Kelud Volcano: Tears Washing Ash Away

She was holding on to a supporting beam of her timeworn and now badly damaged house. Her name is Ibu Pinarti, and she is most likely over 80 years old, although perhaps she does not even know her real age, as so many women in Indonesian kampungs, villages, do not know.

Her face is wrinkled, and she may look somewhat frail, but then she speaks, she speaks well, and in just a few minutes she tells me more truth than those down below, 20 kilometers down the slope, than I was told by several priests, journalists, top military brass and even by the President of the Indonesian Republic.

“I got sick before Mount Kelud exploded. The eruption was enormous, and it was spectacular. Then, nothing happened for two nights; nothing in terms of rescue operations or some substantial help from the government or the military (TNI). Ash was everywhere, the roof and even the walls of my house got damaged. And still nothing, almost nothing from the government! There were no ambulances and no military trucks. Look around this village – there is nothing here.”

I look around. She is correct. There is almost no activity visible in the village, except for a few men desperately trying to fix their roofs, as the rain is becoming intense, increasingly resembling a waterfall, inundating dwellings that were damaged by the downpour of ash.

The house belonging to Ibu Pinarti stands just two minutes drive from the gate to the Kelud National Park, in the village of Sugihwaras.

 Volcanic ash from a major eruption in Indonesia shrouded a large swath of the country's most densely populated island on Friday, closed three international airports and sent thousands fleeing. Picture: AP Photo/Trisnadi Source: AP

Volcanic ash from a major eruption in Indonesia shrouded a large swath of the country’s most densely populated island on Friday, closed three international airports and sent thousands fleeing. Picture: AP Photo/Trisnadi Source: AP

Even on the 4th day after the massive eruption, which covered much of Java (the most populous island of Indonesia) with ash, that closed almost all the airports and brought most of the cities and villages to a standstill, there is no substantial help coming from the official sources to those places that are in direct proximity to the outraged and rebellious volcano.

The house of Mrs. Sunarsim is located almost at the broken gate to the National Park. She is holding a little girl in her lap, and her words are bitter and accusative: “We don’t have money to rebuild the house. I don’t even know how much it will cost. Here, nobody has any insurance. My daughter is suffering from severe intoxication by the ash. I had to carry her to a medical post, through the ash field, just to find out that in the small medical post, there was no doctor.”

*****

Several mobile medical tents set up by the Indonesian military (TNI) right in front of the government complex in Wates (a town near the city of Kediri and some 20 kilometers from Sugihwaras), are clean and by local standards, well equipped. The only problem appears to be that they are empty. Not totally empty, of course. On the cots, there are several TNI medics and doctors, sleeping. Others are aimlessly chatting. Seeing my two professional cameras, some make a feeble attempt to get up, but that appears to be too taxing, and they soon fall back onto their backs, and cover their faces with berets.

The boots of the military medics are shining. It is obvious that they had not encountered any ash, sand, or dust, in the course of the day.

Behind the tents, dozens of heavy military trucks stand in absolute idleness. Hundreds of vehicles: trucks, motorbikes and rescue 4×4’s are scattered around the area.

Not far from those medical tents, a group of rescue workers hang around aimlessly. People are wearing yellow windbreakers. Gasmasks are firmly placed over their faces. It goes without saying that there is not much need for gasmasks here, as heavy rain washed away most of the ash and sand from this part of Kediri Regency, several hours ago.

The President of the Indonesian Republic, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), had been somewhere inside this labyrinth of useless tents, attending meetings. It is all about how to promote himself best – himself and his political party, battered by corruption scandals and declining popularity.

I had been moving around this cordoned area freely, the security forces and police too lazy to stop me. Several official international ID cards hanging from my neck, heavy Nikon and Leica, it all must have looked very impressive. And I was the only foreigner in this makeshift town.

The area was crowded. It was perfectly obvious who those people forming this crowd of SBY’s supporters were: the Special Forces, police, guys wearing T-shirts of a former mass murderer and brutal dictator, ‘pak’ Suharto (still considered a ‘national hero’ by many), and some civilians, some of them either paid or rewarded otherwise.

A well-dressed lady wearing a traditional Javanese hat approached me, boldly. She wanted to be photographed with me. I said yes, cool, sure, but could she tell me…?

She suddenly looked nervous.

She quickly fired: “I am a volunteer… A local resident… I am very satisfied with the performance of our President and of the rescue teams… I am…”

“Yes, who are you?” I asked, my curiosity ignited.

“I am a daughter of the village chief.” Her name was Maria Ulfa.

I moved further. There was an old lady of about eighty, toothless but neatly dressed, holding a tablet, I had no idea what brand. I asked her about this promotional event, but she could not understand anything I was saying. She spoke no Bahasa Indonesia, the official language of this country. She only spoke Javanese. I asked someone whether the tablets could deal with the Javanese language, but my sarcasm was not understood.

I was receiving images of this place through my phone – images taken just yesterday, by local people who did not want to be identified. On the photos, the interior of the nearby church was almost empty. Now it was full, crammed with people. The small tax office was also packed, while yesterday it was empty.

I asked the local priest, whether all this is actually one huge political set-up, a way to use the disaster for the shameless political promotion of the Indonesian rulers. But most of the priests always side with those in power, or at least in Indonesia they do. Reactionary bunch that they are, staunch right-wingers, one could say. The priest, Samuel, replied:

“For real, it is all for real! After 3-4 days after this disaster, Mr. SBY is kindly coming to see the victims, with his own eyes…” He called SBY ‘Pak’, a real respectful form…

But a rebellious kid from the church was much more outspoken. He dragged me into a corner, and began his litany: “Almost all the refugees went home… to fix their roofs, and to feed their animals. But when SBY announced his arrival, the military began collecting them, bringing them back, using trucks. The local government also put pressure on the refugees to return back to these shelters, to create an atmosphere that people, many people, are being helped here.”

