Central Sulawesi, Indonesia – The bricks do not look like much on their own. Small red lumps in various stages of completion are laid out across the unpaved paths cutting through the work yard like incisions.
Stacked one on top of another, they become wondrous. Neat rows of them, newly minted, are arranged like an elaborate domino trick.
At the centre of the operation is a globulus pyramid, a monument to the runoff that is an unavoidable by-product of brick-making. Once a month, the mound is burned down to the ground. The epic blaze turns the yard, on the outskirts of the Indonesian city of Sigi, into a spectacle for passing traffic.
Then it is business as usual again. A heavy-haul truck will roll into the yard, as it does every afternoon. The workers will load the platform in a dance of efficient movements while the engine runs.
On the September day over a year ago when the earthquake and tsunami struck, Aunty Ida was doing exactly this – working. She was so used to the earthquakes which regularly hit Sigi, a small city of 200,000 residents located perilously close to the Palu-Koro faultline, that she did not even register a sequence of foreshocks earlier that afternoon (the largest of which was magnitude 6.1).
But this was unlike anything she had ever experienced.
“Suddenly, it happened,” she remembers. “I didn’t understand how big it was at the time.”
The 7.5-magnitude earthquake brought her to her knees. The ground shook violently for three minutes. Buildings, shops and homes crumbled. Whole towns collapsed. The tsunami that followed minutes later swept 700 metres (2,297 feet) inland, leaving in its wake a path of further destruction.
As if following this same path, the truck that leaves the work yard each day now deposits its payload at pit stops throughout the worst-hit districts: building sites in Palu, Sigi, even as far away as Donggala. The workers at the yard produce some 1,300 bricks a day, which are sold for 700 Indonesian rupiah apiece (around $0.05).
Most clients are people rebuilding their homes, receiving the cargo as gratefully as if the bricks were gold.
Back at the yard, the small workforce cleans up for the day, Aunty Ida patrolling the rows. She does not own this land, at least not in a legal sense. The yard is run cooperatively by her and a few of the workers. Despite this, it is very much her domain.
Her manner is like someone preparing a large family meal, tending to several pots.
The dual disasters seem to have bound the workforce closer. On the periphery of the yard stands a section of ramshackle shelters where five of the workers live with their families. Children use the yard as a thoroughfare, coming to and from school. “It’s full of kids now,” Aunty Ida says, approvingly.
She had been living alone, mourning the recent death of her newborn baby. But since the quake, her brother, Hadi, and his family have moved in. Hadi and his wife, Salina, now work in the brickyard and their 10-year-old son, Alif, attends school nearby. Aunty Ida and Salina take turns looking after the family’s two-year-old daughter, Nirmata, during the day. Their 12-year-old daughter, Melani, attends a boarding school a short drive away.
The Suprapto family once lived at Perumnas Balaroa Village in Palu, near the epicentre of the earthquake. The village was swallowed by mudflows that engulfed whole communities as part of a geological process known as liquefaction, occurring when the soil surface of the ground turns into a porridge that then acts like quicksand.
The family were lucky to escape with their lives. A total of 4,300 people died that day and 170,000 were displaced. An additional 700 are still listed as missing, many believed to have been buried alive under thick layers of mud.
Satellite footage captured during the earthquake shows the rolling force of the liquefaction. The sinking motion, seen from the cosmos, looks like a camera lens being pulled out of focus.
Aunty Ida has her own image to describe this horror.
“It was like the houses had been put in a blender.”
‘Is this the end of the world?’
In spite of everything, 10-year-old Alif is not afraid of the dark. It is 5am, a school day. He has been shaken awake, then pushed out into the pitch-black predawn. Rubbing sleep from his eyes, he staggers to the washhouse round back.
“He’s awfully small for his age,” his mother will offer later, not in response to any question, more as an innocent joke at his expense. “Poor kid.”
His small stature is quite possibly what saved him, helping a rescuer disentangle his body from the debris.
The mood on the afternoon of September 28, 2018, was festive. It was Palu’s 40th birthday and many residents had gathered at Talise Beach for the Palu Nomoni Festival – a popular traditional music festival that commemorates the city’s anniversary. Young children were dressed in traditional costumes. Performers rehearsed ahead of the opening ceremony.
At the time of the earthquake, Alif and his older sister, Melani, were the only ones at home. The family’s apartment was one of many inside a vast housing complex. The sun had just set when a blaring boom thundered out across the village. The ground shook.
Alif remembers being flung against the walls, the house collapsing around him, on top of him.
The force of the liquefaction rolled streets in the village hundreds of metres from where they once stood, consigning entire suburbs to muddy tombs. Houses moved like ships unmoored from their dockings, followed by coconut trees and towers.
