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June, 2006

Yogyakarta, Bantul and Klaten on the Pacific Rim.

There is a stock sentence, which is encrypted into the computer of every journalist who writes about this island chain. It reads something like this: “Indonesia, the world's largest archipelago, is prone to seismic upheaval due to its location on the so-called Pacific ‘Ring of Fire,’ an arc of volcanoes and fault lines encircling the Pacific Basin.”  

This simple sentence seemingly explains why Indonesia has experienced some of the most dreadful natural disasters on record. At the end of the journalistic comments on any earthquake, tsunami or volcanic eruption in Indonesia where the details are at best sketchy because the already inadequate communication infrastructure has been rendered less functional by nature, this sentence is pasted in to elucidate, for those of us “who have just joined the programme”.

While the picture painted by the media and the reality are often very different, a catastrophe is a catastrophe wherever it occurs and we are all sorry for the people caught up in it whoever we may be.

Today’s Indonesian catastrophe is centred in the area of the Yogyakarta (DIY) province and its neighbouring Central Java province.

Indonesia doesn’t do things by halves. When events happen here they happen with an earth shattering reality, which makes us all wonder.  The size of natural disasters in Indonesia often seems to outstrip those other parts of the world.

The recent tsunami in the Indian Ocean devastated many areas but none so much as the northern tip and western coast of Sumatra island in Indonesia. Aceh (NAD) and North Sumatra provinces suffered huge losses and enormous destruction.  Shortly after this event the island of Nias in the province of North Sumatra was decimated by another earthquake.

In the past month or so we have been regaled with the news that Mount Merapi “one of the world’s most active volcano’s” which lies between Yogyakatra and Surakarta (Solo) in the middle of Java Island has been on the verge of erupting.  The locals have been in and out of refugee status so many times that even the newscasters are beginning to be bored with the story.  It seemed it may remain like this forever. This is a continuing story as the volcano has been much more active since the unrelated Yogyakarta quake.

At almost 6 a.m. on the morning of Saturday May 27 2006, an earthquake measuring 5.9 on the Richter scale took place.  This violent tremor lasted less than a minute but it managed to wipe out whole villages in the Bantul region, the area closest to the coast where it’s epicentre was located. The whole of Yogyakarta city and the surrounding area was affected including the city of Klaten to the east in the neighbouring Central Java province.

The death toll is now estimated at 6,234. Damage is huge and the loss of productivity will be enormous.  Over 10,000 families are estimated to have lost their homes. In some areas the local communities have already started to clear the rubble and ready the land for building again. Last night the Governor of Yogyakarta, Sri Sultan Hamangkubuwono X appealed to the foreign teams who are now coming into the area to assist by giving “nails and cement”.

Not only are the people faced with the tragedy of re-building but also many of them are now without income as their workplaces have been destroyed and their livelihood is gone.

Yogyakarta is one of Indonesia’s most beautiful cities and a constant tourist attraction. The Prambanan temple complex which legend tells us was built in “a day” will take an estimated 10 years to repair. The wonderful Borobudur complex remains open to the public and was not affected. 

The Yogyakarta airport was completely closed by the quake, which partly destroyed many of the terminal buildings and the tower as well as leaving gaping cracks in the runway. This important lifeline was very quickly restored to working order. It was somewhat shattering to see such destruction but that is what living in Indonesia is about. 

There are times when that which we have known and loved will be shaken and even destroyed. That is a part of the cycle of life in this place. 

News spreads rapidly these days and soon the broadcasters had gathered on the streets of Yogya, Klaten and Banten to telecast their descriptions of the tragedy to the rest of the nation. Bodies are shown being dug from the rubble; hospitals are shown with patients on the floors as they attempt to cope with the overflow of the injured. The President is shown visiting the wounded. He moved his office to Yogyakarta for the first four days after the tragedy.

Potential donors representing large and prosperous firms in Indonesia are contacted and tell the TV audiences how much they will contribute to helping those in need.

The generosity of the donors is obvious and while the Red Cross brings supplies and the army help to extract the wounded from the rubble mankind shows how helpful man can be to his fellows in a time of a crisis.

Teams arrive from overseas to set up field hospitals and bring the latest emergency equipment and engineers to assess the damage.

Everyone’s heart goes out to those who are suffering for whatever reason because of the earthquake. For those of us who live in Indonesia there is always a tinge of thankfulness for the fact we are not the ones who need that assistance on this occasion. At any moment the tables can turn. At any moment the gods can decide that it is our turn.  We are all aware of this.

As the people in the quake areas try to resume a “normal” life and slowly begin to recover they are helped by the abundance of food and staples which are there in the village rice fields where there is always something to use for food. This abundance is also a part of living on the “Pacific Rim”. The volcanic nature of Indonesia means that the soils are rich in nutriments for the plants, which sustain life.  The “yin and yang” of life in Indonesia is also evident in a catastrophe.

Douglas Myers
4th June 2006


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