April 25, 2006

Java Volcano Residents Wait for Signs from Nature

By Beawiharta

SLEMAN, Indonesia -- Java's towering Mount Merapi spews smoke, officials urge villagers to flee, but it is to animals on the slopes of the rumbling volcano that aged food kiosk owner Mrs. Atmorejo looks for a final warning of disaster.

Government officials including Yogyakarta provincial governor Hamengkubuwono X, the Sultan of Yogyakarta, have urged residents to leave the foothills of the volcano which claimed more than 60 lives in 1994 and 1,300 in a 1930 eruption. But so far, despite growing tremors, there has been no official order.

"I heard what the Sultan said but he is not God," said the kiosk owner from a hamlet in Sleman regency who gave her name simply as Mrs. Atmorejo.

"The animals have not come down yet."

Many residents of the Mount Merapi area trust to traditional ways to detect a coming eruption like animals moving downhill or visible lightning bolts on top of the mystical peak.

Villagers living on the slopes or in the shadows of Mount Merapi said on Tuesday they would stay put until nature gives its signals, or the government forces them to leave. Many fear losing property and livestock if they go.

Merapi has been spewing thick smoke for almost two weeks.

Vulcanologists say the mountain, overlooking the ancient royal city of Yogyakarta and the heavily visited Borobudur temple complex, may erupt at the end of the month.

Mrs. Atmorejo said her bamboo-woven foodstall, which sits on a riverbank with the imposing Merapi as its backdrop, serves laborers who have not stopped digging gravel from the river.


"There has been no government instruction although the shelters have been prepared. But I may go downhill on Friday," said 45-year old farmer Narman, referring to the day the Sultan has forecast as the eruption date.

However, some also trust to their own instincts, like an octogenarian couple whose home is in Turgo village where most of the 1994 casualties had lived.

"I was not hit by it then so I won't be hit by it now," said the wife, who gave her name as Mrs. Ngadibejo. She lost two of her three children in the tragedy.

She said they were attending a wedding party a dozen steps away from home while she was sleeping in their modest house.

Some others, particularly older people, say they would prefer to die on their own land.

Indonesia has successfully moved more than 600 people away from the restive volcano but officials put the total number of residents on the mountain at around 14,000, which includes villages in Central Java and Yogyakarta provinces.

Most of those who have been moved are women, children and the elderly. Some return to their home villages during the day to feed their livestock although tremors have not diminished, local officials said.

(Additional reporting by Diyan Jari in Jakarta and Dwi Prasetyo in Yogyakarta)