The Sulawesi earthquake survivors: Their spirit shines through


  • People
  • Monday, 10 Jun 2019

Never forget: The tragic date commemorated with a simple sign.

Seeing its bustling streets today, one would not have guessed that Palu City in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, had suffered a deadly earthquake just over half a year ago.

For the community, Sept 28, 2018, will forever be the day of three disasters: At 6pm, a 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck offshore, triggering a 5m-high tsunami and an unprecedented liquefaction – when a quake turns the ground into liquid – that swallowed up entire villages.

On the surface, life seems to have returned to normal but buildings that had been damaged beyond repair stand as ghostly reminders of the disaster. It was not until we travelled along the coast that the extent of the disaster was evident. Entire commercial centres had been flattened by the tsunami. In the farmlands, large white tents are signs of the hundreds of thousands that have been left homeless.

Indonesia’s National Agency for Disaster Management estimates the death toll at 2,256 with 1,309 missing. However, local media reported 4,340 dead and 173,00 displaced in the disaster that struck four districts: Palu, Sigi, Donggala and Parigi Moutong.

Sulawesi earthquake survivors' stories
Sulawesi’s Palu Beach was famous for its ‘floating’ mosque that used to sit at the end of a pier that jutted out into the sea. While the tsunami destroyed the pier, the mosque miraculously lived up to its nickname and was washed ashore, its structure largely intact.

Star2 visited four Wahana Visi (World Vision Indonesia) emergency relief projects in early May to understand how the community is recovering from the tragedy. In their stories of survival, we discovered amazing strength, determination and resilience.

The Fisherman Who Lost His Home

On the first day of Ramadan, Karlin woke up at dawn for suhur (morning prayers) as he would every Ramadan but instead of his beach-side home, this time he woke up in a one-room unit in a huntara (temporary shelter).

Left homeless by the devastating tsunami, the 48-year-old fisherman broke down in tears.

“I started crying when I thought about our old home. I looked at our lives in the huntara now and how it has changed, I couldn’t hold back tears,” the father of two says. “I miss our old life.”

Sulawesi earthquake survivors' stories
Karlin, Sri Wulan and their two boys now live in a one-room unit in a huntara (temporary shelter).

Before the tragedy, Karlin and his family of four lived in a house located just 50m from the coast in Kadongo village.

“On Sept 28, I was on the beach preparing my boat for the boat festival when suddenly the earthquake struck,” Karlin recounts.

He says he held on to a clothesline pole as the ground shook violently beneath his feet and watched his house fall apart brick by brick.

“When the quake slowed down, I crawled into the house ... my wife and youngest son were still inside and I carried them out,” he says, adding that his eldest son managed to escape.

Sulawesi earthquake survivors' stories
The shared kitchen in the temporary shelter (huntara) that houses 120 families.

“Water started to rise out of the ground like boiling water.”

The tsunami swept away everything that they owned – house, 3mil rupiah (over RM800) in cash, and two boats and fishing nets – leaving them with only the clothes on their backs.

“We went from having everything to minus zero, we have to restart our lives from minus zero,” he says.

Without a home, Karlin and his family spent the next six months living in a large white tent, reliant on food aid and hygiene kits provided by NGOs.

When it rained, his tent-home would flood and their mattress would “float like boats”.

“My sons were crying every day asking for this and that, it was so hot in the tent, we didn’t even have any clothes.”

Sulawesi earthquake survivors' stories
The aftermath of liquefaction – when a quake turns the ground into liquid – in Balaroa, Palu City. Flags mark areas where there are still bodies buried under the rubble.

“I was devastated. Our old lives were gone, our home was gone, our livelihood was gone, life as we knew it was gone.”

Karlin says the only thing they had was hope and each other.

It wasn’t until March 14 that they finally received a unit in a huntara built by the government. The huntara in Vatupondulu is a dorm-style communal living environment housing 120 families. Each family lives in a small, one-room unit. The toilets and kitchens are shared by the community, with clean water delivered daily by Wahana Visi.

Karlin and his family have moved from a once fully-furnished house to a bare room containing a queen-sized mattress, two plastic drawers, and a small television.

Despite that, his wife, Sri Wulan, is trying to make it a home with a handful of green plants decorating the door step.

“I planted these to reduce stress, otherwise our thoughts will float to dark places,” the 42-year-old says.

