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As Bali Volcano Glows, Thousands of Villagers Refuse to Leave

Lava, inside the crater of Mount Agung, reflects off the volcano's ash and clouds, while it erupts, as seen from Amed, Karangasem Regency, Bali, Indonesia, Nov. 30, 2017.

Tens of thousands of villagers on the Indonesian holiday island of Bali are refusing to evacuate from a 10-kilometer (six-mile) danger zone around an erupting volcano, putting their fate in the hands of the gods or staying put to protect homes and livestock.

The glowing, 3,000-meter Mount Agung, considered sacred by many on the Hindu-majority island, started spewing huge columns of ash over the weekend and there have been constant tremors and volcanic mud flows since.

Search and rescue teams making daily forays into the zone say some are refusing to leave their cattle unattended, while others have spiritual reasons.

Evacuation orders clear

“The government has been clear about evacuation orders, but some people are slow to act or want to stay,” said Gede Ardana, head of Bali’s search and rescue agency. “We cannot force them — but we will be held responsible, so we need to convince them.”

A farmer walks his ducks up a street as Mount Agung volcano erupts in the background, inside the evacuation zone in Karangasem Regency, Bali, Indonesia, Nov. 30, 2017.
A farmer walks his ducks up a street as Mount Agung volcano erupts in the background, inside the evacuation zone in Karangasem Regency, Bali, Indonesia, Nov. 30, 2017.

For cattle farmer Ketut Suwarte, there was no question of staying put.

“There was thick ash falling around us and we could smell sulfur. We were scared and we decided to leave immediately,” said Suwarte, 47, now staying in an evacuation camp just outside the danger zone.

Suwarte’s father recalls the last time Mount Agung exploded, in 1963, killing about 1,000 people as pyroclastic flows, made up of hot gas and volcanic matter, raced down the mountain.

Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, of the disaster mitigation agency, said about 43,000 people had heeded advice to take shelter, but with an estimated population of 90,000 to 100,000 in the danger area, many had not.

Ika Wardani, 33, sleeps with her family at an evacuation center at night but during the day returns to her cattle farm about 10 kilometers north of the volcano.

‘They are stubborn’

“During the day at least we can see the volcano. But we’re uncomfortable sleeping here at night because an earthquake or loud explosion would cause panic,” she said. “We would have to drive our motorbikes at night and the roads are narrow so it’s safer to spend the nights at the evacuation center.”

She says there are people only five kilometers from the crater who have refused to evacuate.

“They are stubborn,” she said. “Some of them survived 1963 so they believe it’s all right now.”

The government has set up radio stations and chat groups on social media to warn people of the risks.

Dangerous decision

“Many people have made the decision to stay inside the exclusion zone, and that is clearly very dangerous,” said Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman for the disaster management agency.

Others, including tourists, are taking unnecessary risks by trying to take selfies as close as possible, officials say. Last month, a Frenchman shared a video of himself at the crater’s edge on social media.

In September, when authorities first raised the warning alert to the highest level, an exclusion zone of up to 12 kilometers was imposed, prompting nearly 150,000 to leave, but when no major eruption occurred, many returned and the warning status was lowered.

When authorities again raised the warning level this week, many were reluctant to move again.

“If (Mount Agung) follows the most frequent trend, it is likely to continue increasing in explosivity, but at what rate and how large, nobody knows,” said Dr Carmen Solana, a volcanologist at the University of Portsmouth.

President Joko Widodo on Wednesday urged people to leave the exclusion zone before it’s too late. “There must not be any victims,” he said.