May 13, 2006

Indonesian villagers return home despite volcano alert

By Tomi Soetjipto

PURWOBINAGUN, Indonesia -- Dozens of Indonesian villagers tried to return to their homes on the slopes of Mount Merapi on Sunday after authorities ordered thousands to evacuate, saying 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 centers 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.


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."

Government officials, along with army and police, evacuated more than 5,000 people living near the volcano to tents and shelters in safe areas following the new alert level on Saturday.

Officials stayed awake overnight at the Kaliurang observation post to monitor Merapi's seismic activities.

"There was no extraordinary activity at night. We noticed a lot of hot smoke coming out but in terms of tremors there was nothing much," said Panud, the chief of the observation post.

He 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.


Merapi lies near the ancient city of Yogyakarta at the center of densely populated Java island. It killed 70 people in a 1994 eruption and 1,300 in 1930.

Officials said it was tough to stop people despite the alert.

"It's very difficult to put a total stop. It needs to be gradual," said Suharno, the village head.

"The truck will take these people to their village. Because of the danger status, they will only be there for two hours."

Indonesia, which has the world's highest density of volcanoes, had already moved thousands of people away from Merapi. Officials put the total number of residents on and near the mountain at around 14,000, which includes villages in Central Java and Yogyakarta provinces.

Most Javanese villagers consider the volcano sacred. Every year, a traditional Javanese priest climbs to the top to make an offering.

Many Indonesians also see activity in Merapi as an omen of looming political unrest. Thousands of villagers were evacuated in January 1997 when Merapi became active, just months before the Asian financial crisis struck.

Most Javanese, who make up the bulk of Indonesia's 220 million people, are Muslim, but many cling to a spiritual past and believe a supernatural kingdom exists on top of Merapi.