Sulawesi earthquake survivors' stories
Everywhere you go in the area, there are signs that the people of Sulawesi don't want to forget the tragedy, like this boat named Likuifaksi (Indonesian for liquefaction).

Karlin says in the first few weeks when water was scarce, he had to fight with his neighbours just to get clean water. The couple are saddened by their loss but maintains a positive attitude, a much-needed strength to get through the uncertain days ahead.

It’s quite nice to live in a complex like this where the neighbours are right next door, they quip.

Life is difficult in the huntara, but Karlin says it’s something they have no choice but to endure. They expect to stay there for two years until the government fulfils plans to build the earthquake survivors permanent housing.

However, Karlin says the community is against the government’s plan to relocate them further inland where they would be far from their original village by beach.

“We are fishermen. How can we live so far from the sea?”

Karlin is not afraid to return to the sea that wiped out his village. “I’ve been living by the sea since I was a child. If it is destined for us to die at sea, no matter how high we go, there will be a time when we step foot on the beach and we will meet our maker,” he says.

Sulawesi earthquake survivors' stories
Never forget: The disaster's date commemorated with a simple sign.

He reminisces about the evenings when he and his family would watch television together in their old home. “Those were the happiest days of my life.”

Though life is slow now, Karlin is razor focused on rebuilding their lives.

“The main thing I need to return to my old life is a boat and some fishing nets. But now we don’t have anything because I lost my boat and there is no work.”

There have been times when the only thing he could do is sit and watch the days go by.

“I believe I can become a fisherman again. I will work hard and do any job I can to make sure that happens, so I can save money to buy a boat, and then I can build us a new house.”

“I will really come back as a fisherman one day.”

A Farmer’s Silver Lining

Sulawesi earthquake survivors' stories
Safriandi and his eight-year-old daughter, Nadine Cantika Putri, at their motorcycle wash shop. Nadine helps by soaping the bikes while dad handles the water jet machine for washing.

Farmer Safriandi was excited to harvest his padi after three months of sowing and cultivating the field – it meant pay day was finally arriving.

The earthquake struck right when he was scheduled to start harvesting his bounty.

“I lost all my crops, I did not get any harvest because the earthquake destroyed my farm,” the 34-year-old says.

Like many survivors in Palu, the farmer and construction worker from Lolu village lost his entire livelihood to the earthquake. His livestock of approximately 100 chickens and ducks survived the disaster, but they were quickly stolen by desperate villagers during the first week of the disaster when food was scarce.

“I would have been able to make 3.5mil rupiah (RM1,000) from selling the livestock,” Safriandi sighs.

On the fateful day, Safriandi had just parked his motorcycle outside his house when the earthquake started. He immediately rushed into the house to rescue his eight-year-old daughter, Nadine Cantika Putri. Nadine, who was flung across the kitchen as the ground shook like a snake, has a faint scar on her cheek, a constant reminder of the day she almost lost her life.

As the family of three got used to life in hot and humid tents, Safriandi started worrying about their future. Even when they were able to go home when water and electricity supply was restored, they had no means of making money. He lost his livestock, his farm is unusable and the water irrigation system was destroyed.

“What were we going to eat?”

Safriandi needed a job, but there was no work available.

A long and painful five months later, a golden opportunity to rebuild his livelihood fell into his hands. The leader of the village’s farming association invited him and 30 other farmers to participate in Wahana Visi’s Cash for Work programme. The 12-day programme employed farmers in the village to clear their agriculture land and cultivate it for the upcoming planting season when they would plant chilli and maize.

Safriandi jumped at the chance, the first in many months, and started digging the land while others cleared debris and built water irrigation systems.

“I joined the programme because I wanted life to go back to normal. Nadine still has to go to school, I just wanted to earn money,” he says.

At the end of the programme, Safriandi was paid 960,000 rupiah (RM280). It was a meagre sum but enough, perhaps, to kick start a new beginning for his family.

“I was thinking about how can I use the money. So I had a plan to open a motorcycle wash shop to make additional income,” he says.

It was a business opportunity that was not possible before the earthquake. Previously, the road along the farming village was quiet. However, the area has now become busy with passing traffic as several huntaras are located nearby.

One week after receiving his salary, Safriandi bought a water jet machine and scoured the earthquake debris for wood, chairs and a sink to build a small roadside shack that he now proudly calls his shop.

