Lombok Earthquake

'I Thought Doomsday Had Arrived': What It Was Like to Live Through the Lombok Quake

"People were running toward the open fields in a panic. Some of them broke down crying and began to pray."
August 9, 2018, 8:25am
A man walks through the rubble of a home in North Lombok. Photo by Beawiharta/Reuters

It was a Sunday like any other. I was at work again. It's not that I'm a workaholic, it's just that I always work weekends and my job feels more like a hobby than "work," so I never really care.

I'm the program director at an NGO that specializes in arts and activism. We ran the NGO out of a modest house in Pemenang, North Lombok, about 40 kilometers from Mataram. That three-bedroom pink house was like my second home for the past seven years.

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We had a lot of work to do on Sunday. I was preparing a report about tourism in West Nusa Tenggara (where Lombok is located) and my colleagues were pretty busy too. By the evening hours we took a break, did our evening prayers, and then were just hanging out.

Then, suddenly, everyone stopped talking. The ground started to shake really bad. The walls of the house were moving too. It was like some giant, angry thing was outside shaking our house. We all ran out into the front yard until it stopped.


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I knew immediately this was something different from what we were used to. An earthquake had hit Lombok only a week before, but this time it felt more powerful and lasted way longer than usual. I never felt something like that before. "It's like doomsday had arrived," I thought to myself. I was confused and scared. I had no idea if my family was OK. I thought about my wife. But mostly I stood there frozen by the experience, struggling to figure out what I was supposed to do next.

The electricity blacked out moments later. Then the water stopped. I saw cracks appear in the walls of our office as the ground shook, but the building still seemed really solid. Outside, people were running toward the open fields in a panic. Some of them broke down crying and began to pray.

I felt lucky that I was still alive. But I also knew it was going to be a long night.

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The first thing I did was call my parents. I had remembered to grab my phone on the way out, and, thankfully, the call connected. My family lives out in West Lombok, pretty far from the epicenter of the quake, but I didn't know that at the time. There were fine.

My wife and I live in Mataram. She was OK too. I felt a deep sense of relief. Then the panic returned worse than before.

A tsunami warning rang out. People around me started to say that it was coming right for North Lombok. I couldn't think straight, but the three of us working that day were able to get on our motorbike and head straight to the hills on the east side of the island.

We weren't alone. There were hundreds of people around us all doing the same thing. Behind us, we thought, was a destructive tsunami. In front of us was the safety of higher ground.

It was only then that I realized just how bad the earthquake had hit Lombok. The slopes of Mount Rinjani took the brunt of the force. Homes on both sides of the street were completely leveled. I saw people who seemed to be trying to pull their family members from the rubble. Others were searching for valuables amidst the ruins.

Everyone looked tired and weak. An old man was running down the street with blood pouring out of a gash on his head. I wanted to stop. I wanted to help. But we all thought death was barreling toward us in the form of a wall of seawater. So instead I kept driving toward higher ground.

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None of us said a word. Maybe we were too preoccupied with worry. Maybe we were just scared. An hour later, we reached the safety of the hills. The air was dry. The wind whipped our skin. I saw people everywhere I looked. There were hundreds of us up there.

We fled with little more than the clothes on our backs. No one had blankets, sleeping bags, or tents. Someone bought some food and water back in Pemenang, but it wasn't enough. Once it seemed safer, we decided to go back down the hill and buy a gallon of water and some bread. We handed it out to everyone around us.

It wasn't enough to fill our stomachs, but it helped fight off the cold. We sat there waiting for help to arrive. It was then that we heard how bad it was in West Lombok too. My heart sank. No one knew how many were dead or wounded out there. I knew my family was safe, for now, but the ground kept shaking with aftershocks. My phone didn't work. I couldn't sleep. We all sat there in the cold dark, knowing that whatever help was on the way would have to get through the destruction of West Lombok first.

The next morning, I decided to go check on my house. I broke down in tears when I arrived. The building had collapsed in the quake. I searched the rubble for some food and supplies and eventually found a sack of rice beneath some broken concrete. I carefully placed it on my bike.

Somewhere in there was the rest of my stuff, nearly everything I owned. But none of it was important. My family was out there, somewhere. I had to find them.

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Someone told me that the police station in Pemenang had become a make-shift evacuation center. I went straight there and found my family. I found my brother first. He was carrying his child, who looked tired and weak from the cold. His leg was badly swollen from where it was hit by a collapsed wall. We were safe, but help had yet to arrive. Again, there was nothing I could do but wait.

People started to build shelters out of tarps and sheets outside the police station. Our numbers kept growing too. By noon, there were more than 2,500 people there. I got tired of waiting. I wasn't injured, so, instead, I figured I could help. I drove to Mataram and started to raise money for the survivors and help with the logistics of mounting a massive humanitarian relief effort to a hard-hit island.

I finally heard how bad the earthquake had been. And how lucky my family and I were. The magnitude 7.0 quake claimed 130 lives and counting. Nearly 1,500 people were injured. In North Lombok, where I was at the time of the quake, 78 people were dead. Thousands of buildings had collapsed.

It made me think about God. We shouldn't underestimate his power. In the face of God, there's little any of us can do to prevent a disaster like this. All we can do is pray, and hope that tomorrow is a better day.


*As told to Adi Renaldi, who was able to reach Muhammad Sibawaihi by phone from VICE's Jakarta office. This story has been translated from Bahasa Indonesia and edited for content and clarity.