Last Sunday the Jakarta Globe reported that a massive electrical fire had ravaged homes in the impoverished area of Muara Baru in North Jakarta, leaving hundreds homeless the day before on June 28th. The coverage was brief and stuck to the immediate facts, stating that the number of houses destroyed was around 500. Assuming there were families in each of those units, a huge amount of people had been displaced in the span of several quick and destructive hours.
I took the article to Evi Mariani, the City Desk editor, proposing some sort of follow up story on how the residents were coping with the aftermath of the fire. She scanned it briefly with a fairly blank expression and shrugged. “Yea you could write something on that,” she said as she hurriedly prepared notes for a publication-wide editorial meeting. “The only thing is, fires [in North Jakarta] like this happen all the time, the stories get repetitive.”
She pondered in silence for a moment while I stood there feeling slightly taken aback by her initial dismissal of what was seemingly a catastrophic event. Though her lack of interest shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, given the absurd frequency of fires of such scale in Muara Baru. A beritajakarta.com report tallied the number of electrical and gas related fire incidents in the area as 32 between the months of January and February. And that’s only for this year. Reports can be found of similar and even more destructive fires each year dating back to 2010. This isn’t anything new. The Jakarta Post had already covered the incident, but chose to put the limelight on the fact that two of the many fire trucks that were dispatched to the blaze had crashed into one another en route, apparently due to erratic driving of the lead vehicle. The wreck was the anomaly, not the sudden creation of more than 1,000 homeless refugees in their own neighborhood.
“You could put a Ramadan spin on it,” she said after a few minutes of staring at the article. “See how the people are breaking the fast while homeless.”
Muara Baru (the neighborhood where the fire took place) is a small strip of land that juts out into the ocean from the mainland, its foundations seemingly being a combination of pre-existing marshland and human additions of bedrock, dirt, and concrete pavement. On two sides it faces the open ocean, and the third encloses a small body of water which is connected the Jakarta Bay via a small canal, while another similar jutting strip of land blocks the pool from West side. Muara Baru is heavily populated, with most of the residents working on or around boats in the nearby shipping ports, according to local sources. A large number are also unemployed. Though I never got a figure on the number of people living in the area, the density is not to be exaggerated. The limited real estate that makes up Muara Baru is packed to the bursting point with informal rag-tag housing that is literally spilling into the water.
It wasn’t apparent at first where exactly the fire had taken place. A main thoroughfare runs up and down the length of the micro peninsula, with tightly-nit residential catacombs and narrow roads and alleys branching off from either side of it. After some repetitive questioning I was quickly ushered in the right direction. A dark alley lined with scrawny kittens picking minuscule food scraps from the muddy ground opened up to rows rubble piles, where a few scattered people were sitting under makeshift tarp shelters.
The scene beyond the physical effects of the fire was beautiful in a surreal way. The ash strewn wreckage of burned homes crunched under foot and gradually sloped downwards into the mass of water, where they met what looked to be lilies floating on the surface. The bare skeletons of docks and blackened concrete, brick, and rebar pillars stood tall, alone and haunting as the only remainders of previously inhabited homesteads. Azan for six o’clock late afternoon prayer rung out from nearby mosques, and the quickly sinking sun made the water dance with a pale pink reflection. The rest of North Jakarta sprawls out to the West, somewhat hidden behind a smoggy haze.
Abdul Bari, a local resident, sadly overlooked the disconcertingly peaceful yet jarring scene, and fondly patted the burnt facade of what used to be his home. He was just returning from work when he found his home and those of his neighbors up in flames. He said his thoughts went instantly to the whereabouts of his family, and, luckily, he eventually found them scared but unharmed among the chaotic crowds fleeing the blaze.
