Caught between disasters, Javan villagers brave erupting volcano

"Am I nervous?" asked Heru Suparwaka, watching the needle of the seismograph sketch a crazy route across the page, accompanied by a high-pitched whine. "Of course I'm nervous."

Mr Heru is part of a small team monitoring Mount Merapi, one of the world's most active volcanoes, from an observation post high on its slopes. The area, on Indonesia's Java island, has been on red alert for weeks, since Merapi began spewing out lava and clouds of gas and hot ash. But since last weekend's earthquake, its activity has intensified dramatically, sparking fears of an imminent eruption.

The volcano lies 30 miles north of the epicentre of the quake, which claimed 5,427 lives, according to latest figures. With 20,000 people injured, and up to 200,000 homeless, it might seem that this portion of central Java has suffered enough. But now the scenario of one major natural disaster followed by another appears more probable than not.

The inhabitants of the farming villages that dot Merapi's fertile slopes were evacuated to temporary camps on lower ground earlier this month. But many have trickled home, against official advice, and on Sunday, the day after the earthquake, the 425-strong population of one village, Turgo, returned en masse.

The people of Turgo know Merapi's wrath. When it last erupted in 1994, killing 66 people, 37 were from that village, located four miles from the crater. But at least the volcano is a familiar threat. Earthquakes are not, and it was fear that propelled them back to Merapi's shadow. They are more frightened of another big earth tremor than of being engulfed by boiling lava.

"We feel safer here," said Sumardi, a farmer. "If an eruption comes, at least you can run. You can't run from an earthquake."

Normal life has resumed in Turgo, despite the sour smell of burning in the air, and the street signs that warn of looming danger. Children play in the road, and women hang up clean washing. Apart from the relative risks of leaving or staying put, many villagers feel a spiritual attachment to Merapi. The volcano is shrouded in superstition. Once a year they perform a ritual to placate it, offering up gifts of rice, green coconuts, and cow's liver.

"Merapi can be a threat or a friend, depending on how you treat it," said Jayadi, another Turgo farmer. "It gives us prosperity, by making the soil so fertile, and providing us with sand for construction. When it is angry, like now, it is because we are greedy and selfish, and our leaders are corrupt and don't look after the people properly." Mr Jayadi was sitting in a surveillance post at a bend in the road, with a pair of binoculars trained on Merapi. The post, which local people man around the clock, is linked with the monitoring station in the neighbouring village of Kaliurang. If calamity appears about to strike, Mr Heru will let them know, and they will use a megaphone and sirens to tell villagers to flee.

Mr Jayadi confidently expects Merapi, which killed 1,300 people in 1930, to "fill 16 rivers with its lava" this time. But even those injured in 1994, such as Murjo Utomo, who was badly burnt by hot gas clouds, prefer to take their chances. Mr Murjo, whose body is a patchwork of skin grafts, said: "If the lava comes from one direction, I'll run in another." While the villagers remain on constant alert, with bags packed, their sense of impending doom is backed by science. Volcanologists say the earthquake disturbed a fragile dome at Merapi's peak, and warn that if it collapses, it will cause a big eruption of rocks, hot gas and lava.

Mr Heru said that lava was flowing up to 2.5 miles, in various directions. An extra mile or so would bring it to Turgo and Kaliurang. Another village, Deles, is even closer. Hot clouds are being emitted three times more frequently than before the quake, and smoke is rising 3,000 feet into the air. At night the villagers see the red lava trails; by day the clouds of gas billow out.

"The last few days have been scary," said Mr Heru. "Activity has increased significantly, and if it keeps on like this, a major eruption will surely happen."

Life and Style
A teenager boy wakes up.
Arts and Entertainment
You could be in the Glastonbury crowd next summer if you follow our tips for bagging tickets this week
Life and Style
It is believed that historically rising rates of alcohol consumption have contributed to the increase
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie performs during her Kiss Me Once tour
musicReview: 26 years on from her first single, the pop princess tries just a bit too hard at London's O2
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
fashionEveryone, apparently
The erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey has already been blamed for a rise in the number of callouts to the fire brigade for people trapped in handcuffs
voicesJustine Elyot: Since Fifty Shades there's no need to be secretive about it — everyone's at it
Arts and Entertainment
A new Banksy entitled 'Art Buff' has appeared in Folkestone, Kent
Life and Style
Playing to win: for Tanith Carey, pictured with Lily, right, and Clio, even simple games had to have an educational purpose
lifeTanith Carey explains what made her take her foot off the gas
Arts and Entertainment
The White Sails Hospital and Spa is to be built in the new Tunisia Economic City.
architectureRussian billionaire designs boat-shaped hospital for new Dubai-style Tunisia Economic City
Husain Abdullah returns an interception off Tom Brady for a touchdown
nflLeague has rules against 'sliding to ground on knees'
Arts and Entertainment
Critics say Kipling showed loathing for India's primitive villagers in The Jungle Book
filmChristopher Walken, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johanssen Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale
Life and Style
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Maths teacher require...

KS1 Teacher

£21500 - £31500 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to work...

Java Developer - web services, XML and API

£330 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Lond...

Maths Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Reading: Maths Teacher required to teach Furthe...

Day In a Page

Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style