Not far away, three powerful tsunami waves swelled and then crashed onto the shore. Some people had already headed inland but the waves claimed many others who were too disoriented to flee.
Even the iconic Ponulele Bridge was no match for the tsunami. Its two 20-metre-high arches buckled under the force of the waves, which are estimated to have reached 11 metres.
Alif, tangled in the debris, called out to his sister. She called back to him. They heard the muted cries of other residents all around them. But, pinned beneath the ruins, they were powerless to do anything more than squirm.
“I remember feeling very scared,” says Alif.
He does not know how long they were trapped. Eventually, a stranger heard them. The man gouged out a narrow passage in the debris and tugged Alif free. He emerged into complete darkness.
“Is this the end of the world?” Melani would later recall him asking.
That night, Palu was pitch black. Many residents would only realise later the terrifying scale of the supershear earthquake. The impact, comparable to a sonic boom, tore the earth apart at a speed of 14,760 kilometres per hour. The ripples moved throughout the city’s services like falling dominos. The power grid would not be restored for weeks. Weeks that would also be plagued by patchy mobile phone coverage. Petrol would need to be rationed. Roads, in and out, would be inaccessible. The airport and seaport were damaged, interfering with food and aid distribution.
The stranger freed Melani then told the siblings they should follow him if they wanted to survive. The ground underfoot was squelchy, semi-liquid, as they ran, trailing in his footsteps. Behind them, the ruins of their apartment complex sank into the mudflow.
Back at the yard, Alif is now dressed for school. He started at his new school only a few months ago but makes friends easily. Four of them meet him at the front door and together they walk the short distance to the school. They walk in a line, Alif the smallest by at least a foot.
Alif says that, given a choice, he would return to his old school. But the old school grounds no longer exist to be rebuilt on.
Today, the village remains a tangled mess of mud and debris. The ruins were so scattered that the Suprapto family could not identify the wreckage of their home until months after the disasters. Walking around one day, they spotted pale green zinc panels from their kitchen several hundred metres from where the apartment complex once stood.
But nothing in Alif’s demeanour suggests any of this is irreversible; it is like he expects to go home, and the school will inevitably reopen, one day soon.
He misses his friends from his former school most of all. Many of them he had known for years and he does not speak of them in the past tense.
Shortly after the disasters, small Indonesian flags were hoisted in mounds of mud, marking spots where bodies were thought to be entombed. These flags are now ragged and torn, the bodies buried beneath yet to be retrieved. Motorcyclists pull over to gaze upon them, as if paying respects at some mass grave.
The missing and the dead
Aunty Ida lost her newborn baby in July 2018, around the same time that Salina celebrated Nirmata’s first birthday. The cause of death is not known. There had been no warning, no signs of illness. Extended family gathered around her like a cocoon, an effort to insulate her from grief. They came together on every tenth day to pray for the infant. This sequence of grieving – a tradition in the community – can go on indeterminately. In this case, it lasted for months.
The painful contrast in fortunes did not drive a wedge between the two women, far from it. Ida and Salina met frequently in the months afterwards, talking and praying together, on every tenth day, and many times in between.
“I was back and forth,” remembers Salina, trailing off as a more dominant memory takes hold. “I remember the ground shaking a lot.”
She had been kneeling in prayer at the home of her sister-in-law at the moment of the earthquake. The following hours passed in a blur. Unable to return to the village to search for her children, she could not stop thinking about them. “I had been crying all the time,” she says.
Sometime in the morning, news reached the family that Alif and Melani had been spotted at a nearby market. The stranger had led them safely to the de facto evacuation centre. The family have since tried to track the man down to thank him, but with no luck.
Salina describes herself and three others – “four, if you count my baby” – crowding onto one motorbike in a scramble to retrieve her children.
Her daughter, glimpsing her mother across the busy marketplace, sprinted towards her. Salina’s anxiety soon gave way to dizzying relief as she held her children.
This morning, a little before 5am, Salina kneels on a thin mattress for morning prayer. It is a brief moment of calm before a morning that passes in a blur of domesticity. She wakes her son, prepares meals, cleans dishes, sweeps, all the while caring for her baby.
In the early afternoon, Alif returns home from school. Salina fans Nirmata, who is finally sleeping, waving a small cushion in rhythmic, sweeping motions. Alif will now babysit his little sister for the rest of the afternoon, allowing Salina to go to work.
Her job is to cast bricks, gathering lumps of clay in her arms, smoothing them into a five-brick mould. Excess clay is removed from the mould by running a rake along its edges. Salina throws water over the moulds, dusts them with sand. This ratio has to be exact. Too much water – or too little sand – can cause the clay to stick, stubbornly, to the grooves.
She then carries the moulds to a nearby path, bringing them down to the ground with a thud, leaving the bricks there to dry.
