Reporter's Notebook:Indonesia's Bad Luck Streak

Greg Palkot
Mount Merapi, the volcano just north of the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta, is getting restless again. Lava is spewing from one side of the dome, forcing thousands to evacuate. While we were in the region last week, it was huffing and puffing.

We were there to cover another disaster in Indonesia, the earthquake which hit just south of Yogyakarta, leaving close to 6,000 dead, and tens of thousands of others injured and homeless. When it comes to natural disasters, some countries have all the luck, and some are like Indonesia.

I had been to Indonesia before, to cover the earthquake-triggered tsunami, which left literally hundreds of thousands dead and injured. There were scenes on that trip I pray I’ll never see again. At that time, I remarked on the quiet courage of the people in the Aceh province. Now, I can say the same about the Indonesians I met on this trip, on the island of Java.

We went to one village described as being in the worst shape of any place in the region. The label fit. Every house was flattened. Not one was left untouched by the two minutes or so of rolling, shuddering ground. One family we visited had lost both grandmothers, who had been living with them, and they had to be pulled out of the rubble by other family members. Then those same folks had to live “rough” on their own under tents and lean-tos around the house.

Remarkably, this family, and others we met were warm, cordial and grateful we were there. If they had food, they would have offered it to us. As they didn’t, they shared their shelters when a pelting rain storm blew its way through.

The next day we moved on to an area where U.S. troops were going to be setting up a major field hospital (it is up and running now). The village surrounding the soccer field, which the troops were headed for, was also flattened. This area, like much of Indonesia, is Muslim. But unlike some corners of this crazy world, there were nothing but warm words of hope and good feelings about the prospect of the Americans’ arrival. (Again, the same kind of reaction we witnessed when Americans pitched in during the Tsunami).

Several days after the quake, and the desperation appeared to be growing. First one woman, then a second and then more (by the end it was about a dozen) gathered around me. As I was the only American around, they thought I was somebody who could help. Ignoring the fact that I don't speak the language, they spoke rapidly to me, interspersing their pleas with gestures that suggested something falling down. All the while they held my hands and arms, and in a gentle but persistent way tried to coax understanding out of me.
We were videotaping this, but my interpreter was not around. Later on, I showed him the tape. He told me they were telling me they had lost everything. That their houses and food and money were all gone, and they were close to their limit.

The same was true of the people we passed on the streets that day and the next, when we travelled the region with the U.S. Ambassdor to Indonesia, B. Lynn Pascoe. I saw something I had never seen during the four or so quakes I've covered: people along the side of the road stood with small cardboard boxes, begging for money or any offering from the cars going by. Again, they were unrelenting with their roadside pitch, but they were not threatening.

I don’t know what it is. Maybe it's the island culture, maybe it's the mix of Hindu and Buddhism in their past, but the Indonesians’ quiet stoic ability to endure is quite remarkable. I couldn’t imagine a food riot breaking out (although there certainly was a scramble for a chopper load of aid I saw). I couldn't imagine ugly epithets being hurled at foreigners, nor even any sort of resentment about being picked on by Mother Nature.

We saw the same attitude when we toured the hospitals in the area. One darling little 6-year-old girl (kids were unusually effected by this) suffered a concussion during the quake, when the ceiling of the room she was in fell on her. It looked like she was going to make it. Her mother was pleased. In my business, there's always a danger of getting a bit desensitized to casualty scenes like those in the aftermath of an earthquake. It just takes something like this to bring it all back home.

This time around, we journalists didn’t have it too rough. The city of Yogyakarta itself only suffered medium damage. Plus, there was a new, large hotel that served as a global media center, complete with a good supply of food.

I think we got the last available room, which seemed like a lucky thing until we saw it. It was in the basement, the walls were full of cracks, and the floor was still covered with concrete and other building material that had fallen down during the quake. This, at a time when there were still hundreds of aftershocks occurring.

My team and I were debating which would be preferable, getting caught under a pancaked five-story hotel, or being catapulted down five stories from an upper room. We didn’t actually have a choice. Every night, when we returned to the hotel we tried not to look too closely at the collapsed front of the shopping center next door.

On our last day, we got our best glimpse of Mount Merapi, towering over Yogyakartra, steaming away. It looked ominous, but not all that threatening, compared to the death and destruction around us. Now, as I see the video of the lava flowing, I can only hope that the Indonesians’ luck shifts, and they get a break this time. They deserve it.

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Greg Palkot currently serves as a London-based senior foreign affairs correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). He joined the network in 1998 as a correspondent. Follow him on Twitter@GregPalkot.