Thousands flee slopes of Indonesia's Merapi volcano

Sunday, May 14, 2006

MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia -- Edi sat calmly on a mat sipping his coffee while the volcano spat flaming lava and belched clouds of ash behind him. He was waiting for a signal from the spirits.

"People around here believe that if Merapi is going to explode there will be a sign, a magical sign," he said, "Either it comes in a dream, or in the form of a hallucination."

But he was one of the few to remain behind on the slopes of Indonesia's Mount Merapi with thousands of others fleeing for safer ground.

Villages were left virtually empty. Women, children and the elderly filled buses and trucks to be driven to shelters set up at government buildings and schools in nearby towns on the island of Java.

Throughout the day, volcanic tremors shook the ground, some strong enough to send people running in fear.

By nightfall, glowing magma from the volcano's cauldron lit up the clouds surrounding the peak, nearly 9,700 feet high, as cascades of bright red stone tumbled down the mountainside.

Groups of men remained behind without their families to protect their homes from looting.

One of those to defy authorities' orders to evacuate was 30-year-old Baijo, who said he was not worried about the risks of staying behind. "I am not afraid. This is normal. We are looking after the village. If not, thieves will come," he said.

All roads leading up the mountain were closed as chunks of glowing pumice rock blew from Merapi's depths into the sky and burning gas fumes wafted through the air.

Merapi, about 250 miles east of the capital, Jakarta, came back to life in recent weeks after years of relative inactivity. An evacuation has been ongoing, but many people refused to leave behind precious livestock and crops.

Some farmers said they had not seen any volcanic activity themselves so decided to remain on their land despite being urged to leave by the revered Sultan Sri Hamengkubuwono, who is also the regional governor in Yogyakarta, a city of 1 million people just 11 miles from Merapi.

"We will not leave soon because of our livestock," said one cattle raiser, who declined to give his name.

Others, like Edi, remained behind for less tangible reasons.

Although most Indonesians are Muslim, many also follow animist beliefs and worship ancient spirits. Often at full moons, they trek to crater rims and throw in rice, jewelry and live animals to appease the volcanoes.

The decision to raise the warning to its top level was taken "because there have been constant lava flows that cause hot gases," said Bambang Dwiyanto, who heads the region's volcanology center.

On Saturday, experts recorded 27 volcanic tremors, said Dr. Ratdomo Purbo, who heads an observation post at Merapi.

Lava flows reached nearly a mile down its slopes, he said, prompting hundreds to immediately leave their homes. Until Saturday, officials had said as many as 7,000 people still needed to leave, but it was unclear exactly how many remained.

Merapi is one of at least 129 active volcanoes in Indonesia, part of the Pacific "Ring of Fire" -- a series of fault lines stretching from the Western Hemisphere through Japan and Southeast Asia.

It last erupted in 1994, sending out a searing cloud of gas that burned 60 people to death. About 1,300 people were killed when it erupted in 1930.

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