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

Saturday, April 12, 2014


The village that won’t die  

Rising from the rubble: Nicholas Saputra, 11, (left) and Wildan Dwi Saputra, 10.
Like a dragon settling after a good meal Central Java’s Mount Merapi continues to rumble and belch.  Officials urge awareness.  Most villagers understand the dangers but want to stay.  Duncan Graham reports from Gempol, Malegang Regency.

The video’s special effects are astonishing, Steven Spielberg quality. But this is reality.
A flood to challenge Noah roaring down the river at maybe 60 kilometers an hour, boulders half as big as cars rolling like soccer balls, tree limbs thrashing the filthy foam like drowning men.
Banks are gouged and breached. Houses crumple and vanish. People rush to higher ground.  Maybe Armageddon will look like this.
Cut to the present. A dozen villagers gather in the Gempol (Central Java) community hall, a four-post, high roof traditional joglo.  They’ve come to hear the latest news from Sudiyanto, the elected head of the dusun (remote village).
He clicks a laptop file and projects a video of a meeting held two days earlier in another village.  The locals have no wish to see again the shaky footage shot by a brave neighbor in January 2011, but tolerate a viewing for visitors. 
The Gempol people want to move on, and for some that means away. They think the village is too dangerous despite diversion of the Kali Putih (White River), so they plan to relocate.  That suits the government.
But others want to stay with their homes, land, history and jobs.  They prefer to believe the assurances of engineers that their town is now safe and they reject contradictory advice from bureaucrats.

The dispute in the village 20 kilometers from Yogyakarta off the road to Magelang is shaping as a classic example of the social trauma that so often follows natural disasters everywhere in the world.
During the crisis all work together.  Later the cohesion crumbles and neighbors turn against each other, often over aid distribution and land use.
This drama began after Mount Merapi exploded in late 2010.  Although Gempol is 18 kilometers from the summit, the village lies in the path of a river that rises high on the mountain’s slopes.  This became the channel for the lahar on that awful January day.
Lahar is a Javanese word that’s pushed its way into English. It’s the fast-moving mix of volcanic mud, ash, debris, water and rocks that follows volcanic eruptions.  Lahar can be enormously destructive, but early warning systems helped save the lives of all the Gempol people.
Local warden Widodo was monitoring his walkie-talkie when the alert came from higher up the valley. The little mosque’s speakers screamed ‘lari, lari, lari’ (run, run, run) and Widodo bashed a steel pipe to sound the alarm. Signs in the streets showed the evacuation route.

“I didn’t have to do much,” he said. “We’d already seen the black clouds and knew from experience that a lahar could follow heavy rain.  We can build to reduce earthquake damage, but nothing stops a lahar.”
When the flood had passed the residents found 43 of their 160 homes had vanished.  Rubble from another 23 remained.  Most of the rest sustained some damage. Sections of the nearby main road had been torn away.
Families moved to a temporary camp about a kilometer distant and stayed for two years while the men went to and fro rebuilding their homes.  The giant boulders dumped in their yards were painstakingly fractured by hammer and chisel and stockpiled for sale as roadmaking material.

A house once stood here – 
residents Sumiyati (left) and Nur Hidayati,

Some of the rebuilt houses look better than the originals, according to resident Nur Hidayati, another reason to stay. “The lahar was a tragedy but for some of us it’s been a blessing in disguise,” she said.
Authorities say they are motivated by safety in wanting Gempol empty (see sidebar). However rumors swirl that the government wants the land to build a truck depot or set up a tourist center.
“The government has offered those who leave Gempol Rp 37 million (US$ 3,220) to buy land and rebuild – but that’s clearly not enough,” said Sudiyanto.  “A minimum of Rp 50 million is required.
“But the real issue is the people who want to stay.  They’re getting nothing, yet their needs are the same.”

High school dropout Sudiyanto, 39, (left) fossicked for food in rubbish dumps during the 1997 economic crisis, He then went Riau as a laborer before returning to his village where he set about learning leadership and ways to use modern technology.
“He understands that information is power, and to fight governments communities need to be equally well informed and better prepared,” said Dr Sari Timur who runs the Yakkum Emergency Unit. She came across Gempol women when helping in the refugee camp and has since been acting as a resource person.
“We don’t interfere,” she said. “If we are asked we put them in touch with individuals and agencies that may be able to help. What Sudiyanto and his supporters have been doing is extraordinary.  This is a text book case of community self help and transparency.”
Despite his successes Sudiyanto remains Javanese-modest. He’s papered the joglo’s walls with photocopies of correspondence, financial reports and letters sent to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and regional heads. Nearby are the receipts proving postage. Just one reply – a down-the-line referral that perished on its journey.
Sudiyanto’s quest to preserve Gempol has come at a cost.  Eighteen families have already moved.  Some have abused him for challenging the government. Countering this have been invitations to explain his campaign to other communities.
Also displayed are the damage statistics and a map.  Any civil servant trying to drown community opposition with bombast should approach Gempol with great caution.  A sign reads: Perjuangan Warga Gempol Mengharap Keadilan (The Gempol people’s struggle is to hope for justice).
Processions and street demos have been organized and the local media encouraged to report. Sound and vision of meetings and visits are recorded for those unable to be present and a record of what was actually said.

After the flood the government built Sabo check-dams upstream to slow lahar and dump sediment. It has also spent Rp 64 billion (US $56 million) on a new bridge (right) and  a 2.3 kilometer concrete sloping-walled trench almost 100 meters wide to divert future lahar flows.
It’s this impressive example of civil engineering, much bigger than the original river, that gives the villagers confidence to remain.
“The difficulty is that government departments are not sticking to one clear message, and that’s confusing” said Sudiyanto. “All we want is to be treated equally and fairly.”

Still unsafe?
Despite the government diverting Kali Putih at huge expense it seems that Gempol remains a danger zone.
Sujadi, manager of the Regional Disaster Mitigation Agency BPPD, referred inquiries to a letter from the Geological Disaster Technology Research and Development Agency BPPTKG, which he said had been sent to Gempol.  He said this made the risk clear.
“This village is one of several that could be threatened and we are concerned about everyone’s safety,” Sujadi said.
“We are offering money to people to relocate but we don’t want to force them to move.  The grant of Rp 37 million was set two years ago and may be reviewed. It was available only to people who moved to secure locations.
“There are no plans to turn Gempol into a tourist park or anything else.  We are not sending conflicting messages.  However the people must understand that if they stay in Gempol they could be in danger if another lahar flows.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post, 11 April 2014)

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