May 18, 2006

Villagers Return Home as Volcano Simmers

By Tomi Soetjipto

MOUNT METAPI, Indonesia -- Ignoring warnings a major eruption could come at anytime, Indonesian villagers were back in their homes on the slopes of the simmering Mount Merapi volcano on Thursday.

The volcano shot a fresh large burst of hot gas clouds on Wednesday, but it did not stop residents of Kalibening village from leaving shelters and heading home to stay the night.

"Yesterday, around 1,600 people decided to return here," village head Mukidad told Reuters.

The hot gas clouds which residents call "shaggy goats" were still coming out of the Merapi crater six kilometers (four miles) from the village, but they were smaller than earlier in the week.

Thursday's clouds were about 2.5 kms (1.5 miles) in length, "not as far as the day before," said Triyani, an official at the Center for Volcanological Research and Technology Development in Yogyakarta, the ancient royal capital near the mountain locals regard as mystical.

Clouds from Wednesday's burst had reached a length of 3 km and caused ash rains west and south of Merapi, one of the most menacing volcanoes in the "Pacific Ring of Fire."

That compared with 4 km on Monday when Merapi had shown the most activity since a red alert was declared two days earlier, and 6 km in 1994 during the last major eruption.

Triyani said the major lava dome that has built up in the current eruption phase had yet to collapse, the event vulcanologists fear could trigger a major deadly eruption.

During the eruption in 1994, most of the 70 deaths were caused by the outpouring of hot ash and other material following the collapse of a lava dome.

The volcano killed 1,300 people in 1930.


In the farming village of Kalibening, however, some residents were not concerned.

Sudari, in her early 30's, told Reuters she did not think the volcano would get any worse, and in any case she would rather be home than in the refugee camp where she had been staying.

"It felt hot there. I felt bored. I couldn't stand it."

Village head Mukidad said if the mountain did start to blow, residents were ready.

"We have prepared several trucks on standby in case there is an emergency situation, and besides, the camps are only 15 minutes away from the village."

Many of the male residents of Kalibening, whose people work rice paddies, had never left.

Supriyadi, 45, holding a shovel and wearing a conical hat, said he had been in the village throughout Merapi's rumblings and stopped work only on Monday, a day of lava flows, huge gas clouds and ash falls.

"I was feeling afraid. I didn't work. I just watched Merapi like everyone else. But after that, I think now it's okay."

Schools had re-opened in the village and at an Islamic kindergarten children in green and white uniforms, the girls wearing headscarves, laughed and chatted as they drew pictures.

Vulcanologists warn activity is likely to rise and fall ahead of a major eruption, and the government has officially mandated evacuation since Saturday, but is reluctant to force the issue.

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

Residents say they have yet to see what they consider the traditional signs of an impending major eruption, such as animals fleeing down Merapi's sides.

(With additional reporting in Jakarta by Diyan Jari)