Indonesia's twin disasters

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LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World. Indonesia is in one of the most seismically active regions on the planet. And this week, Indonesians got two terrifying reminders of that fact. Twin natural disasters have hit the southeast Asian nation. This woman was one of the lucky ones. She was burned, but she was still alive after Indonesia's most volatile volcano erupted in central Java. More than 20 people were killed. Also this week, a powerful earthquake off Sumatra island triggered a tsunami. The giant wave killed more than 270 people. It left 400 missing. The BBC's Karishma Vaswani is monitoring both events from the capital, Jakarta. Let's talk first Karishma about the tsunami. What is the status of the rescue operation right now?

KARISHMA VASWANI: Finally Lisa, rescue teams are actually able to reach the remote Mentawai Islands, which is where the tsunami struck late on Monday. They haven't been able to get to this area since Monday night because of the bad weather, heavy rain, hindering their rescue efforts. On Tuesday, helicopters couldn't land, boats couldn't get to any of the islands. It's been a really difficult and challenging rescue process, but the military is now in the area with much needed medical aid. The problem, though, is that trying to get to some of the worst affected areas by the coast, it's still a challenge because many of the roads and bridges have been destroyed. Well, we've seen some aerial pictures for the very first time today, photographs of what the devastation looks like from the air and it looks pretty significant.

MULLINS: Well, let's move to the other natural disaster happening on Indonesia. Maybe you can give us also kind of a graphic of how far away Mount Merapi is from where the tsunami took place. Mount Merapi being, as we said, probably the most volatile volcano in all of Indonesia. Tell us about what happened there.

VASWANI: Mount Merapi is in central Java, so it's on a totally different island from where the tsunami took place. Remember Indonesia is an archipelago, a string of very large islands. Now, when officials, the government, they've been monitoring the activity at the volcano for some time now. They issued a red alert. That signaled that the volcano was going to erupt imminently. And officials have been trying to convince villagers who lived on or around the mountain, thousands of them, to move into government-provided refugee camps. Many refused. They just weren't convinced that it was time to leave their homes, their farms unattended. They didn't want to do that. Then Tuesday night the eruption did indeed happen and people were rushing to get out and it's been a very difficult evacuation process. We have many people extremely frightened by what's been happening. Many badly burned by the volcano. In fact, at the Panti Nugroho hospital in the Sleman District, one of the villages near the volcano, one man who's been trying to help rescue stranded people, Romli, said he was forced to leave the area due to the ferocious heat.


ROMLI: Actually, I went in to help this family, which was trapped. I was only 10 yards away, but couldn't get any closer because the ash was so hot. We couldn't handle it. To get out of the area, I had to hold on to trees to avoid the hot tarmac. This is why I survived, otherwise, I don't think I would have made it.

MULLINS: Karishma, is it possible, I mean it sounds like that man barely escaped with his life, is it possible to distinguish what helps some survive and some not?

VASWANI: I think the key thing is that the people who were prepared to leave are the ones who probably had the best chance of surviving. It has to be said thousand were needed to be evacuated from the area. Now the head of one village affected, Heri Suprapto in the village of Kepuhargo, told the BBC Indonesian Section that in his village one villager is known to have died.


MALE SPEAKER: The eruption happened so suddenly, people were in a panic. Most of them were able to save themselves, but the victim couldn't run and died because of hot ashes coming from Merapi. He was about 60 years old. Before the eruption we prioritized evacuating those who were fragile, such as the elderly. The victim was not considered fragile because 60 is not considered old.

MULLINS: Karishma, if there was this prioritizing of who should be evacuated prior to the eruption, it sounds as if there has been a lot of organization on the part of the Indonesian officials. I mean I wonder from your own perspective in Jakarta, how well prepared the areas around the volcano are?

VASWANI: It has to be said because they knew that an eruption was imminent, the Indonesian government had already sent a number of relief teams, rescue teams, to the area. So they do seem quite prepared for the disaster at Mount Merapi. The scale of the number of people though, you've got 40,000 people living in refugee camps at the moment. How long are they going to stay there and how you going to provide for them because although the volcano has quieted down a far bit according to volcanologists, they also say that another eruption is extremely likely. They just don't know when that's going to take place or how big that will be. So for these thousands of people stuck in refugee camps, the government needs to find a way to provide for them and that's going to be very difficult.

MULLINS: Alright, thank you very much Karishma Vaswani. Thanks.

VASWANI: You're welcome.