May 14, 2006

Indonesians defy volcano alert

By Tomi Soetjipto

PURWOBINAGUN, Indonesia (Reuters) - Dozens of Indonesian
villagers returned to their homes on the slopes of Mount Merapi
briefly on Sunday despite an official order to evacuate over
concerns the dangerous volcano could soon erupt.

Indonesia raised the alert status of Merapi to the highest
level, also known as code red or danger status, on Saturday,
although experts say they cannot predict when it will erupt.

Thick clouds of charcoal gray smoke billowed periodically
from the crater on Sunday, but there were no visible signs of
hot lava flowing from Merapi, one of the most menacing
volcanoes in the Pacific "Ring of Fire."

The desperately poor villagers left evacuation centres and
packed into trucks a day after authorities ordered the
compulsory evacuation of thousands of residents living near or
along Merapi's fertile slopes.

"Of course, I am afraid. But it is my responsibility to get
the milk and cut the grass," said Asmo, an elderly man in a
batik shirt standing by a truck near an evacuation center in
Purwobinagun village. "A responsibility cannot be abandoned."

Merapi, which means "Mountain of Fire," has been rumbling
for weeks and glistening orange lava has flowed occasionally
from its crater in recent days.

Experts say the top alert means that technically the
mountain could erupt within 24 hours.

The chief of a volcano research center in Yogyakarta said a
lava dome had formed in the volcano's crater, but it was
difficult to predict when it would collapse. The lava dome
could also subside gradually.

"If the new lava dome collapses, it will bring a new
catastrophe with the free flowing of lava and the pouring of
hot ash and other little material," the chief of the Center of
Research, Development and Technology on Volcanoes, Ratmono
Purbo, told reporters.

During a 1994 eruption of Merapi, most of the 70 casualties
were caused by hot ash and other material following the
collapse of a lava dome. The volcano killed 1,300 people in a
1930 eruption.


Despite the warnings, villagers said they had no choice but
to head home for a few hours to do their daily chores.

"I've been here for two weeks, and at my home we have two
cows and no one is protecting our home. So my husband has to
stay back in the village," said Sunarmi, a 36-year-old mother
of two in an evacuation camp.

"My husband already knew about the latest (status), but we
agreed that it's not time to go down yet."

Authorities evacuated more than 5,000 people living near
the volcano to shelters in safe areas after the new alert

An official at the Kaliurang observation said lava flow had
increased to 2 km (1.2 miles) from the crater of Merapi, which
rises above acres of palm and banana trees near the ancient
city of Yogyakarta at the center of densely populated Java

Officials said it was tough to stop people despite the

"We are not giving any concessions. But we cannot be
authoritarian. So we allowed some villagers to go home, but
only for a brief time. They are only taking care of their
belongings," said the chief of disaster prevention for Sleman

"Those who are staying back have their own sense. Most of
them are young men. And in case of an emergency they can go
down quite quickly. Perhaps only 15 minutes on a motorbike."

Indonesia, which has the world's highest density of
volcanoes, has been struggling to conduct mass evacuation as
some villagers living on the slopes refused to be moved because
they rely on natural signs rather official orders.

Residents say signals would include lightning around the
mountain's peak or animals moving down its slopes.

Officials put the total number of residents on and near the
mountain at around 14,000.