With little Nadine helping to soap the bikes, he charges 15,000 to 20,000 rupiah (RM4.40 to RM5.80) per motorcycle and can make between 100,000 and 150,000 rupiah (RM30 and RM45) a day.

“Life is slowly going back to normal now with this motorcycle wash shop,” he says.

Surprisingly, he says life has become even easier than before the earthquake.

“Previously I have to wait three months for the harvest season before I can get an income, now I have a small daily income.

“I don’t know where I would be if not for the job opportunity, I may follow my friends to become kuli (labourers) in construction work, but those jobs are not available every day,” he says.

The budding entrepreneur now has a plan to expand the motorcycle wash into a workshop. But for now, the motorcycle wash alone is not enough. Safriandi is still reliant on farming.

“I hope to get a good harvest this year, so I won’t have to worry about our future any more.”

A Headmistress’ Dedication

Sulawesi earthquake survivors' stories
Students of Sekolah Dasar Inpres 3 Talise in the temporary classroom built by Wahana Visi.

The first thing headmistress Nurhaedah, 54, did as soon as the earthquake stopped was to check on her beloved school, Sekolah Dasar Inpres 3 Talise.

Her heart dropped when she saw what was left of the once happy and vibrant place: the library had split into two, nine of the 11 classrooms had been demolished with the ceiling on the floor and walls cracked like pieces of a puzzle. The only thing left intact was the teachers’ office.

“We also lost some school supplies, water gallons and other things to looting,” she says of the peak of the emergency period when a shortage of food, water and petrol drove desperate residents to loot.

As the city comes to terms with the loss, Nurhaedah rallied her teachers to return to clear the debris with the help of the police and army special forces. When school officially reopened two weeks later, only 60 out of the 306 students aged seven to 12 showed up.

At that point, many residents had left the district while other parents were afraid of sending their children to school for fear of more tremors.

“We don’t know where our students were, we tried to find them,” Nurhaedah, who has been teaching for 34 years, says.

Sulawesi earthquake survivors' stories
Nurhaedah and her teachers got students back at school as soon as they could.

She and the teachers started calling every parent. Besides encouraging students to come back to school, the call was also meant to check whether they were still alive.

Fortunately, the school was located away from the earthquake epicentre and had no casualties.

“Unlike in Petobo (a liquefaction area), many students died there,” Nurhaedah sighs.

“Many parents thought there wasn’t much point to send their children to school because the school was badly damaged,” she says, adding that some were hesitant to return because they had lost their uniforms and textbooks. Nurhaedah believes that once they see the school facilities and learning spaces are ready, the students will return, with or without uniforms.

So she set off on a mission to make the school conducive again.

“As the headmistress, I couldn’t just sit and wait for aid to arrive. There are so many schools that needed help that if we waited, it would never reach us,” she says.

As the classrooms were condemned, Nurhaedah sought help from several NGOs, including Wahana Visi, to set up eight temporary classrooms.

The makeshift structures are made of light calcium silicate board and have no ceiling fans nor lights that would pose a risk if another earthquake struck.

Sulawesi earthquake survivors' stories
Teacher Lisnur in front of her hastily repaired house.

Nurhaedah’s plan worked. She says students slowly started to trickle into the school one by one. However, it was difficult to keep them in school as tremors and aftershocks continued.

“The student were very traumatised. Each time we had a tremor in school, they would stay home the next day,” she says.

Teacher Lisnur, 52, says the first week of school was focused on helping the students overcome their trauma with songs, trauma healing and earthquake drills.

“We had to give them strength to cope with the trauma and grief. We did prayers in class to help strengthen their resilience,” the teacher of 30 years says.

“I had to control my emotions too. If I myself had flashbacks about the earthquake and I start tearing up, the students will also start crying.”

But there was a ticking clock that the teachers worried about: the national final year exam was taking place in two months’ time. With little teaching material available, the teachers had to get creative in using any remaining reference books to prepare the students for the exam.

“They had to get over their trauma first, so we tried to think of ways to add in playing and learning while helping them slowly cope with the trauma until they are ready to study again.

“They were very behind in the syllabus but we didn’t force the students to study,” Lisnur adds.

In December, around 100 students took the exam with several even scoring full marks. Classes resumed to normal in February and despite the cracks in the walls, the students have returned to their playful, carefree selves. There is a hole in one of the temporary classrooms, caused by a playful accident during a football game in the playground.

