Grass roots amongst the rubble

This semester I am studying at Gadjah Mada University (UGM), Yogyakarta. Early last Saturday morning, I was woken by a long deep rumble and a shaking bedroom. My first thought was ‘Merapi’. (For several weeks our attention had been focused on heightened volcanic activity at Mount Merapi). My neighbours rushed out onto the street, shaken, confused, trying to see if the mountain had erupted. But the plume of smoke and ash rising from the volcano didn’t match the intensity of what we had experienced.


With images of Aceh so fresh, it is not surprising that an hour later we heard cries of ‘tsunami!’ Although Yogyakarta is too far from the coast to be at risk from a tsunami, trucks full of wounded people began fleeing towards the mountain. They feared a second wave of destruction. As panic spread, the main streets heading north became congested with cars, trucks and motorcycles. Eventually police vehicles with loud-speakers helped spread the message that there was in fact no tsunami. A kind of order returned.


During the day, information accumulated. As every hospital quickly filled to overflowing it became clear that a major disaster had occurred. Groups and networks began to mobilise – those with first aid or medical skills immediately went out with medical teams and local rescue workers.


At first I, like many others, felt completely helpless. No skills, no transport. But people had already started to do whatever they could. They gave blood at the hospitals, and distributed water to people waiting hours for medical attention in hospital car parks. On the second day, we bought packages of cooked rice for injured people who had already waited more than a day outside hospitals. The few stores that were open were packed with shoppers, so stock quickly ran out. People feared further earthquakes, and were stocking up on supplies. But already groups were getting out to affected areas which desperately needed medics, medical supplies, basic food and shelter.


By Monday, an awesome array of spontaneous relief efforts could be seen on nearly every street. Mosques, church groups, community organisations, and scores of small informal networks were at work. Small groups pooled their resources to donate, collect and buy supplies, and somehow to get them out to places damaged by the earthquake. Vehicles of all descriptions plied the routes out of the city.


Despite this massive effort, the overwhelming scale of the disaster was now becoming apparent. Along any southerly or south-easterly road from the city you could see for kilometer after kilometer piles of bricks and wooden frames that were once houses. Children with plastic cups lined all the main roads leading from the city. They took donations from the aid vehicles that filed continuously back and forth from Yogyakarta. The media pictures of flattened homes tell the story, but not of its extent. On the ground, those images stretch virtually unbroken from the outskirts of the city to more remote villages. A few homes remain standing, but most of these are structurally unsound and sodden. They will have to be demolished.


The further out we went, the less aid anyone had received. Many had received none at all. The needy, especially, received little. Even by the fourth day, some marginal villages relied entirely on spontaneous community enterprise for what aid they received. It was a difficult challenge to balance efficient with fair distribution. Because government aid had to follow poorly organised bureaucratic structures that link local government to village heads, it was slow to reach the outer areas – if indeed it reached them at all. Community initiatives bypassed some of these structures, delivering aid quickly and directly to some of the most remote villages and families.


The number of relief initiatives and a lack of coordination, however, made the work less effective than it might have been. People who lacked skills in managing disasters did whatever they believed useful, rather than what was strategic. At the same time, however, tens of thousands of people all needed urgent help. No centralised effort could have matched a grassroots response in mobilising skills and resources, and in bringing them to so many places in a rapidly changing situation. It was awesome to see ordinary people responding so directly and quickly to what they saw.


Well organised local groups, too, brought their local knowledge and effective networks to groups like Médecins Sans Frontières. They met together each night. Such groups as WALHI (Indonesian Forum for the Environment) coordinated the efforts of their wider networks and smaller member groups, which fed back new information from the field. They were already making plans for the longer term, while continuing to offer emergency relief in an increasingly effective and strategic way.


I have been deeply impressed that so many in the community responded so quickly and worked so hard. It’s Saturday morning now, and it seems much more than a week since the quake. Most ad hoc groups are winding down their efforts. Unfortunately, we students now have to write end of semester assignments and sit our exams! Though recovery from the tsunami is likely to be complicated and difficult, I am inspired by the thinking of some permanent groups about work for the longer term. For example, friends at WALHI and the Centre for Peace and Security Studies (CSPS) have noted that in such situations local people often lose their voice. They will work to ensure that people are made central in decisions that are taken. They hope to lessen the dependency, conflict and ineffective distribution that so often follow emergencies.


In the pressure of this last week, it was hard to give time to listen to people, or to reflect on the difficulties that accompany relief work. I hope that longer term redevelopment will reflect the spirit of groups such as WALHI and CSPS and of the spontaneous community response that was so very effective in the days after the earthquake.



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