Even then, the bricks are surprisingly perishable.
“If they are left overnight – say you forget to turn them over – the rain can destroy them.”
She earns 65,000 Indonesian rupiah (US$4.60) for every 1,000 bricks cast. The rain is a constant hindrance, halting work at regular intervals. And childcare is even more disruptive. In a normal month, Salina is lucky to cast 10,000 bricks, making a total of 650,000 Indonesian rupiah (US$46.30).
Salina is philosophical about this new life. She had not needed to work before the disaster. But even so, the meagre earnings are not what bother her. The feeling of slow progress does. It sometimes feels like rebuilding a life one brick at a time. She worries about becoming a burden to the family. She worries about the psychological effects of the earthquake on her children. “Alif talks about it sometimes, if you ask him,” she says. “But he’s tough.”
At least Hadi and her are making a living, she is quick to point out. Some families do not even have that. “Many of them are like us. Maybe they even used to own a business. Now, they have to rely on aid.”
‘We can’t rely on aid’
Standing ankle-deep in mud, Hadi brings down his shovel, like a pick-axe, then uses it to rake the sludge into clumps. His pants, once blue, are covered in thick layers of grime. He does not wear shoes.
Hadi refers to the mud as a “batter”. And, through a protracted process of mixing and stirring, this batter will become more compact, easier to mould. His face strains from the effort, sweat mingling with splatters of russet and brown. Eventually, he crouches down, gathers the accumulated muck in a tight embrace, and then plops it down on a nearby barn cart.
Hadi starts work every morning before 5am. He breaks during the heat of the day, resting in the shade, a coffee thermos at his side. Then he continues till sundown.
Before the earthquake, Hadi worked as a public transport driver in Palu. He was driving the day of the double disaster, jostling for space on the narrow streets clogged with motorcycles, ferrying people to Talise Beach for the festival. The quake would knock motorcyclists off their seats while asphalt on the road cracked and buckled. He has not driven those roads since.
The morning his children were found safe, Hadi was still out looking for them. He had not rested. For a week after the earthquake, the Suprapto family lived in an overcrowded, cramped IDP camp near their former village.
Hadi decided the family should leave. “I was thinking about my wife and children,” he says. “We can’t rely on aid.” He needed to come up with some other solution. His sister, Ida, presented him with one.
The days in the mudbank are long.
“I have never done this kind of hard, manual labour before,” Hadi says.
He sometimes feels the effort does not amount to much. For every 1,000 bricks, he receives 125,000 Indonesian rupiah (US$8.90), a higher rate than his wife to recognise the physical nature of excavating clay into clumps. He can hope, through excruciating labour, to produce 15,000 bricks each month. Still, this only equates to a monthly salary of roughly around 1.8 million Indonesian rupiah (US$128).
Even as services are slowly restored throughout Central Sulawesi, his own world has seemed to narrow. In the evening, the family gathers to tell stories. The most common tale is his son’s miraculous escape from the sinking village. But Hadi participates less and less, retreating further into himself.
The burden of supporting his family weighs heavily on his mind. And the mudbank, where he spends his days alone, gives doubt a fertile breeding ground. He stews, wishing he were physically able to work harder. He thinks about Alif, who he describes as a “patient boy”.
“Sometimes I promise to buy him things,” he says, wiping tears from his eyes with muddy fingers. “But I can’t always keep that promise.”
Waiting to rebuild
There is no sign Perumnas Balaroa will ever be resettled. The government has declared the village grounds a “red zone” – an area seen as extremely vulnerable to disaster and therefore unfit for permanent settlement.
According to the Indonesia Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, around 57,000 people still live in “temporary accommodation, unsure where and when they can rebuild”.
The government has pledged more than $2.5bn as part of an ambitious plan to completely rehabilitate Palu by the end of 2021.
But for some this will not come soon enough.
“I’d like to ask the government to pay attention to people like me,” says Salina. “We didn’t get the help we needed.”
The Suprapto family has now moved out of Aunty Ida’s home, establishing a tented shelter nearby. Even so, Hadi and Salina still make bricks in her work yard. And every afternoon, like clockwork, the haul truck rolls into the yard, carting away the products of their toil.
One might imagine Aunty Ida is happy to have her home to herself again. She does not say so. Instead, she mentions the complex joys of having family in such proximity.
“It used to be too quiet,” she says. “Now I have someone to talk to, even quarrel with.”
Salina wants to move into more stable employment soon. “I hope to get a permanent job,” she says.
Hadi wants to reclaim the past. A home once more, their own vehicle. “I want that life again,” he says. “And that’s why I keep working.”
Alif now rides a bicycle to school, gifted to him by an aid worker who raised the money himself to make the purchase. He darts back and forth, dodging around the brick rows, each time charting a new path.