Survivors still on high alert six days after Indonesian tsunami

By Rosemarie North, IFRC

A kilometre inland and up a steep concrete road is the formerly sleep hamlet of Kampung Sirih in Banten province. Since a deadly tsunami hit at about 9.30pm on 22 December local time, its population has swelled by 1,300 people. They are some of the 16,000 or more people displaced after the disaster.

An enormous white dome appears through the trees, a beacon above wooden cottages and dirt yards with chickens and kittens. Masjid Al-Jid, still under construction, is now home to about 300 people, mostly women and children.

Ani, 28, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, recalls how she arrived at the peaceful refuge.

“I was sleeping when the wave came. My mother phoned me. ‘What are you doing inside? Come out! The tide is coming! The waves are coming!’.”

Ani and her husband ran out into the street but her first thought was for her grandmother, in her 80s, living alone and unable to walk. Ani arranged for a nearby cousin to drive their grandmother to higher ground on his motorbike. Meanwhile, Ani and her husband ran through knee-high water in paddy fields and to the hills beyond.

Days on, she is still coming to terms with what happened.

“I’m still shocked. I don’t feel safe at home. I’m on alert all the time.”

The tsunami, most likely triggered by a landslide on nearby Anak Krakatau, the “child” of volcano Krakatoa, caused 430 deaths, injured 1,500 people and left 150 missing.[1] It damaged hundreds of buildings, vehicles and boats, and left parts of the coastline on both sides of Sunda strait, which separates the islands of Java and Sumatra, littered with debris. The tsunami came on top of extremely high tides. Before the tsunami, the risk of a tidal wave triggered an evacuation in Lampung on Sumatra on the afternoon of 22 December.

When the waves came, Iyung was having dinner. She was alerted by her son, 17, who was at the beach at the time. She grabbed her other children, aged 5 and 12, and they ran.

“Thank goodness my son was looking out. He was at the beach and heard screaming so he came home to get me.

“I didn’t take anything with me. I remembered only that I had some change in my pocket from buying cough medicine earlier in the day.”

Iyung had a similar experience in 2015, when a twister came through, destroying her small seaside shop. Back then, water in the paddy fields was waist-high. But the family gathered at the same masjid.

She had a bad feeling about this year.

“I rebuilt my shop but it’s not open this year because I was afraid there would be another disaster. I keep expecting more disasters.”

During the day Iyung leaves the shelter to cook at home because the masjid only has tea and coffee. Others go home quickly to pick up the essentials: clothes, sanitary pads and baby milk for mothers whose breastmilk has dried up because of stress.

Many say their houses are untouched by the waves. But fear drives them uphill at night.

“I don’t feel safe. I jump when I hear the sound of motorbikes at night. I don’t sleep. I startle easily,” says Iyung.

Days after the disaster, fresh alerts warn of the risk of more waves, and ashes and smoke from the restless volcano.

“I heard Krakatau coughing,” says Iyung. “There were ashes everywhere. They burned my eyes as though someone rubbed chilli in them.”

Iyung’s cousin Umamah, who returned three months ago after working in Jordan for 15 years, is also at the shelter with seven family members including a one-month-old baby.

“We still hear warnings to stay away from the beach because the tides are still high so we’re scared.

“If the local authorities tell us we can go home, we will but the waves are still heavy.

“I’m also worried people might steal things from my house. But I’m also thinking about myself and my family. I want to be safe. If our things are gone, it’s OK. It’s just stuff.

“Now I feel a little calmer, I was terrified before. I believe in God and it’s God’s will so I try to accept it.”

She says despite the disaster she feels safer in Indonesia than in Jordan.

The village head, Pak Awang, worries about people’s future. Eighty percent depend on businesses along the coast, which his popular with Indonesian tourists. It is unclear when they will be able to get back to work, or when tourists will return.

Pak Awang’s priority now is helping people understand the risks without causing unnecessary panic. Instead of using a loudhailer, he’s been going to the masjid shelter to give advice to stay away from the beach for now.

“It’s my duty to take care of people,” he tells the Indonesian Red Cross.

“If the people are sad, I feel sad too. If they feel safe, I feel safe too. If they feel happy, I’m happy too.”

From previous disasters, the Indonesian Red Cross knows that the most urgent needs of people displaced from their homes like Umamah, Iyung and Ani are water, tarpaulins and blankets, and medical care. Four hundred Red Cross volunteers on the ground since the disaster have been helping people evacuate, delivering essential supplies and carrying out first aid. Red Cross teams are also doing search and rescue and body recovery, and tracing missing people through the restoring family links programme. They continue to provide vital life-saving support and assess further needs.

[1] From the last official figures on 24 December.