronger efforts from military and police officials to provide security.

 

Can you describe what your organisation, Celebes Institute, has been doing to assist with response and recovery efforts?
We have worked in two main areas, Palu city and Sigi district [south of Palu]. We called for and gathered donations, and collaborated with another organisation, Komunitas Rumah Katu, to distribute the donations. We are also collaborating with Sulteng Bergerak, a network of civil society organisations closely associated with the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), to establish posts for distribution of supplies. We have had a lot of requests from regions that have yet to receive any assistance. Sulteng Bergerak doesn’t have the resources to evacuate people but they are doing a great job of helping to distribute supplies. We need to make sure that supplies don’t just keep going to the more established emergency posts. There are still regions on the outskirts of the city where there are no evacuation tents, for example, and people are sleeping under shelters they have erected from sheets or sarongs. It is painful to see. There needs to be much better communication between the civil society network and the government.

 

Many locals have constructed makeshift tents while they wait for government assistance. Photo by Adriany Badrah.

 

How are the local people coping?
Following Jokowi’s second visit, things have started to move, and now there is a sense of hope. Previously, everyone was disappointed, stressed, scared and angry. People did not feel that they were being taken care of. They needed supplies and were forced to put calls out on social media because no one was responding to their needs. People were angry at the governor, at the mayor, the district heads.

 

Many people who survived the tragedy felt they had not received any attention from the government, and so they chose to leave. Some left to neighbouring provinces, others further afield, for example, to Java, or Jakarta. It’s a shame that when the community was scared and anxious like this, the governor responded by telling those who left not to return. I know many people were very hurt by this statement. This is not leadership. At a time like this, leaders should be trying to make the community feel safe. They should be talking about healing, encouraging us to work together, to bounce back. Of course local people left! At the beginning, the local government did nothing to guarantee their safety.

 

What are the greatest priorities now?
The main priority is still dealing with the emergency response, ensuring effective distribution of supplies, and evacuation of people and bodies. We also need to provide services like health care, trauma healing and education. Once we have properly dealt with the emergency response only then will we be able to move into the rehabilitation and reconstruction phases. Many places are still crying out for supplies and medical attention.

 

Many people remain in need of medical attention. Photo by Adriany Badrah.

 

How can outsiders help?
My suggestion is to select carefully the organisations you donate to or collaborate with. Work with local organisations. The process will take too long if you go through foreign organisations without local roots. We know in natural disasters there is often a lot of attention from international organisations, but if assistance is managed through middlemen it will be less effective. There are many great local organisations, such as [peacebuilding organisation] Komunitas Rumah Katu, [local literacy organisation] Nemu Buku, [land rights organisation] Yayasan Tanah Merdeka, and [women and children’s organisation] LiBu Perempuan. Walhi is a respected national organisation and has strong links with many local organisations. The Sulteng Bergerak network, which Walhi is helping to manage, has been important for distributing supplies.

 

The following are a few Indonesia-based organisations working on relief efforts:

  • Indonesian Red Cross. The Indonesian Red Cross has been on the ground assisting with search and rescue and emergency relief efforts since shortly after the disaster hit. Donations can be made via bank transfer.
  • Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia, Walhi), which is managing the “Sulteng Bergerak” civil society network that is establishing emergency supply posts around Palu. Donations can be made via bank transfer.
  • Dompet Dhuafa: Dompet Dhuafa is one of Indonesia’s largest charity organisations. This Islam-based organisation conducts a range of health, education and social and economic development programs. Donations can be made via credit card or bank transfer.
  • Kopernik, which is collaborating with local organisations Mosintuwu Institute and Solidarity for Victims of Rights Abuses (SKP-HAM). Donations can be made via the Kopernik website.