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Homeless find peaceful life among the dead

Jakarta Post - November 27, 2007

Adisti Sukma Sawitri, Jakarta – Sixty-year-old Sahaya knows well that humans are more frightening than any ghost or haunting spirit.

Surviving one eviction after another since she was 17-years-old, the Bekasi native finally lives in peace in a roofed grave at a Chinese section of the Cipinang Besar public cemetery in East Jakarta. To mitigate the rain and cold, the woman who lives alone has fastened old banners to pillars around the grave.

"I don't remember when I started living here, but this place turned out to be my first permanent shelter ever," she said while talking to The Jakarta Post inside her dwelling, a three-by-three meter structure built with stacks of debris she collected.

She said the roofed grave might be small and stuffy but it was cozy, as no official ever bothered to raid her there.

Space is so limited in the city that it is the live ones who haunt the dead. As river embankments and underpass areas are overcrowded and prone to regular evictions, some squatters have turned to public cemeteries as an alternative for peaceful shelters.

In the cemetery's Chinese section alone, 78 families have lived on the 3-hectare plot since 2005. Most of the residents are squatters who once occupied the nearby banks of the Cipinang Besar River and construction areas of the East Flood Canal.

They earn a living by scavenging, working construction and collecting frangipani, which they sell to mosquito repellent factories for Rp 14,000 or US$1.50 a kilogram.

The number of residents has soared since last year's visit by then-deputy governor Fauzi Bowo, who celebrated Ramadhan with residents. Fauzi said he gave permission to the residents to live in the area while the administration worked to find a more suitable location.

"We are lucky to receive Pak Fauzi's recognition, so the risk of being evicted is decreased. But this cemetery has long been abandoned anyway," said Nani Rohayani, 46, a community leader.

The cemetery's management records show there have been no new graves in the section since the 1970s. Some families come to visit graves once a year during the Chinese New Year commemoration.

Nani, who also once lived in a roofed grave, said no family members had told her to move from the grave. "A family member only once told me that I should not put a stove and cook inside since it exposed her mother to heat," she said.

Nani and her family moved from the roofed grave after being able to afford enough plywood and cement to build a more suitable dwelling.

For those who live among the dead, life is relatively ordinary. Residents have a mushola (small Muslim place of worship) and a place to hold informal classes for children.

Some residents send their children to school to ensure they obtain education certificates. Nani acts like head of a neighborhood unit, dealing with ID card registration and security issues.

Since they live in a non-designated area, residents usually procure permanent resident or ID cards by registering with a nearby neighborhood unit. Nani always reminds residents to get ID cards to avoid population raids in the area.

Residents have dug wells and built collective water pumps for their daily needs, except for cooking and drinking. "Nobody wants to consume 'bone' water" said Nani. Each family manages to have bottled water or a water dispenser.

Despite their limited incomes, everybody chips in if someone needs urgent money for medication, she added. When Independence Day approaches, all contribute money to hire a single dangdut band.

Fifty-year-old resident Suparno said although he enjoyed living there he always longed to live in a more decent place. "It still bears a risk of eviction, especially if Rizal Foundation (the land's owner) decides to sell this land," he said.

A worker at a construction materials shop, Suparno said his dream was to have a small but affordable settlement to call his own. Suparno said he would move if the administration offered him low-cost housing or an apartment.

However, Fauzi has yet to realize his promise to provide residents with a better settlement. Head of the cemetery's management Junaidi said it allowed residents to live there only for the sake of humanity. "We never really permit them to live here but everybody knows just how hard it is to find a place to stay in the city," he said.

Junaidi said he hoped the administration could soon provide a settlement for the community. "A cemetery is a cemetery, the house of the dead. There is no way living people could live a normal life in such a place," he said.