The spirit of Yogyakarta

The spirit of Yogyakarta

One of the most striking things about the reconstruction and rehabilitation from the devastating earthquake that hit Yogyakarta and its surroundings last May 27 is the victims’ spirit of survival.

With or without assistance from the government or other institutions, residents labored to rebuild their damaged houses and repair their damaged livelihoods in an atmosphere of gotong royong (mutual cooperation).

Nearly 6,000 people were killed by the powerful quake; more than 50,000 were injured and more than 1.5 million displaced. With about 300,000 houses destroyed, this was classified as the third most costly natural disaster in the world after the Aceh tsunami and a major earthquake in Turkey.

Without much fanfare, victims from all levels of society have worked hand in hand to return their lives to normal.

Even those who became paralyzed and got no assistance in renovating their damaged houses still have high hopes for better lives while living in makeshift tents next to the rubble of their homes.

After a year of exhausting work, the post-quake reconstruction won praise from President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who attended a special ceremony marking the first anniversary of the disaster in Yogyakarta on Saturday. He called it one of the most extensive natural disaster recovery projects in the world, and one of the fastest.

Last year’s disaster constituted a cruel blow to those communities, many of whom were already facing hardship due to the rising price of basic commodities and a scarcity of job opportunities.

It is the toughness of the local people that has steadily improved the conditions of daily life.

Apart from the dreadful destruction and personal tragedy, the quake has imparted some important lessons, especially with regard to the need for disaster preparedness.

The people are now increasingly aware that they cannot depend entirely on the government in case a natural disaster hits any region in the country.

Despite the many post-quake achievements, the disaster also exposed weaknesses in the country’s social, political and institutional lives.

Which institutions were useless, why was there no coordination, where was there a lack of preparedness: all of these things have been brought to light.

The National Disaster Management and Refugee Coordination Board, which was in charge of giving much-needed assistance to victims, could not work well on the first days of the disaster simply because it was unprofessional and too bureaucratic.

Its lack of effectiveness contributed to a chaotic situation when, before they could deal with their devastated houses or help the injured, many in the disaster zone fled when they heard rumors of a coming tsunami.

Thousands of panicked people ran around for hours, heedless of the cries of those crushed or trapped under the rubble of collapsed buildings, until they finally realized the tsunami fears were baseless.

An even more miserable scene ensued when the victims, including children, were forced to beg for days on nearly every inch of the major roads because food assistance failed to arrive.

Because there was no food, groups of victims hijacked and plundered convoys of relief assistance that passed through their villages.

Volunteers, in cooperation with the local disaster mitigation units, took the initiative to bypass the administrative system and air-drop tons of rice to the affected areas. They also sent medical teams.

The coordination of relief and reconstruction work was poor, forcing victims to wait for food, water, medicines, tents, tarpaulins, construction materials and tools.

Things only got worse when Vice President Jusuf Kalla made an ambitious pledge to give Rp 30 million (US$3,300) to each victim whose house was destroyed, Rp 20 million to those whose homes were badly damaged and Rp 10 million to those with minor damage, but was unable to deliver on time.

As in the case of earlier natural disasters, the government failed to meet its promises due to limited funds. Activists responded by staging a hunger strike demanding immediate delivery of the much-needed financial assistance.

Soon after came signs of growing anger at the government over its perceived failure to assist earthquake survivors. Hundreds of people in Bantul, which suffered the brunt of the damage, rallied in support of the hunger strikers. Similar protests were held in Sleman, Gunungkidul and downtown Yogyakarta.

The tension shed light on a number of deep-rooted problems that hinder Indonesia’s ability to cope with deadly threats such as earthquakes, storms, floods and landslides. The key problems include lack of governmental preparedness and poor management.

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