Travel

How Much More Tragedy Can We Take?

What the sinking of a ferry in Lake Toba, last June, says about how Indonesia moves forward after a tragic transportation accident.
November 8, 2018, 8:00am
A woman cries for her daughter, who was lost on the sinking of the KM Sinar Bangun in Lake Toba
A woman cries for her daughter, who was lost on the sinking of the KM Sinar Bangun on June 19, 2018. Photo by Beawiharta/Reuters

The last image Junita Naibaho has of her younger sister was taken an hour before her death. Her sister, Manza Naibaho, was on a short holiday on Samosir, an island in the middle of Lake Toba, the largest volcanic lake on Earth. Both sisters live in the Toba region, but on the mainland. The island itself, a popular backpacker destination in Southeast Asia, offered locals an affordable weekend away—an approximation of a beach holiday in a landlocked part of Indonesia.

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The holiday was, judging by the photos, a success. Junita scrolled through Manza's Facebook feed and landed on an image of her sister, both her nephews, ages 2 and 5, and 14 other members of her extended family all floating in inflatable inner tubes. Manza is smiling in the photos, her arms around her loved ones as she floats in the lake.

Less than an hour later, Manza and her family boarded the KM Sinar Bangun passenger ferry as the sun started to set for a 40 minute journey from Samosir to the port town of Tigaras, on the mainland. Only 10 minutes into the trip, the ferry capsized amid high waves and sank with nearly 200 people on board. Most of them never resurfaced. Only 18 people survived the accident, including the captain, who was later charged with overpacking the vessel.

Junita's entire extended family, all 17 of them, never returned.

"We were more than sisters," she said of Manza as she wiped away her tears. "We were only two years apart, but we were best friends as well."

What followed was a story that's far too common in Indonesia. Tragedy sketches a predictable arc in a country where the sudden loss of life to an otherwise preventable disaster occurs with startling frequency. There's a short period of national mourning—complete with the ubiquitous #prayfor hashtag—the circling of the news media, the search and rescue efforts, the eventual finger-pointing, and then… usually nothing at all.

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When KM Sinar Bangun slipped beneath the surface of Lake Toba it was, at the time, the biggest tragedy of 2018. But it's been a rough year. So far, Indonesia has had not one, but two massive earthquakes, multiple volcanic eruptions, a tsunami, and now another plane crash. It's been a year that's been defined by an overwhelming level of heart-wrenching tragedy, one where the total death toll from natural disasters and transportation accidents is in excess of 3,700 people.

"Some people are badly shaken, but some others can accept it right away," said Reza Indragiri Amriel, a forensic psychologist of Indonesians reaction to tragedy. "Most of us are shaken, but we can then recover without help or with only minimal help. In Japan, for example, they are used to disasters, and their adaptation is with science and technology. Here in Indonesia, we still need some time. Indonesia just started to respond to disasters progressively in 2008 when the BNPB (National Disaster Mitigation Agency) was created. Only since then have [disaster response] regulations been applied [to disasters]."

The national urge to get back to the status quo as quickly as possible often leaves us unprepared for the next disaster. When the earthquake and tsunami hit Palu, Central Sulawesi, last month, the seismic and oceanic monitoring equipment that was installed in the wake of the Aceh tsunami to lessen future disasters hadn't worked for years. More than 130,000 people died in the Aceh tsunami, but that massive loss of life apparently wasn't enough to pay for the continued maintenance of sensors that could've helped save lives this time around.

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The same is often true for enforcing stricter safety regulations in the wake of transportation accidents like the sinking of the KM Sinar Bangun.

“Why aren’t safety standards better? More often than not existing regulations which should make for even a minimally safer journey are simply not enforced thanks to corruption, ineptitude, or a general disinterest/fatalism towards safety by officialdom," said Stuart McDonald who is the co-founder of Travelfish.org, an independent travel guide to Southeast Asia. "When you have senior people like Haryo Satmiko, the deputy chairman of the National Transportation Safety Committee, suggesting 'We need to pray more' after a plane crash that resulted in almost 200 dead, alarm bells should be ringing.

"The government has essentially kicked the can down to the end user—does that boat look unseaworthy or overloaded? Don’t get on. Does that airline have a reputation for poor safety and drug use among its pilots? Book with someone else. This is a calculus that should not be the responsibility of the consumer, but thanks to repeated official inaction it is. What will it take? Sadly more than 200+ at the bottom of Lake Toba it seems."

At Lake Toba, KM Sinar Bangun was severely overcrowded to nearly three times its capacity, a common issue among Indonesian ferries. Its narrow decks were crowded with more than 60 motorbikes. The port windows down below had been caged-in with metal bars to prevent thieves from looting the boat at night—bars that prevented people from evacuating the sinking vessel. There were nowhere near enough life vests on board.

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Nearly five months later, I boarded a passenger ferry that ran the same route as the KM Sinar Bangun to see what, if anything, had changed. The boat was less crowded, partially because, according to one captain, tourists numbers dropped significantly after the accident and partially because the KM Sinar Bangun sunk during the Eid al-Fitr holiday break, when most Indonesians have off from work.

But there were still far too few life vests. I counted one life vest for every three seats. There were three more circular life rings on board, but all of them were tied to the roof and far out of reach in the case of an emergency. The one thing that has changed was the accurate counting of who, and how many, are actually on board. When the KM Sinar Bangun sunk, there wasn't a complete passenger manifest, so it was impossible to know exactly how many people were on board. Crews now keep track of passengers names, but, in reality, this is far more useful as a way to count the dead than to save anyone's life.

The ferries still run at Lake Toba because there's no way they can't. The community is split between the mainland and the island, which makes a ferry system a necessity. And down there, beneath the waves, the KM Sinar Bangun—and its victims—remains. It took search teams a week to find the boat on the surface of the lake bed. And even then, there was no real plan to bring it back to the surface and collect the dead. For local residents like Mico Sitio, Junita's husband, the search and rescue efforts looked like they were called off as soon as they spotted the wreckage.

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“What was the point of even searching for the boat and giving everyone false hope if they had no intention of bringing it up?” Mico asked me, still hurt from the how poorly the search and rescue operations went. “The local authorities said that they were on the scene that same night, but that was a lie. Even the bodies that the search and rescue teams say they ‘found’ the next day were actually discovered by local residents when they washed up on the shore."

This lack of a body to bury is what continues to cause sleepless nights, said Rasmi, Manza's mother.

"Even if we just got a lock of her hair to bury, at least we would have a grave site to visit,” she said, adding that there should be, at the very least, a memorial to the tragedy somewhere in Tigaras, "so we have somewhere to go and remember them. The government didn’t even hold an official remembrance ceremony at the lake for the victims."

Junita broke down and began to sob as her mother spoke. “I feel like a crazy person,” she said when asked how she was coping with the loss. In a place where everything else seems to be back to normal, it's this same normalcy that weighs heavily on people like Junita, who lost so many and has nowhere to go to grieve or remember.

Down at the port, I asked Leo Sidabutar, a 26-year-old ferry captain, if the accident had a lasting impact on him. He told me that while he doesn't feel unsafe, he knows that there are things that are out of his control—like sudden storms. He's not afraid to head out on the lake, but he also hasn't forgotten the victims of the KM Sinar Bangun. His route takes his boat right past where the wreckage lies.

“Every time I drive past them, I always say a prayer," he told me.

—Staff writer Arzia Tivany Wargadiredja contributed to this report.