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Earthquake Highlights Deep Economic Divide

Isolated Indonesian Town Reliant on Ethnic Chinese

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 5, 2005; Page A20

LAHEWA, Indonesia -- The earthquake that savaged this ocean-side town the night of March 28 was discriminating in who it killed. Most of the 32 fatalities were ethnic Chinese, members of merchant families wealthy enough to live in multi-floor brick and concrete houses that came tumbling down on them with lethal force.

The quake also did major damage to the families' factories and company offices, which provide a majority of the jobs and income in the town. By a fluke of topography, the tremors raised the seafloor in the harbor, closing it off to the boats that in normal times carry out coconut oil, rubber and other exports.


Students walk in the ruins of their classroom on the first day of school in Gunungsitoli, which was hit hard by a magnitude 8.7 earthquake. (Dadang Tri -- Reuters)

Most of the town's 36,000 people survived, their small wooden houses less dangerous to them in event of collapse. But with relief aid slow to arrive, hunger has become common and glimmers of ethnic tension over the wealth of the surviving Chinese have surfaced.

"There is no military here and I'm worried that the situation will escalate," said Ichwan Halim, 44, an ethnic Chinese native of Lahewa who lives in Jakarta, the capital, and had returned to see his surviving relatives. "I'm afraid that people will attack here. They think we have rice." Southeast Asia has a long history of reprisals against its ethnic Chinese minority, who in many places dominate local economies.

At the same time, some residents say, the local people, most of them poor coconut farmers and fishermen, view the reconstruction of Chinese businesses as the only way life can ever return to normal here.

District chief Abibus Baeha, a 47-year-old former teacher, has been trying to get the word out that Lahewa needs help, and fast. But phones don't work and roads are impassable to jeeps and cars. So he has sent word via the rescue workers on a helicopter that had brought in a doctor and evacuated injured people last week. He has sent a letter by motorbike to the administrative chief in Gunungsitoli, the capital of Nias Island, whose northwest corner Lahewa occupies.

Baeha said he hoped President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his staff would hear how dire their situation was. "If they don't pay attention to us, the economy here will not recover, not even in 20 years," he said.

Most of the news coverage and relief work has focused on Gunungsitoli city, on the east coast. But beyond the capital lie communities like Lahewa, rendered virtually incommunicado by the quake.

Complicating the relief effort here is an unfortunate natural phenomenon. The earthquake shifted tectonic plates, apparently lifting the northern end of Nias, draining Lahewa's harbor to a distance of about 100 yards and leaving caked mud where there was water.

On Friday afternoon, an Indonesian navy warship arrived, carrying 500 20-pound bags of rice, the first food aid to reach Lahewa. But the vessel remained anchored at sea, unable to enter the harbor. Men in small wooden boats had to motor out to collect the rice and bring it to the damaged dock, a time-consuming operation.

On Friday morning, Amia Teddy Setiawan, head of the town's main coconut meat and rubber company, opened his warehouse to sell 700 sacks of rice. He charged $17 for each 110-pound bag, the price the company paid for them, according to his son Franciscus. The rush was so frenzied that one man was injured while retrieving a sack of rice and had to be evacuated by helicopter.

In an interview on Friday, Baeha predicted the rice on hand would last only two or three days. Survivors, many of whom had fled to the mountains, fearing a repeat of the Dec. 26 tsunami, needed tents. Many were drinking rainwater. The injured, numbering about 2,000, needed medicine, splints and bandages.

But people are already looking beyond the relief effort. "The whole place stands or dies on the willingness to build over again," said Franciscus, a Lahewa native who lives in Jakarta but came rushing back here after the quake. He goes by one name, like many Indonesians.

Setiawan, 60, said that though the family could move and make its living from a hotel he owns in a town on Sumatra, he will try to reopen his business here, maybe even in a few weeks. "If the businesses remain dead, the people will suffer," he said. He has a sentimental motive, too: All Chinese here trace their roots to a common ancestor five generations back.


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