By Tim O’Connor, Caritas Australia Communications Officer in Padang
“We heard the noise, it was like a plane coming”, says Azwiran of the earthquake which shattered his tiny village of Palak Juha.
The damage wrought by the earthquake is devastating for the inhabitants of this tiny enclave three hours by road northwest of Padang in Sumatra. The village is close to the epicenter of the 7.6 earthquake and as you enter off the main road a few hundred metres down a dirt track, the scene is utterly shocking.
“For five minutes the earth shook but the buildings only lasted for the first two”, says Azwiran on the steps of his battered house. The sky is pierced with the twisted beams of wood and metal which were once home to twenty families. Bricks and mortar litter the ground. Some residences have completely collapsed leaving just the roof standing upon a pile of rubble. In other houses you can see the trappings of domesticity, beds, cupboards and furniture, incongruous as they now stand under a roof bereft of walls. Every single house is uninhabitable.
Despite the tragedy, we are warmly greeted by the residents. Selamat Siang (Good Afternoon) they call to us, their smiles brightening this desolate scene as they come forward to greet us. Looking at the ruined houses, like in other villages we have visited today, we are expecting the worst in terms of the human toll.
Yet miraculously no one here in Palak Jahu was killed in the huge quake. In the neighboring village three people are confirmed dead and five are still missing and the death toll in the villages dotted throughout the thick Sumatran forest is still growing. How every single resident here dodged the same fate is difficult to fathom.
“When we heard the noise – it came like a bullet – we were in the house”, says Lisna. “Everyone in the village ran out onto the road”, which splits the row of houses down the middle, “then we all took shelter in the garden”, referring to the large communal vegetable plot behind the houses.
The violence of the trembling earth was so extreme people were thrown from their feet. “Everyone was sitting on the ground, pushed there by the force of the shaking. We were all just in total shock”, says Lisna.
Walking the length of the village we are distressed at the destruction yet heartened by the peoples obvious will to go on. Even though the houses have all been destroyed, the people are already getting on with restoring their lives and their warmth and generosity to us is humbling.
“We only eat vegetables from our garden for the last five days” says one resident. Yet at the next house, that now more closely resembles a pile of rubble, the grandmother invites us in for a meal.
We decline, though stop to talk. “We are in great need here”, she tells us. “The well has been destroyed and we have no clean water”. Lisna says she is worried that the lack of clean water may affect her young daughter. “I am worried that she may get malaria. Already since the earthquake we have noticed more mosquitoes”. It is worrying as the start of the rainy season is the most dangerous time for water borne diseases. And the threat is given further weight with the large piles of rubble which are likely to trap more of the monsoonal rains in stagnant pools.
Yet the people here are resourceful. Although there is no electricity and their houses are uninhabitable, they are already starting to rebuild. Rain water is being collected.
Twenty people are sheltering under a makeshift lean-too, all women and children. The men are sleeping outdoors or where they lay at the end of the day, exhausted from the task of salvaging what they can from their damaged houses.
Caritas assessment teams where the first ones to come here and this gives the people great hope. “We will rebuild, this is our home. We do need help though”, says Azwiran.
In the next few days Caritas will begin distributing shelter, hygiene and tool kits to help this community and a total of 5,500 families around this small village to continue to rebuild their lives.
The resilience of these people is inspiring. They have been devastated and many people are suffering enormous grief, yet somehow they find the will and the energy to go on. It is important that as Caritas we can stand with them and foster this will they have to rebuild their lives.
Despite the disaster that this small community of Palak Jahu has faced we are amazed at how warm and friendly they are. Everyone smiles and comes to greet us in the respectful manner common to Indonesia. It is moving to hear their stories and bear witness to their loss and their pain. Above all it is inspiring to be a part of supporting their will to live