No masks, no money, no options

INDONESIA - While there's been a brief respite from the haze for people in Singapore, there is no such relief in the Riau province of Indonesia.

They are resigned to the fact that they live with fires raging in their backyards.

They live life facing a PSI that does not dip below 300.

There is no hope of a mask or even a paper face mask because it is too expensive. The most they can do is tie a piece of cloth around their face and hope for the best.

On Friday , The New Paper On Sunday team spent 15 hours combing the hot spots near Rokan Hulu, a six-hour drive from the Riau province capital of Pekanbaru.

Riau Natural Resources Conservation Agency head Ahmad Saerozi told the Jakarta Globe that the fires were spreading rapidly over more than 800 ha of plantation land. However, these plantations are massive, and it takes about an hour to get from one to another.

But along the way, we found hundreds of villagers living a mere stone's throw from the fire that is still raging.

One would think the fires surrounding them would create a state of panic. On Thursday, the fires killed a man in Rokan Hilir, a 10-hour drive from Pekanbaru. His wife was in critical condition, local media reported.

Nonetheless, these villagers go about their daily business. The sight of hundreds of Indonesian firefighters zipping through the dusty roads in front of their makeshift houses on stilts does not faze them.

One villager, Ms Asminar, who goes by only one name, says she hasn't entertained the notion of leaving her home in Rokan Hulu, where she and her family of eight have lived for the last two years. Why? Because she does not have the "money nor the luxury" to consider such an option.

"We don't have any money to buy any masks to protect our children, so we endure the smoke," said the 32-year-old in Bahasa Indonesia. "I tell my children not to roam too far from home when it gets too hazy, that is the most I can I do."

Her 91-year-old father has been experiencing breathing difficulties, but with no money, medical treatment is a distant hope and there is nothing they can do for him at the moment.

Ms Asminar and her husband make a living from fishing in the rivers in the area, selling their catch to the local markets. One a good day the couple can expect to make about 100,000 rupiah (S$12.85) .

"Every day finding money is a struggle for us. Our priority is to earn enough money so we can buy rice and food for the family. So as you can imagine, masks and anything of that sort is a luxury."

But not all villagers are as pragmatic as Asminar.

Her neighbour, Mr A. Mangungsong, seems angry at the fact that little is being done to bring the culprits to justice.

"I've lived here for 10 years and nothing they can do will make me leave my home, but I am angry," the 40-year-old tells this reporter, pointing to the little shack on the side of the road which he shares with his wife and six children.

"We have no one to complain to and even though there are officials who come here to investigate, help comes much too slowly," said the fisherman in Bahasa Indonesia.

"But the good thing is that my children are not sick from all the smoke, that to me is a blessing. For now, I leave it all in the hands of God. My only wish is that the Government takes action and that rain comes so our lives are not put in any more danger."

zothman@sph.com.sg


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