Before the fire, neighborhood 12 of Penjaringan — a poor slum in the north of Jakarta — was vibrant and bustling with activity. The uncovered gutters smelled and the tapering houses were crowded with people, but children played in the narrow streets, neighbors greeted each other from door steps, and vendors sold fruit, water, plastic toys and kerosene.
I visited Penjaringan frequently to introduce people to Mercy Corps’ projects there. Working with a committee of leaders in neighborhood 12, Mercy Corps coordinated the community in building a pipe system that brought water to households at a much more affordable rate and higher quality than they had access to before.
After the fire — which started on Sunday at noon from an electrical problem in one of the houses — the neighborhood is a burned out shell, smoking and covered with ash. The Indonesian Red Cross estimates that more than 1,000 houses were destroyed, which made at least 5,700 people suddenly homeless. The neighborhood office, where I had sat many times with visitors listening to the explanation of the project, was reduced to unsteady grey walls and a floor covered with rubble.
From the top of the water tower Mercy Corps built, next to a water tank that bubbled from the heat, we could survey the extent of the damage: a whole neighborhood of houses, roofless and still smoking, acrid with the smell of burned possessions.
Time and again, as we walked through the neighborhood, we met members of the committee or households that participated in the project.
“And your house?” I asked them, after they greeted us warmly.
“Gone!” Each of them said.
“And your things?”
“Gone!” They all smiled, as though it were nothing to be walking around the crumbled remains of their once colorful, crowded houses.
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“It’s nothing,” they answered, and went back to picking through the rubble, carrying out what could be salvaged, knocking down dangerously leaning structures. I didn’t see anyone sitting, or sobbing, or in despair. Everyone was working to restart.
Mercy Corps is already working with the neighborhood leaders to adapt the water system for the emergency needs of the more than 5,700 displaced people, and will give out basic kits with water containers and hygiene supplies to the homeless families.
“The people who had houses here,” a committee member told us, “they will stay. They will clean it, and then they will come back with a tent and sleep here, and when they can get together some money, they will start to rebuild.”