“Why?” I asked, although I knew the answer. Several local residents had already conveyed it to me.

“Elections are nearing and the government is far from popular”, explained a boy. “This is all free advertisement. For those in power here, and in Jakarta.”

They always do it, of course; this is the ‘Indonesian way’; cynical, some would say immoral, but from the point of view of those who hold power in this collapsed nation obsessed only with profits, an extremely effective way. Whenever a terrible natural or man-made disaster strikes – flood, earthquake, mudflow or tsunami – the victims get extremely little help or no help at all. But government officials, opposition politicians, the military, clergy, and celebrities – they all jump, immediately, on the bandwagon and they go all around, trumpeting their ‘great deeds’. They often corruptly, kidnap, and steal all sorts of equipment that should be actually helping the victims: fire trucks, military and rescue vehicles, even helicopters.

Sitting on the grass, contented, cynically looking members of the media, kept throwing their ‘know-it-all-looks’ all around themselves.

Two young men from Metro TV first gave me those official clichés… Then one of them apparently got tired of me, and admitted: “Yes, of course it is all a set up… All that you see here has been pre-arranged. The President is here, and now we are expected to produce exciting and positive stories.”

Parked vehicles were blocking the road. Countless political advertisement posters towered, almost growing out from the green rice fields.

A hundred or so refugees were sat on the floor of the church and of the tax office. They were clearly in the minority, compared to all those soldiers, police officers and rescue workers. Just a large enough number to look impressive on a television screen, when one zooms in on them.

They were paid to do nothing, just to sit, looking miserable enough to make the nation cheer for those good Samaritans who were ‘selflessly’ flying all the way from Jakarta, in order to offer their kind, fatherly embraces and consoling words!

*****

As SBY appeared in the church, people began screaming. There was hysteria. An unpopular President was still welcomed as a hero. What a show! People were climbing walls, and even poles. Some had tears in their eyes.

“SBY!” some women, even men, were screaming.

Indonesia is a country in free-fall, but a country that is repeatedly told that it is one undeniable success story. Fearing millions of skeletons in its own closets, it is in clear need of idols, religions and gods. It needs to believe. The more fucked up it is, the more it needs to believe. It needs to close its eyes, its ears, and to believe, loudly and unconditionally. And to silence anyone who doesn’t, who simply can’t, quickly and resolutely.

In order to survive, to go on, it needs, at least once in a while, to believe that ‘decent people’, who do the right things, are actually ruling it.

“SBY!” People were willing to forgive the collapsing standard of living, ruined environment, even the fact that the government is clearly serving corrupt elites and the military, as opposed to the majority of the people.

I did not need any of this. I did not need to believe. And so, after photographing SBY in his ‘hero’ mode, I began fighting my way out of the church compound. What bliss, a pleasure, it always is, to leave a church: whether crammed or empty!

The road was blocked, and soon it turned into some sort of a catwalk of local and Jakarta-based politicians. The governor passed by in his vehicle, windows down, a huge smile on his face, waving. The top military brass began driving away. “SBY”. Then all those police fancy motorbikes, 4×4’s and trucks began moving, following the convoy.

They did not go towards the mountain, to help the victims, to save the thousands of desperate men, women and children. Oh no… Their job was now done, finished. Their job was to serve power, not the people. Their job was to threaten, not to rescue!

I knew that in just a few minutes all would be quiet. Those paid ‘refugees’ will go home. But I did not have time to wait. It was getting dark. I had to return to the mountain, to that angered, wonderful volcano, which had punished big cities by sending sand and ash as far as one thousand kilometers away, but spared the people who live on its slopes.

*****

“They say that you are fine, grandma”.

She fell silent. But her husband kept repeating that the people in this the worst affected area, received no help at all:

“I feel disappointed. TNI, the military, did not come here. They did not clean our streets. They did nothing for us.”

“We got no help at all”, says Mrs. Sunarsim. “Our roof is broken and now huge rain has arrived and we cannot live inside our house, anymore… “SBY”? TNI? Help comes only from our neighbors, from local people, not from the government.”

‘As always, Ibu Sunarsim, as always in this country…’ I think, but say nothing.

I always feel good in remote Indonesian villages. The people are good, real, they still have heart, and they speak what they think. Down below it is the opposite story.

As I drive down the slope, officials that I know, begin to communicate with me, via mobile phone. They defend the system, and even begin blaming the victims.

Exhausted, dirty, outraged, I snap back: “Do they pay you well for believing? Do you get remunerated for repeating lies that serve only a few morally corrupt individuals at the dirty top?”

It is pointless. They don’t understand. They choose not to understand.

In Indonesia, it is one disaster after another, and one pathetic or indifferent response to them after another. I used to wonder: Is it the stupidity of the elites, is it laziness, or is it some maliciousness?

But now I know, after covering dozens of them: It is big business; it is wonderfully profitable business, for the regime and for its captains!

André Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker, and investigative journalist. He has covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His critically acclaimed political revolutionary novel Point of No Return is now re-edited and available. Oceania is his book on Western imperialism in South Pacific. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and market-fundamentalism is called Indonesia: The Archipelago of Fear. He just completed a feature documentary Rwanda Gambit about Rwandan history and the plunder of DR Congo. After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website. Read other articles by Andre.