Indonesian mudflow victims pray for relief

By Heri Retnowati

SIDOARJO, Indonesia, May 29 (Reuters) - Around 2,000 Indonesians whose homes have been submerged by a gushing mud volcano prayed for relief from the torrent on Tuesday on the first anniversary of a disaster that shows no sign of abating.

Dressed in white prayer clothes, the victims packed into a football stadium dotted with banners to listen to a sermon blaring from loudspeakers as four giant video screens ran pictures of the mudflow throughout the three-hour ceremony.

"I don't have the strength any more to cope with this," said Jarot, a 73-year-old woman whose home was engulfed by the noxious-smelling hot mud that has defied all efforts to stop it since it started on an oil drilling site on Java island.

"I have stopped pleading with the government and Lapindo; now I only plead to God."

PT Lapindo Brantas is the operator of the oil well from where the mud has been flowing.

Jarot, who goes by one name like many Indonesians, is one of some 15,000 people facing an uncertain future since being forced out of their homes when the mud began flowing from a drilling site in Sidoarjo, near Indonesia's second-largest city, Surabaya.

The government has tried several schemes to halt the flow, including dropping giant concrete balls into the crater, but the hot mud still spurts at a rate of 148,000 cubic metres (5.2 million cubic feet) a day.

With an area four times the size of Monaco now under mud, about 6,000 families are living in makeshift plastic shelters in a nearby vacant market.

They have little clean water, space is cramped and the smell of stale food fills the air -- but they don't know where to go.

"At first we were told we would be compensated, but it turns out we won't get anything," said Zubaida, a 44-year-old whose house and fruit stall have been swamped by the mudflow.


Lapindo had been ordered by the government to pay 3.8 trillion rupiah ($434.8 million) to victims and for efforts to halt the flow, but officials say the cost could be double that.

Lapindo and PT Energi Mega Persada Tbk <ENRG.JK>, which indirectly controls Lapindo, dispute that the disaster was caused by drilling and also whether Lapindo alone should bear the cost.

Energi is owned by the Bakrie Group, controlled by the family of Indonesia's chief social welfare minister, Aburizal Bakrie.

So far 13 people have been investigated over the disaster, but no one has been prosecuted.

A permanent mudflow team set up by the government says it will build new dams and strengthen existing one, but some experts say the mudflow could continue for decades.

"I am very sad and embarrassed. I live here like a homeless person," said Melia Prihatiningsih, who recently gave birth to a baby girl at the camp.

Prihatiningsih says she is fortunate since at least her husband has a job, unlike many of the other whose factories and workshops have been inundated with mud.

But anger has been mounting.

About 2,000 people from four villages whose paddy fields have been submerged gathered on the banks of the Porong river and tried to destroy equipment being used to pump the mud into the river. The villagers were demanding to be added to a compensation list.

In another protest near the temporary shelters, about 3,000 people marched with a 50-metre banner urging the government to take more action. The banner will be presented to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Jakarta.

The anger spread to the capital where about 40 victims dressed in black shirts protested in the heart of the city with banners saying "We want compensation, 100 percent in cash!" and "We want our lives back!"

The protesters also carried five birthday cakes made of the volcanic mud, decorated with flowers and candles, to be presented to five officials, including Yudhoyono and Vice President Jusuf Kalla.

Protester Aisyah told Reuters in Jakarta she had received 5.5 million rupiah to pay for two years' rent, but she wanted her own home.

"I'm losing sleep and a lot of weight thinking about a home." ($1 = 8,740 rupiah)

(Additional reporting by Adhityani Arga and Dadang Tri in Jakarta and Reuters Television)


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