No one was clear on how they had calculated the final tally of destroyed homes, but everyone seemed to have the numbers written on crumpled pieces of paper stuffed in pockets. The toll was as follows: 182 homes destroyed (note the drastically different figure than what the Globe quoted), with 364 families and 1,456 people homeless. 100 of those 1,456 were being housed in tents erects by local NGO’s while the rest were allegedly holed up along the waterfront elsewhere and in the homes of sympathetic surrounding community members. Many had left for various night jobs. When I arrived the tents were sparsely occupied, with only 50 people or so drinking water and eating donated food bearing the stamp of red-cross equivalent Pal-Merah Indonesia (PMI). PMI reps said that many had also camped out along other parts of the banks that border the Pluit Dam pool, though I never learned where exactly.
I couldn’t get a confirmation that the fire had in fact been caused by faulty electrical wiring, but it seemed to be the assumed consensus. After all, there had been 32 such fires within the last 6 months. One PKPU (another on-site NGO) rep used the word “illegal” to describe the neighborhood’s means of getting electricity. I’m inclined to think it is just the populace compensating for a lack of city investment in the neighborhood’s basic electrical power infrastructure.
With my assigned “Ramadhan spin” angle, throughout interviews I tried to slip questions on people’s feelings regarding the fasting month into bleak conversations on their current situation. I got the same response all around: “Yea we can break the fast because of PMI.” Hopefully it was sufficient for my somewhat desensitized editor. However PMI and PKPU aid workers were only planning to stay for a few more days, after which the food, water, and relief aid supplies would cease to be disbursed. It is “standard policy,” as said by Hamka, a PMI communications coordinator in Muara Baru. The people would be left on their own. I had heard that people from the Prabowo (potential dictator-to-be) Subianto presidential campaign had stopped by the scene to politically capitalize on the event by handing out water bottles and pro-Prabowo leaflets, only to leave shortly after.
When I asked where the police or members of the governmental Social Department (who had apparently also made an appearance) were, a PKPU rep pointed across the street to a building which was allegedly where everyone who was important to some degree in the relief efforts were milling about and had set up shop for the time being. Of course, upon my arrival, the place was empty save for Agi, a local resident not affiliated with any aid organizations. He sat outside on a plastic chair, rubbing a large protruding belly and chain smoking the fattest clove cigarettes I have ever seen, with a hoarse and gnarled voice to match his habit. He too had lost his home in the fire, but was all smiles none the less. We talked briefly about what people would do once PMI and the others left. He said they would have to buy cement, bamboo, and other materials, just like they have always done when electrical fires ravage the neighborhood.
From what I’ve gleaned, the routine seems to be as such: sparks from faulty electrical wiring or a gas explosion causes a massive fire which destroys housing and other property. After which first respondents douse the flames with help from the residents, NGO’s throw some rice packets and water at those affected only to take off a few days later, leaving the community to rebuild from scratch. The fact that fires occur in the first place is taken as a given, as unavoidable, or avoidable, but not an issue which deserves attention by those with the ability to do something about (the city government). But it’s Muara Baru, an area far from the elite hotels and apartments that rise up over Jakarta as the ultimate visual testament to wealth inequality in Indonesia. It’s far from Kemang night clubs packed with expats, and expansive air conditioned malls such as Pondok Indah (PIM) where European companies sell designer leather bags to the few that can afford piss money down the drain on such expensive commodities. I’m sure if the fire had taken place outside of PIM, the reaction by local authorities would have been one of much more urgency to solve the root of the problem.
Muara Baru has not gone completely unnoticed. During his time as active governor of Jakarta, current presidential candidate Joko “Jokowi” Widodo tried to revitalize the area, by negotiating the relocation of slum residents near the Pluit Dam (adjacent to Muara Baru) to close-by newly built low-income housing projects. In addition to assisting local populations, it was in an effort to clean up the mass of water that had been collecting garbage from local squatters and to create a ‘green space’ with an abundance of flora to pump some oxygen into an already congested and polluted city. But it is rumored in the JP office that the water is once again filthy. At least the relocated people have actual roofs over their heads, and electrical power that won’t turn around and bite them, which in this area probably means a lot. But for the rest of the residents, those who haven’t been relocated, the situation is the same. For the most part, Muara Baru has been out of sight and out of mind, and appears to be continuously confined to that box of forgotten plight.
Read my official report for the Jakarta Post here.