May 28, 2007
Toxic sludge mud has been flowing out of a hole in indonesia for one year now (and counting)
Muziati, a refugee of Indonesia’s “mud volcano”, stares at her baby and hopes that the meagre food she gives him will be enough.
“He has to be fed rice juice (formed during cooking) because there’s no milk,” Muziati says of conditions in a makeshift shelter in Porong on the main island of Java.
“He is small for his age,” she adds of her six-month-old boy.
Muziati is among more than 15,000 people who have been forced from their homes across Sidoarjo district in East Java since last year when steaming mud began spewing from the depths of the earth at an exploratory gas well.
One year after the May 29 disaster started, thousands are still living in shelters, and the flow of toxic sludge shows no sign of stopping.
Muziati was three months pregnant last year when she lost her job at a prawncracker factory that was submerged in the massive flow.
Muziati, her husband Sudarto and neighbours sought shelter wherever they could before moving to a vacant market building in nearby Porong where they survive on rations of rice from the drilling company blamed for the disaster, Lapindo Brantas.
“Nobody cares enough to even visit us. Not the mayor, not the governor,” says Sudarto.
Nine villages, industrial areas and farms over more than 600 hectares (1,500 acres) have been engulfed by the thick mud as authorities grapple with the extent of the disaster.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has ordered Lapindo, an Indonesian firm, to pay 3.8 trillion rupiah (420.7 million dollars) in compensation and mud containment efforts.
But Sudarto and his family have refused an initial cash payment of 20 percent of the value of their homes and land. Like many of the 3,200 sheltering in Porong, they want Lapindo to buy their land so they can rebuild elsewhere.
“We are not beggars, we just ask for our rights,” says Sudarto who has named their baby David Lapindo — after the firm, which has links to welfare minister Aburizal Bakrie, one of the nation’s richest men.
The disaster has left international engineers scratching their heads and environmentalists fuming about damage to the local ecosystem.
Massive dykes have been built around the volcano to contain the mud, and heavy machinery works overtime carrying dirt and pebbles to strengthen the embankments.
“The dykes are very vulnerable,” says security guard Waliyanto pointing to muddy water leaking from the walls around the crater.
Cracks have led to larger leaks, forcing authorities to declare the area off-limits to the public.
The sludge has reached a depth of up to 20 metres in the worst-hit areas with rooftops barely visible. Villages in the outer areas, caked in mud, have been abandoned for safety reasons.
Initiatives to stop the flow have ranged from the scientific to the spiritual.
Engineers spent two months trying to plug the hole with chains of large concrete balls dropped into its core, but the move appears to have failed. Authorities continue to try and channel mud from the dams into a nearby river.
Ahmad Chairusin, 64, arrived at the dykes earlier this month from nearby Kediri town, convinced that he can stop the flow through prayer.
“I fast and pray here twice a day,” Chairusin told AFP.
“We should look inwards to ourselves, what have we done wrong (to spark the flow)?” he asks, adding that “the only thing we can do is pray and pray.”
Others, including healers and mystics, regularly perform rituals at the dykes, make offerings and cast spells.
Despite the efforts, some 120,000 cubic metres of sludge — equivalent to 48 Olympic-sized swimming pools — continues to spew daily from the hole, says Ahmad Zulkarnain, a spokesman for the government agency set up to tackle the crisis.
Supari, 40, remembers watching animals and plants die as the mud moved across the district last May. He never thought the flow would reach his village outside Indonesia’s second city of Surabaya so quickly.
“The mud spread so fast, it flooded my house before I could save many of my belongings,” he says, adding that he fled in the middle of the night with his wife and two sons.
In the chaos, Supari says he left behind the deeds to his home, the documents he needs to prove ownership and gain compensation.
He used to earn four million rupiah a month selling snacks to schools, and sometimes clothing and coal briquettes. But worrying about his family’s future now consumes him.
“It’s not that there are no jobs now, but I cannot think straight. Riding this motorcycle taxi is all I dare do,” says Supari, motioning to the bike.
“I usually get lucky on Sundays, I guide tourists around the mudflow site.”
Supari and his family have rented a house nearby and, unlike other residents, refuse to sell their land. “I cannot sell the land, it has been passed down for generations.”
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