“There are still tremors today, but now the students have gotten used to it,” Nurhaedah says.

“They are not afraid any more because they study in temporary classrooms. If the classroom collapses, it won’t endanger anyone’s life.”

The school’s priority now is to repair the library and the classrooms. Meanwhile, the teachers’ quarters at the back of the school still lies in shambles. A pile of rubble that used to make up the walls of their house sits at the front of the quarters. Some of the brick houses have been shoddily patched with wooden planks like bandages.

“I told the teachers to be patient, let’s live with what we have first,” Nuhaedah says.

“Most importantly, we teach our students sincerely and diligently. We do not need to look at our own needs yet, God will see our sacrifice and our fight.”

A Social Worker’s Trauma

Sulawesi earthquake survivors' stories
Sabtarina returned to the area despite her traumatic experience.

If their company's end of financial year activities had gone according to schedule, Wahana Visi programme manager Sabtarina Dwi Febriyanti and her team could have died in the earthquake and tsunami.

The disaster happened on the Friday that they had planned to be at Sirenja, the earthquake's epicentre, for a team building exercise on the beach.

By a stroke of good luck, Sabtarina had rescheduled the trip to the day before and instead spent Friday in the office in Palu City.

"We were in the meeting room when the earthquake started. This earthquake was different, usually the ground moves side to side, but this time it moved up and down," the 57-year-old said, adding that they could not even stand up.

The team asked Sabtarina to make the most difficult decision of her life: Should they stay in the office, or move to higher ground to avoid a tsunami.

"I remember thinking that this place is quite high. If the tsunami reaches here, then there would be no more Palu, so I said let's just stay in this office."

Sabtarina’s hunch was right, the tsunami did not reach the centre of Palu City, though it demolished the coastline.

With communication lines down, Sabtarina, who is from East Java, and those who lived away from home could not contact their families.

"We went around looking for reporters or TV cameras, to show our faces on TV so our families could see that we are still alive, but there were no reporters around," she says, adding that outsiders had no access into Palu at that time.

They only found out two days later that they lost one colleague, 26-year-old health worker Nelce.

While Sabtarina and her team waited for Wahana Visi's national emergency response team to arrive, they had to put aside their own trauma to respond to the emergency.

About 200 survivors – employees, their families, and neighbours – sought refuge in the office compound. Some of them had lost their houses, while others were too afraid to go home.

"It was difficult for my team because we were feeling the same grief as the community. They tried to be strong for the community but when they got back to this office, they would break down," she says.

Nonetheless, the team braved on and set up tents to provide shelter from the punishing heat, provided psychosocial support to the children and went into the streets to assess damage.

"We didn't have any food so we just collected rice from some neighbours and employees. We had a moringa tree here and cooked the leaves with water," Sabtarina says – for five days, they ate nothing but rice with moringa leaves and salt.

Sabtarina found herself becoming the emotional support for her team so she was unable to process her own trauma.

"I had to be strong in front of all our employees because if I cry, they will feel bad."

"I cried just one time when I was alone in the office when I thought about the faces of my employees crying and screaming, asking me about their children and families," she says, adding that some of them had said it felt like “the end of days”.

Two weeks later, with the national response team's operation in full swing, Sabtarina and her team were finally relieved of their duties and sent to Makassar, the nearest city with psychologists, to recover.

Seven months after the tragedy, Sabtarina is back to her routine at Wahana Visi, restarting development projects that had been derailed by the disaster.

She, along with the rest of Palu, is trying to rebuild their community one brick at a time.

However, the ghost of the tragedy is ever present in the cracks in the walls, the abandoned structures, and the mountain of debris where crowded villages once stood proudly.

On tough days, Sabtarina wonders who to turn to when she feels down.

"One thing that helps me is that I have had a lot of interviews with the media and it has become my space to release my story. This has actually really helped me," she says.

"I've been through a lot of earthquakes, but this is my first experience with 7.5 Richter scale earthquake.... I never thought a tsunami would happen in Palu," she says. "But now I know it is possible."

Despite that, she never once hesitated to return to work in Palu City.

"My parents asked me if I am sure I wanted to go back. I said 'of course, I'm sure, this is where I work, this is my calling," she says.

"I love my job."

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