This is Java, where people are famous for their mild, sweet, peaceful and reconciliatory character. The place where almost everyone has a strong belief in destiny and trusts it at all costs. And here in the heart of Bantul, a region of over 800,000 people in south Yogyakarta, the earthquake hit the worst. Having lasted only 54 seconds, it ended the lives of 5,700 people, injured 20,000 others, destroyed 70,000 houses and left 200,000 households homeless.
Unlike any other disaster area, transportation, accommodation and telecommunications were not among the things that could slow down the work of us, journalists, here. It is also worth noting that Java is by far the most developed island of Indonesia, so it wasn’t a problem for journalists to carry on their work, be it collecting information or dispatching reports to the rest of the world. Almost all the areas have GSM coverage, landlines are functioning perfectly, plus there are internet cafes scattered across the town.
Taking advantage of the undamaged road, journalists came in from everywhere, by motorcycles and by cars. Some TV stations even sent along their jumbo satellite vehicles. However, the authorities presented this as the reason why aid came in so slow – despite the fact, tens of tonnes of foreign aid and supplies arrived within less than 24 hours of the catastrophe.
As I covered the story for the BBC, the real challenge came from the emotional side of it. To continue witnessing desperate children’s faces, mourning wives and mothers, rubble after rubble, rows and rows of plastic tents the victims used as shelter… the quake eventually started to take its toll on us, journalists, as well. Typically, the victims were hardly even able to tell their story as their words were being stifled by heavy sobbing. Sometimes they embraced the journalist they were talking to – and gave way to their grief over the unimaginable losses they were facing.
The journalists had to work more than 12 hours a day, and were washed out both physically and mentally. But it got worse when the aftershocks occurred, day and night. Exactly seven days after the main disaster, after midnight, I jumped out of my bed on the fifth floor of the hotel I was staying at, feeling an odd sensation of the bed shaking by itself. Minutes after, lots of other journalist, who stayed in the same building, were running down the emergency exit stairs – in pyjamas, barefoot. That particular aftershock turned out to be 2.9 on the Richter scale.
People are still traumatized. Most are still afraid to go indoor, terrified by the smallest tremor caused by anything. But strangely, everybody seems to be okay with it. The government are under fire, as usual, for being slow. But the victims get on with their lives gracefully: letting go of the dead, caring for the injured, still trying to grasp what to do next. As the optimists say, luckily this happened in Java, where almost everyone has a strong belief in destiny, trusts it and lives on, earthquake after earthquake.
* Producer for BBC Indonesia