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Landslides make isolated Indonesian villages resemble 'lost continent'

Indonesia, October 15, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Mugur Dumitrache/Mercy Corps  </span>
    A list of villages with numbers of damaged houses, buildings and infrastructure, as seen at a local government office. Photo: Mugur Dumitrache/Mercy Corps

Two weeks after the earthquake, my colleagues and I got on motorcycles and headed north out of Padang and up into the mountains around Bukit Tinggi. We were going to check out an isolated area that we had heard was badly affected by landslides and had barely been reached.

Our team had approached the day before, but been unable to reach by car, so we were trying with the bikes. We drove along the main road north, past the pieces of houses, new tarpaulins stretched in front of them. We passed our distribution sites, other NGO distribution sites, trucks full of goods, small private cars full of donations, and towns where everyone was going about their business as though they still had houses instead of ruins. As we started to work our way up into the hills the air cooled and vast panoramas of paddy fields stretched out beside us, idyllic views reaching to shadowy mountains in the distance.

Clouds gathered in the heights as we turned off the main road towards our destination, and followed a winding mountain road. It started to drizzle, and then to pour, and we pulled off the muddy road at a small shack already crowded with people. They were not just stranded travelers, though; they were a family and a half that had fled from the landslides and had been living in the shack for two weeks. I shared the snacks we had brought with a six-year-old boy named Darman while we waited for the rain to stop (he didn’t want his photo taken). His father refused to accept the peanut candy until I had one too. “We came here after the landslides, and now our village has gotten help and we haven’t gotten anything,” he told me.

“Why don’t you go back?” I asked him.

“We have nothing left there,” he told me. “All we had is gone.”

The rain had slowed and we got back on the bikes, waving good-bye to the group in the shack. Although the rain was no longer heavy, the road had been badly damaged by the landslides, and we drove cautiously through the mud for another five kilometers. There was no sound but the quiet rumble of our motors, and the rain ticking against our helmets. At times we were actually inside clouds, and the air was chill through our damp clothes. The worst part, though, was the sight of the trees uprooted by landslides, the mounds of dirt strewn across the road, the crumbled edge of the road.

At last we wound our way down into a valley, the fog cleared, and we saw the village, clusters of houses surrounded by yellowing rice fields. We wound our way through narrow streets, past crumbled houses, stopping occasionally to ask questions. An old woman showed us her destroyed shell of a house, and told us that now she stayed in her parents house. In one sub-village 77 houses were damaged, in another 23. At last we found the main government building, and walked in, shaking the rain from our jackets. A few local officials emerged from the interior offices to greet us. I walked over to look at a board they had put up, with a list of names, genders, ages. Next to some of the names was written “found”.

“Is that the list of missing?” I asked the small man who had greeted us.

“That is the list of dead,” he told me. “The ones with the notes are the ones whose bodies have been found.”

Below was another list, this one of damaged houses. The total for the four main villages came to over 2,000.

“The irrigation channels have been broken in the landslides too,” the small man told us. “We are worried we will lose the harvest.”

I remembered the yellow tinge to the rice fields. “How many of the people here are farmers?” I asked.

“Eighty percent,” he told me.

After getting information from the officials about what sort of aid they had already received, most of it food donations from the government or from nearby villages, we got slowly back on the motorcycles and drove through the rest of the area. It was getting dark, and when it started to rain again, we stopped in a small shop for coffee. The man who served us, it turned out, was not the owner of the shop. It was his brother’s, and he was staying there since his house had been destroyed and eight members of his family killed in the landslides.

As we drove on I watched the houses slide by, some of them broken, some standing. We passed through a poor section of the village, tiny old houses made of wood, everything looking slightly rotted in the moist air, kerosene lamps shining from inside. It felt like a lost continent, so remote from the frenzy of aid and recovery on the main road half an hour away.

The next day we met with one of our partner agencies to plan a complementary distribution of their tools and our hygiene kits for the landslide and earthquake survivors in the village.