Like most other children in Indonesia, 4-year-old Dewi Hani usually spent her afternoons studying at an Islamic school. She had learned to write the Arabic alphabet in a notebook she kept in her blue backpack, along with a pencil and a Koran.
This Monday afternoon was no different – until a magnitude 5.6 earthquake flattened structures in the area. Hani was one of five students killed when his two-storey Islamic school collapsed in a village a few dozen kilometers from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.
Hani’s mother, Neng Didah, 34, rushed to school and saw her second story sitting on the floor. The first floor – where her daughter was studying – was gone.
“I suddenly felt weak,” Ms Neng said in Sarampad village on Thursday. “I heard voices calling ‘Mom, mum, mum’, but I didn’t recognize any of them.”
The official death toll from the earthquake, which struck a mountainous region of the country’s main island, Java, was 272 on Thursday. This may be a significant undercount. Officials say it is already clear that around a third of the dead were children, many of whom were trapped in collapsed homes or schools.
The scale of the structural failures has drawn attention to what experts say is a persistent problem in Indonesia: a stark disparity between the quality of construction in urban and rural areas.
Even though Indonesia has building codes, they are “difficult to enforce, and there is a lack of government oversight and enforcement, especially in rural areas,” said Elisa Sutanudjaja, director executive of the Rujak Center for Urban Studies, a research center. Jakarta institute.
“Hotspots” of disaster
Large and small earthquakes occur virtually every day in Indonesia, a country of about 270 million people that sits at the meeting point of several tectonic plates and along an arc of volcanoes and rock lines. fault. The devastation caused by powerful earthquakes has been exacerbated by landslides caused by deforestation, small-scale mining and urban development.
“They’re all going to get worse, because climate change is going to make them worse,” said Benjamin P. Horton, director of Earth Observatory Singapore.
Major earthquakes have added urgency to an effort to raise construction quality across Indonesia to standards that aim to make homes and other buildings able to withstand earthquakes without collapsing. But recent earthquakes have revealed a wide gap between urban and rural building standards.
In one example, the destruction of buildings after an earthquake hit the island of Lombok in 2018 was mainly attributed to “design inconsistency”, including failure to follow rules on structural reinforcement, according to a July study of Indonesian building codes.
Kerry Sieh, a seismologist who has studied Indonesia, said government offices, hotels and other large buildings, especially in Jakarta, have been brought up to code and would be very safe during earthquakes.
But one- and two-story buildings are more common across the country outside of cities, he said. Many are built with too little rebar and poor quality concrete, and they tend to collapse when earthquakes shake them.
Indonesia’s national building codes were mostly adapted from those of New Zealand and the United States. Municipalities are required to produce their own codes, as well as disaster risk assessments and land use planning regulations.
But only around 30% of them have produced their own building codes, and many of those who have codes cannot enforce them due to lack of funding and staff, or geographical issues, Ms Sutanudjaja said. In rural areas, many houses are built by their occupants, and the quality of construction depends on their socio-economic status, she added.
“Often, even in a big city like Jakarta, the planning document does not match the risk assessment,” she said. “So basically many settlements are already hotbeds for the next natural disaster, like earthquakes.”
“God didn’t save her”
The earthquake that struck Java on Monday focused its power on Cianjur Regency, an agricultural region south of Jakarta.
If the brick and concrete structure where Hani died had been funded by the government, its contractor would have had to comply with national building codes, according to Ms Sutanudjaja. Because it was privately funded, it instead had to comply with local codes that were put in place in 2013.
Komariah, an official from a one-name regency district, said many people in the area build on hilly terrain and cannot afford materials that would make their structures safer.
Hani’s Islamic school, known as a madrasa, went through three stages of construction, according to Muhammad Yusuf Supriatna, a volunteer teacher whose family owns the school. In 1997, it was built as a 13-by-30-foot one-story structure. In 2006, its dimensions were increased to 20 by 41 feet, he said. And in 2016, a second story was added, funded by a $7,000 donation from an investor in the Middle East.
“We built this madrasa by ourselves, helped by neighbors,” he said. “We don’t have the building permit, but I consulted a friend who is an expert in construction.”
For a quarter of a century, the madrasa has withstood earthquakes without even showing a crack. But the one that struck on Monday afternoon toppled the second floor, killing Hani and three other girls, aged 6, 7 and 12, as well as a 10-year-old boy. Three other children were injured.
Hani was a calm and obedient child who had learned to write numbers and recognize the letters of the alphabet, her mother, Ms Neng, said in a moving interview. Her favorite doll was Hello Kitty and she liked to eat rice with salt and soy sauce.
When Hani left home on Monday, Ms. Neng was busy frying potatoes for her husband, a street vendor. She stopped to help close the girl’s black dress and put away her hijab, and to give her about 13 cents in spending money.
When the earthquake hit, Ms. Neng and her husband focused on helping an elderly neighbor. But after a few minutes, her husband started shouting, “Hani, where is Hani?
They ran to Hani’s madrasa and panicked when they saw that its second story had collapsed. Other children were crawling through a small hole in the rubble. A teacher told them not to worry.
Ms. Neng called Hani’s name for an hour, but the girl never came out. Officials eventually moved the couple to a nearby evacuation tent where they would be safer from aftershocks.
“In the tent I kept praying, asking God to save her,” she said. “But God didn’t save her.”
Hani’s body was discovered around 12:30 p.m., and she was buried nine hours later in a white shroud, an Islamic burial custom.