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Indonesia: It's not Disasterland

Analysis: Natural disasters are all the media tells us about Indonesia. But there's so much more.

natural disasters, tsunami
Indonesia's Mt. Merapi erupts in 2006. A series of natural disasters has again put Indonesia in the news. (Peter Gelling/GlobalPost)

BOSTON — In Jakarta, Indonesia’s sprawling mega-capital, when the ground rumbles in that all too familiar way, everyone runs.

There is no order to it. There are no clearly marked emergency exits and people do not form lines as they calmly file out of the city’s ubiquitous office towers and malls. No, no matter where you are, you get out fast — women and children be damned.

There is no telling how many movie theaters I’ve torn out of, a full flight of stairs ahead of my Javanese girlfriend.

But when the tectonics settle, usually only a few minutes later, shoulders are shrugged and everyone meanders back inside.

For Indonesians, disasters are a part of their everyday life — a reality made starkly apparent this week when three of them struck simultaneously in highly populated regions of the country. So when news organizations around the world stumble to cover them ad nauseum, it often seems incongruous to those living there.

To many messages of concern sent from home during the time I lived there, I replied, “Why? What happened?”

This week a massive, but not uncommon, 7.7-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of the island of Sumatra, launching a tsunami into populated coastal atolls that has so far killed more than 300 people. And all the while, on the island of Java, the riotous Mt. Merapi repeatedly erupted, killing dozens and sending the tens of thousands who live on its slopes running from superheated clouds of hot gas.

Mt. Merapi is historically so volatile that its inhabitants rarely leave its slopes during eruptions. They sleep soundly despite the constant thundering of boulders flying out of the mountain’s crater, crashing into the slopes below. They wake up every morning and sweep the ash that has collected over night from their dirt driveways and go about their days as usual.

Despite government orders to evacuate, few do until they themselves feel it is necessary — after all, who can know the mountain better than the families who have lived on it for generations? And still others will never flee the volcano, whose fertile volcanic soil provides their livelihood. For them, to be killed or not killed by Mt. Merapi is simply God’s will, not something taken lightly by these devout, and deeply mystical, Javanese Muslims.

Consider Mbah Maridjan, the spiritual gatekeeper of Mt. Merapi. A man well into his 80s, he for decades appeased the volcano with elaborate ceremonies and prayers, and time and time again out-predicted scientists. This week, he finally succumbed, along with dozens of others, to the mountain’s famous volatility.

He was found burned alive inside his wooden home, one of the closest to the crater, bent in a position of prayer.

The next day, the villagers who evacuated began to trickle back, only to watch Merapi erupt again.
At Mt. Kelud in East Java, another temperamental towering inferno, villagers also rarely leave its slopes — even when the rivers begin to boil and the air becomes thick with ash.

“It is God's will,” Suroto Jarot told me in 2007. Jarot was a village elder on Mt. Kelud who ignored government warnings and remained at home to feed his livestock and protect the village from looters. “There is nothing we can do. This is our home. We have lived here for generations. I have never considered leaving.”

During the 2006 Yogyakarta earthquake, which killed thousands and displaced upward of a million people in Central Java, an elderly woman standing outside her collapsed house smiled and said the Javanese equivalent of “what can you do?”

It wasn’t her first earthquake. In Indonesia, these things happen.

Disasters are so common, in fact, they don’t always make the lead story on local cable channels.
Not so in the rest of the world. When disaster strikes Indonesia, as it so often does, the whole world knows about it. Disasters make for good storytelling, striking photography and video, and ratings. For journalists based in Jakarta, their jobs can often feel like the disaster beat.

It’s not a bad thing. The coverage often leads to humanitarian donations that are often essential to rescue and recovery operations.

But the unflattering result is that to the rest of the world Indonesia is Disasterland and little else — a frustrating truth for anyone who has ever lived there.