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Indonesian Villagers, Afraid to Anger the Gods, Refuse to Leave Erupting Volcano

  • Chad Bouchard

Indonesian authorities have ordered more than 20,000 people living on the slopes of Central Java's Mount Merapi to leave, fearing an imminent eruption, but many are refusing to go. Local villagers believe there is a spiritual kingdom at the top of the mountain, and some are waiting for a sign from its king before they abandon their homes.

Just four kilometers from Mount Merapi's smoldering summit, a dozen Javanese elders gather to ask the mountain king for mercy. Ash and lava have been spewing out of the volcano's crater for several weeks and vulcanologists are warning that a full-scale eruption is imminent.

Mesran and the other elders are Muslims, but like many in Indonesia, they also continue to practice ancient animist traditions. He says it is crucial for villagers to remember their traditional beliefs about the spiritual king of Merapi.

Mesran says if the mountain erupts, it means the king is having a party. If people run out and look at the clouds and lava, the king will not be happy, because it is forbidden for humans to watch the kingdom's celebrations.

When Merapi erupted in 1994, clouds of searing gas incinerated a village, killing more than 60 people. Mesran suspects that forgetting the mountain's traditions may have played a part in that tragedy. He says if they stay patient and observe the traditions, the king will not be angry. "If we love Merapi," he says, "Merapi will love us."

Residents of the area call the 3,000 meter volcano Sapujagat, which means "the broom that sweeps away everything." The mountain rises from the middle of Indonesia's most populous island, Java, about 460 kilometers west of Jakarta.

Christian Awuy serves as a mountaineering guide and leads the local rescue team, and he hikes to the top of the volcano on a regular basis. He says he has been there with local villagers who claim to be able to see the spiritual kingdom. They describe a beautiful town, he says, with houses and trees and a whole magical bureaucracy.

"There is a prime minister, a king, a sultan, a secretary, a guard, everything," said Awuy. [And] horses."

Awuy says the spiritual beliefs lead to good ecological practices, such as annual tree plantings, and taboos against over-harvesting. He says he understands why people stay on the volcano's slopes, even in the face of an eruption. Merapi, he says, is their home.

"People living under the volcano say, 'we born here. We die here.' This explains everything," he said.

Besides the spiritual beliefs, there are purely economic reasons why the villagers stay. For the last two weeks, Lis has been living with 2,000 other evacuees at the overflowing Hargobinangun camp, one of 23 refugee centers in the area surrounding Mount Merapi.

But her husband is one of more than 7,000 subsistence farmers who have stayed at home.

She says since the evacuation they've had no income, and depend on government assistance. Her husband is staying to take care of their farm. She says villagers fear if they leave their farms, their livestock will be stolen and their crops will die in the field.

Their singing finished, Mesran and the other elders circle the village barefooted, carrying an offering to the spirit kingdom. Along the way they pass watch fires, where residents keep a vigil through the night for signs of an eruption. The villagers say they are scared, but they put their faith in Allah - and in Merapi's spiritual king.

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