On May 28, 2006, Ibu Kurniati's world exploded.
"For us, it was like a small apocolypse. We saw huge fires, and the hot mud, and the strong smell of gas was everywhere,"
The previous day, natural gas prospectors Lapindo Brantas hit something soft while drilling nearly 3 km below the surface in East Java. When hot mud and toxic gasses began gushing out of the hole, Lapindo and local authorities were unable to stem the flow, or to organize an orderly evacuation. "It was total chaos," recalls Korniati.
Two years later, the situation has hardly improved. The mud continues to flow, and has repeatedly breached embankments put in place to contain it. Sludge has oozed over fields, factories and villages, and into canals and groundwater, displacing more than 11,000 people.
Hundreds are still in a nearby evacuation center, which Korniati likens to a prison, living without private quarters, lining up three times a day for food that is often rotten.
Before the disaster, Korniati ran her own small business as a food vendor, but now she's forced to depend on her children for support. Many, she says, have it even worse, turning to begging, prostitution or suicide. "The mud ruined everything."
Lapindo denies responsibility for the eruption, ignoring independent geological surveys and blaming an earthquake that struck Java on May 26. However, it has offered limited compensation to villagers who agree to release the company from further liability.
Unsatisfied with this deal -- which offers compensation only for loss of material property -- Kurniati and other villagers continue to agitate for a more just settlement. They've occupied the local parliament, blocked the highway and staged a hunger strike -- succeeding in getting promises, but so far nothing more. "They give lots of promises, but what they promise never comes. They just give us words. Until my hair turns white, they'll never be realized."
The whole situation is more disgusting, and more complicated, than I can fully explain. Go here and here for more information. Despite all the setbacks, though, the people seem determined to keep fighting.