Indonesia in Focus
Nusakambangan and Tsunami Protection: Cilacap, Java, Indonesia
“If not for Nusakambangan Island, this port would have been devastated, and dozens of boats destroyed when the tsunami came,” said fisherman Budi, 39.
It was Monday afternoon, July 17, 2006, when the tsunami hit the southern coastal area of Cilacap regency. The killer tidal wave took 147 lives, wrought havoc on the beach and damaged 435 fishing boats.
The natural disaster inflicted material losses amounting to some Rp 86 billion, said Yayan Rusyawan, secretary of the Disaster Management Executive Unit of Cilacap regency.
“Despite the huge material losses and the loss of dozens of lives, the Javanese are still relieved that Nusakambangan Island spared them from further devastation,” Budi said, pointing to Pangandaran in West Java which was worse hit.
Fellow fishermen agreed.
“I cannot imagine what would have happened if not for Nusakambangan. Perhaps Cilacap (the town) would have been hit as well. We all panicked and hurriedly left the town of Cilacap for Wangon in the north. When we learned Cilacap was safe, we returned to our homes that very night,” said Amrih Katrimah, a resident of Gunung Sumping Estate in Cilacap town.
The huge waves came twice: at 4:30 p.m. and at 7 p.m. At that time there were about 60 fishing boats weighing some 30 gross tons in the harbor.
“These boats were not seriously damaged. They can be repaired and will soon be ready to go out to sea again. Only the warehouses were seriously damaged. The walls gave in. We were lucky. Adipala and Binangun areas obviously sustained serious damage,” said Gringsing.
Among the 24 districts, three — Adipala, Binangun and Nusawungu — are not protected by Nusakambangan Island. The three face the open seas of the Indian Ocean.
When the tsunami hit, it claimed dozens of lives in these three districts. They were mostly farmers working on their rice fields on the coastline. The 10-meter-high tsunami seriously damaged the southern coastal area of Cilacap because this area is about six meters above sea level.
The other districts were spared from serious damage because they are either located far from the coast or, or were protected by Nusakambangan Island which bore the brunt of the impact of the waves.
Nusakambangan Island measures 11,510.55 hectares. Extending from the west to the east, it is located one kilometer from the Java mainland and is situated to the south of the town of Cilacap. Cilacap regency, meanwhile, measures 22,360.84 hectares and is populated by 1.7 million people.
Looking directly out at the Indian Ocean — the epicenter of the earthquake that caused the killer tidal wave — Nusakambangan, which served as a buffer of sorts, was seriously damaged by the tsunami. Luckily, there are few people on the island so the losses inflicted were not great.
Nusakambangan is generally known as a prison for high-profile convicts in Indonesia. Incarcerated here are death-row convicts as well as convicts serving life sentences such as Bali bombing convicts Amrozi and Imam Samudra.
Nusakambangan can be reached by ferry from Tanjung Intan or Wijayapura Harbor in Cilacap. In 15 minutes you will reach the island’s Sodong Port. There are nine prisons there. Currently, however, only four are in use, namely Batu (built in 1925), Besi (built in 1929), Kembang Kuning (built in 1950) and Permisan (the oldest, built in 1908). The other five, namely Nirbaya, Karang Tengah, Timus Buntu, Karang Anyar and Gleger, have been closed.
Most of the island is a natural forest where rare trees grow. Once it used to be a haven for thousands of cobras that were kept on the island to deter big-wig convicts from escaping.
At present the sustainability of the forest is under threat due to the rampant illegal logging, especially because the timber on the island is considered to be as good as the timber from Kalimantan.
The tsunami not only uprooted hundreds of trees on the Permisan coast, a tourist resort, but also dragged them to higher ground, thus causing the collapse of several buildings on the island such as the Welcome Monument, the gazebo building, stalls and public toilets.
The monument was dragged about 100 meters from its original place on the coastline.
The tsunami also devastated Kampung Malaria, where locals plant rice and collect sugar palm juice, with which they make brown sugar. The tsunami devastated the makeshift huts of the farmers. Eight people, including farmers, prison employees and two convicts, were killed with nine more missing.
Two maximum security prison buildings still under construction were also hit, leaving two convicts dead. The two inmates were reported to be painting the Pengayoman Monument, when the tsunami came.
Some 90 families of prison employees, who live around Permisan prison, were also forced to relocate to another part of the island.
“The tsunami has made Nusakambangan a really lonely place,” said Masudi, a Permisan prison employee.
The families of the prison security guards were evacuated to Wisma Saridi close to Batu prison. Along with them were around 100 prisoners, who are serving life sentences or are on death row. The prisoners were brought back to Permisan prison a week later.
Aware of the island’s vital role during the tsunami, people have begun to be concerned about the danger of deforestation on Nusakambangan.
“I hope the forest on this island will continue to be conserved. This island has protected Cilacap from the tsunami,” said Lt. Col. Y. Rosa, commander of Cilacap military district command.
His concern is understandable given the lime rock mining by a cement company.
From the town of Cilacap, Nusakambangan island looks green because of its thick forest. However, if you fly over the island and look down, you will see a vast treeless spot. This is where lime rock is mined.
“When I heard a booming sound in the sea prior to the tsunami, I thought it was a bomb exploding at the lime mine on the island,” said Suparjo, 44, a fisherman.
Fishermen like Suparjo do not understand that some day Nusakambangan will be treeless if lime rock mining is not properly controlled. Once the forest is gone, when a tsunami hits, there will be nothing to protect Cilacap any more.
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