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Going Where Disaster Strikes in Indonesia

Six men piled into a Land Rover and set off along a road that turned and twisted up into the hills of Cikelet in Garut, West Java, skirting steep cliffs and ravines. After a bone-shaking ride, the men, all members of an outdoor organization called Wanadri, arrived safely at a quake-affected village in Cikelet, delivering blankets, sarongs and rice.

At the end of a hard day’s work at the disaster scene, the men headed back to the camp for displaced persons in Pamalayan village, Cikelet, where they spent the evening like most others: sitting around a campfire recounting their experiences. A Sundanese song played on a hidden radio and pale moonbeams filtered through the trees as they sipped instant coffee and tallied up the damage to buildings in the village.

Since it was founded in Bandung in 1964, Wanadri — the name derives from the Sanskrit for forest (wana) and mountain (adri) — has been directly involved in disaster relief work around the country, as well as search-and-rescue operations in the archipelago’s mountains, rivers and seas.

And in the first few days and weeks after a 7.3-magnitude earthquake struck West Java on Sept. 2, the men based themselves at the camp for displaced persons in Cikelet, speeding the delivery of relief and other aid donated by private companies to the disaster areas. At just 35 kilometers from the epicenter of the quake, Cikelet was one of the worst- affected subdistricts.

No one knows when disaster will strike, but Wanadri strives to be there whenever it is needed.

The group has responded to numerous national disasters, including the eruption of Mount Galunggung in West Java in 1982, the tsunami in Aceh in 2004, and two years later in Pangandaran, West Java, the earthquake that jolted Yogyakarta, also in 2006, and this year’s dam burst in Situ Gintung in Tangerang, Banten.

“We are taught to be aware of and care about others in need,” said Ardeshir “Desir” Yaftebbi, the coordinator of Wanadri’s emergency response unit for Garut, referring to the training the organization gives new members.

“For disasters, we are most active during the emergency response phase because of our search-and-rescue skills,” added Soma “Kopral” Suparsa, the deputy coordinator of the Garut response.

“Although occasionally we are also involved in the next phases, like rehabilitation and reconstruction.”

Wanadri’s response time, Kopral said, is generally under seven hours.

After a disaster or accident occurs, the group meets at its headquarters in Bandung to figure out a plan of action.

In the life-saving first phase of the emergency response, Wanadri uses its own emergency funds, Kopral said. But for the next phases, the group solicits financial and material support both from other organizations and from within its own ranks.

During the response phase in Garut, food and clothing supplies from private companies were channeled through Wanadri.

Kopral, who joined the group in 1981, said that Wanadri was a nongovernmental organization. “We are not controlled by, nor work under the pressure of, the government,” the 51-year-old said. “However we welcome [the government] if they wish to coordinate with us or need our help.”

Very often, Kopral said, Wanadri works hand in hand with other outdoor organizations, including from universities outside Bandung, as well as Jeep and Land Rover communities.

“We make the [emergency response] plans and coordinate with them,” said 27-year-old Desir, who joined the group in 2005.
The initial response period usually lasts between 12 and 14 days, but can run to months if the group stays around for the rehabilitation phase, Kopral said.

“We were in Aceh for two months,” he said. “And, coincidentally, the head of the BRR [government’s rehabilitation and reconstruction agency] at that time was also one of our members.”

Before Wanadri sets up camp in a disaster area, a team will collect data from the fields as part of the process of adapting to the area, as well as try to get to know the local residents, Kopral said.

“That’s why we’ve never encountered problems with locals,” he said.

The name Wanadri carries a certain prestige and recruitment opportunities don’t keep pace with interest in joining the group.
Wanadri today has about 900 members, the majority of whom are men, and recruits new members every two or three years, Kopral said.

“The last batch enrolled in 2008, and the one before that was in 2005,” he said.

“Any Indonesian citizen who has reached the age of 16 and is physically and mentally healthy can join the group,” Desir said. “And if you pass the training, then you can be a member.”

The training covers survival and navigation skills, as well as mountain and rock climbing.

Desir said there was a high failure rate.

“There were 119 people registered for the last recruitment session, including a 52-year-old woman,” he said. “After 30 days, there were 88 people left. The woman also failed.”

Febi Nugraha, the group’s former chairman, said mental preparedness was as important as physical aspects.

“The first stage of the training is character building, which requires strong mental toughness,” said the 28-year-old, who joined Wanadri in 2001.

Febi said he was driven to join the group by a desire to make a difference and, during Wanadri’s search-and-rescue operation in Pangandaran, West Java, he got that chance when he saved the life of a man who’d been buried under the ruins of his house by the tsunami.

“He’d broken his leg,” Febi said. “He was immediately taken to the hospital. I was relieved that he survived the hit.”

Wanadri rescuers like Febi go out in all sorts of circumstances and often risk their own lives.

“In 1992,” Kopral said, “during our preparation for an expedition on the Membramo River in [West] Papua, two of our members died while rafting on Kali Progo [a river running through Central Java and Yogyakarta],” Kopral said. “Ironically, that same year, during the expedition [in Membramo] itself, we lost three people.”

Kopral said the camaraderie within Wanadri helped the members overcome the trauma associated with working in disaster zones.

“We suffered together during the recruitment process and we were taught the same things,” Kopral said. “So we have a strong brotherhood wherever we go and however long it lasts.”

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