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Indonesian Volcano Victims Turn to Tourism to Rebuild Their Lives

Lines of tourists and cars snake along the road leading to Merapi's summit in Kaliurang in Central Java, 11 Jan 2011

Lines of tourists and cars snake along the road leading to Merapi's summit in Kaliurang in Central Java, 11 Jan 2011

The crowds of Indonesians eager to glimpse the destruction wrought by their country’s most active volcano are providing business opportunities amid a tragedy.

People left homeless by volcanic eruptions in Indonesia last year have turned to tourism as a form of income, charging entry fees and selling graphic DVDs to hundreds of visitors a day.

Mount Merapi has calmed down considerably since it began erupting in October, and these days, Indonesian tourists pile into vans and head up the volcano. Residents whose homes were destroyed in the eruptions now collect entrance fees of about 50 cents a head. Others sell small bottles of ash and graphic DVDs with scenes of the evacuation and the damage of the eruption.

Mariyem, the mother of two whose home was destroyed, says she does not see tourism as a long-term solution but as a quick way to make the money she needs to feed her family.

She says she is a victim who has become a spectacle, but doesn’t know what else she could do. Later, when the situation improves, she says can return to the area but until then, she cannot look for food unless she sells things.

Mariyem sells two or three DVDs a day for a profit of around $1 each, just enough to buy food, but hardly enough to rebuild the home she had lived in since childhood.

The Asian Development Bank has committed $3 million for temporary shelters and cash for work programs to help clear away debris. The Indonesian government promises to reimburse farmers for each cow killed by the eruptions, since cattle are key to most families’ livelihoods.

But the money has been delayed, and some say survivors say they do not know when or even if they will receive assistance.

Another woman, Tumiyem, says she must sell something to make money. She earns no more than $2 a day selling drinks and snacks to the tourists she refers to as “friends.”

She says sometimes she sells 10 items, sometimes six. There are a lot of people, but sometimes they do not buy anything.

Tumiyem is rail-thin and wrinkled. Like most of the people who used to live here, she has taken refuge in a shelter and receives food assistance from aid organizations and companies providing donations. Volunteers with the tobacco company Sampoerna, for instance, help collect and distribute supplies to the more than 450 people at the Sariharjo shelter in Slemen, the district hit hardest by Merapi’s eruptions.

A tourist takes in the destruction wrought by weeks of violent eruptions, in Kaliurang in Central Java, 11 Jan 2011.

A tourist takes in the destruction wrought by weeks of violent eruptions, in Kaliurang in Central Java, 11 Jan 2011.

Tumiyem says she expects to stay in the shelter for a year, as she works to make money to rebuild her home.

Green grass and small banana trees have sprung from the ashes. Still, the terrain past the fee collection point is mostly gray. Trees are snapped and the foundations of homes speckle the landscape. A line of rusted motorcycles flanks the road. Nearby, a van teeters on a pile of debris, like a toy a child has dropped haphazardly.

These images are exactly what Uswatun, a homemaker from Magelang, came to see.

She says they want to know that green is coming back already. Even though the visitors can only meet the victims, they can share their feelings, their sadness.

Uswatun says the tourists are not just there to look around, but to get proof of what they hear or see on television, to know what it would be like to have to flee in the middle of the night.

The hot gas and ash that swept down Merapi’s slopes in October and November killed more than 300 people and forced around 400,000 to evacuate their homes. It was the worst eruption in nearly a century.

After days of calm, the government downgraded Merapi’s threat level late last month. But those monitoring the volcano now worry about secondary disasters, such as landslides and floods caused by flows of cold lava from the volcano.

Dredging work on the Code River that runs through the center of the nearby city of Yogyakarta began in mid-December, so the channel will be clear when seasonal rains begin.

The rivers that wind down Merapi are choked with mud that has narrowed their flow and raised water levels to overflowing. They serve as conduits for cold lava, which also carries debris from buildings destroyed by the eruptions.

On Monday, a cold lava flood hit the Magelang district - the second in less than a week. The lava floods have knocked out bridges and roads. They are made worse by rain, which overwhelms the banks of the choked rivers.

Initial fears of continued eruptions appear to have subsided, but when rain clouds darken the sky in Kaliurang the tourists quickly pile back in their cars and leave the mountain behind them.