The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Sunday, December 23, 2012


A screaming start to a seminar            

Capable and committed; Dr Sari Timur (left) and Dita Novirani


Eight years ago on 26 December Indonesia was struck by the third strongest earthquake in the world’s recorded history. More than 170,000 perished in Aceh – another 60,000 in nearby countries.

Such natural disasters can’t be prevented, but effective preparations are possible.  Duncan Graham reports from Yogya:

DIOS sounds like an upmarket fashion house selling Italian calfskin handbags, though the entrance is more the airy foyer of a smart resort.  The walls carry relaxing pictures of beautiful Indonesia, the images beloved by government tourism.

So far, so good.

After check-in why not take a guided tour?  Through this door please, and just stand.

There’s little more to do because the space is draped in black curtains and it seems there’s no way forward.   Then the noise begins, a full-on real life recording of people in panic following a natural tragedy.  The distress is so close the terror is tangible.

“Welcome to the Disaster Oasis Training Center, otherwise known as DIOS,” said Dr Sari Timur, director of the Yakkum Emergency Unit that runs DIOS. “As far as we know this facility is unique in Indonesia.

“We call this our hysteria room. Outside you saw the Indonesia we love.   Now some reality.  Enter the museum.”

When the racket ceases and the curtains open the ear-bashed visitor staggers into a large room with a mezzanine floor.  At its center a grubby, scratched Styrofoam fish box on two dugout canoes.

They’re surrounded by other garbage, making the display look like the work of a deranged artist with post-modern pretensions.

But this box is special. It saved the life of baby Nuri Isani. She was popped into the container by her mother just as the December 2004 Aceh tsunami hit following a massive undersea earthquake.

Most of the family perished including Mom but Nuri survived and was found bobbing in the water two days later, safe in her little lifeboat. 

The message is clear: Screaming and running is a natural reaction but one heroic parent rapidly improvised and saved her daughter.  In an emergency you need to think fast and act faster.

Miracles happen, but they often need a human nudge.

Elsewhere in the museum are photos of terrible destruction and heroic folk.  There’s no grotesque footage of bloated corpses, but the evidence is enough to ensure the visitor understands the enormity and tragedy that follows when nature turns brutal.

If still in doubt there’s a television, bicycle and bits of farm equipment, all ash gray, cemented and distorted.  They lie in a heap like the concreted corpses of the victims of Vesuvius, the Italian volcano that exploded in 79, smothering the people of nearby Pompeii.

The exhibits are just one feature of DIOS.  The others are the solidly-built cottages sprinkled around a small pool, each one named after a disaster area like Nias, Flores and Lombok and featuring the architecture of the regions. A soccer field alongside doubles as a helipad and evacuation zone.

The center has 31 bedrooms and four meeting rooms where moving the furniture is inadvisable.  The desks are made of tough teak, designed to shelter should an earthquake hit and masonry tumble.

DIOS is promoted as ‘a pleasant and peaceful area in the midst of plight.’ The setting is serene, the ambience a delight.

“That’s what most foreigners say,” said Dr Sari.  “Unfortunately many Indonesians take a different view.  They prefer to have seminars in luxury settings.”

DIOS is hardly Hotel Hardship. The rooms have splendid outlooks and WiFi but no television; this is a place for serious study.  When you’ve tired of the museum there’s a library, a luxury-seat theaterette and a display of smart thinking drawn from real disasters, with the presence of a manikin corpse on a trolley as a reminder of the real purpose.

No sterile dressings for the wounded?  Use young banana-leaf stems before they uncurl.  The insides are clean and moist.  Damaged hands can’t hold spoons?  Wrap the handles in cloth and twist the metal around to suit.  Need splints for fractured femurs? Split bamboo does just fine.

Straight up the center of the complex past the evacuation signs and on a clear morning can be seen Mount Merapi, the fire mountain that exploded in 2010 killing 353.  This put DIOS to the test.  (See breakout)

The idea of an emergency training center came from the previous director of Yakkum, Sigit Wijayanta using a grant of 502,000 Euros from the German Protestant Agency for Diakonia (service) and Development known as EED.

Local architect Setyo Dharmodjo designed the reinforced quake-resistant buildings to be functional but appealing.

Despite YEU’s Christian background Dr Sari stressed the NGO was absolutely non partisan.  “We help everyone in distress whoever they are and we never proselytise,” she said.  “That’s not our job or interest. This is a Muslim area and we are the minority so we need and get their acceptance and support.”

Her office wall is dominated by a picture of the late president Gus Dur, an Islamic scholar who constantly preached pluralism and tolerance, above a Javanese poem in his honor

Despite this a few have protested the design of some buildings, claiming the roofs are too steep and therefore like a church, or that crucifixes can be seen or imagined in the way cross beam supports have been designed.

Logical explanations regarding load-bearing tend not to move those determined to find signs of sinister intent – but these have usually been dismissed by the less superstitious majority.  Many staff are Muslims and find no fault in the environment or philosophy, Dr Sari said.

The complex is busy, mainly running courses for corporate clients from across the archipelago.  It would seem the ideal place to train the police and army, but so far no inquiries.

According to YEU information manager Dita Novirani about 6,000 new hotel beds have become available in Yogya in the past year, many at prices competing with DIOS, but offering a less thought-provoking environment.


Challenging SBY

DIOS staff learned useful lessons after their training center had been built in 2008.  Though located closer to Merapi than the city, the volcano wasn’t considered a threat.  Past eruptions had seen larva flow, and smoke blow, in other directions.

Not this time.  On the night of 25 October 2010 almost 400 local people, mainly women and children, were sheltering at DIOS, having been evacuated from their homes closer to the flaming summit.

Only four young women were in charge.  Despite all the careful planning, ensuring full rosters of well-rested staff at all times had slipped off the agenda.

The area was crackling with more than 500 quakes. Eruptions had topped those of the 1872 big bang. This was a national crisis.  President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ordered all DIOS refugees evacuated to the city stadium.

“Five military trucks arrived around 3 am to move us, but I protested,” said Dr Sari.  “I feared our community would be stranded and get little care among the 32,000 other people at the stadium.  I wanted them to go instead to a seminary where accommodation and resources were available.”

Challenging presidential orders is a tough call, particularly for an NGO official with no government authority at a time of great urgency. But the people on four of the trucks backed her reasoning and the army yielded.

When the staff returned to DIOS weeks later they found it sagging under heavy mud.  In the ash on a sign advertising the Disaster Oasis Center some cruel wag had scrawled in English; ‘You got what you asked for.’

A few tiles had broken and let in rain.  Vandals had ransacked the bunker stealing emergency food supplies and fuel, but otherwise it was mainly sweeping and shovelling.

“It took about three weeks,” said Dita.  “We were offered a lot of help but managing volunteers is another difficult task, particularly when they come with limited time and their own values.

“We’ve learned that in an emergency we must make sure everyone is heard and involved even though separated.  We weren’t insured then – but we are now.

“When we face another disaster I hope our work will be lighter.”

(First published in The Sunday Post 23 December 2012)











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