Corridors to Hell

Published : 31 December 2015

By: Bjorn Vaughn

Imagine that it’s the middle of the night and you’re asleep in your bedroom. Suddenly you wake up gasping for air. Your body is numb; you feel sick. You take a deep breath, but the room is full of smog. You reach for the respirator on the bedside table and press it against your face, but there is no point. You are being poisoned – there is not enough oxygen in the room. In fact, there is no clean air for hundreds of miles. Your mind starts to race. Your heart beats faster. Running out of oxygen is a very scary thing.     

Any respectable Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) of 300 is considered hazardous to human health. “Hazardous” is a word commonly used on signs warning us to keep away from nuclear test sites. What, then, would be the warning sign for 3,900 PSI in Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan Province, as we saw in recent months due to the forest fire and haze crisis? “Time to Die”?

Trapped like this, you think of the well-being of your family, but what about less fortunate Indonesian families trapped in the same situation? They live in simple wooden structures and are exposed to the toxic haze, with nowhere to go. You think of the mothers and their babies, many of whom are coughing and struggling for oxygen, too. Will some of them die before they grow up?

This was the lot in life for more than one million people in Central Kalimantan between last August and October, when toxic smoke and haze from wildfires blanketed the province, as well as much of Southeast Asia. Some say it’s the biggest environmental crime of the 21st century.

In normal times, Palangkaraya, the provincial capital, is a pretty little city. It has been my home for the past six years, but I didn’t recognize it during the crisis. These photos capture the place during a surreal state of emergency. People went about business as usual in a lighthearted way – “Hello! Can you see the smog?” – but in reality they took a severe economic hit. The photos are fleeting encounters with ghostlike figures, but these are real people surviving in a town that I can only describe as the “corridors to hell.” 

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