Indonesian eruption: 'It's better for me to just stay here and pray'

Death toll from reaches 27, including the volcano's spiritual custodian who refused to flee
Click to follow
The Independent Online

For years Mbah Marijan conducted rituals to appease the ancient spirits of Mount Merapi, Indonesia's most restive volcano. This time his prayers were not enough. The volcano's custodian has been found dead with at least 27 others, all smothered beneath a blanket of hot ash.

The eruption, which burned the leaves off trees and incinerated houses and cattle, was the second natural disaster to strike Indonesia in 24 hours. A day earlier, a tsunami smashed into the remote Mentawai islands, off the coast of Sumatra. By last night 272 people were dead, and 412 missing.

Entire villages on the islands, which are popular with surfers, were swept away by 10-foot waves triggered by a 7.7-magnitude undersea earthquake late on Monday. Rescue workers who arrived yesterday, after being hampered by bad weather on Tuesday, found widespread destruction. They feared even worse scenes in a dozen villages that remained cut off.

Situated in a region of high seismic activity, Indonesia has experienced more than its share of natural disasters in recent years. An earthquake last year in the Sumatran port of Padang killed 1,100 people, and 168,000 died in Aceh province after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.

The country also has 69 active volcanoes, more than any other nation. Merapi, in central Java, is the most volatile. At dusk on Tuesday, after days of ominous rumbling, it erupted, releasing deadly bursts of hot air. Thousands of villagers had been evacuated from its slopes, but many others remained – among them Mbah (Grandfather) Marijan.

The old man's body was found in a posture of prayer, indicating that he had sought until the last to soothe the violent energies in Merapi's core. He had refused to leave his house in the village of Kinahredjo, just beneath the smoking crater, telling one rescue worker: "I'm so used to being at home, it's better for me to just stay here and pray."

Marijan, who was appointed by the late sultan of nearby Yogyakarta, had insisted on staying put during previous eruptions, saying it was his spiritual and traditional duty. In the Javanese mystical tradition, the volcano is one of four places where spirits that protect the sultans reside.

As his family and those of other victims of Merapi mourned their dead, the lethal force of the tsunami, which struck 800 miles to the west, was becoming clear. The first aerial surveys of the Mentawai islands revealed flattened villages and large expanses of land under water. Shellshocked survivors wandered through the rubble, searching vainly for family members.

One of them, a farmer named Borinte, from North Pagai island, said he had stayed alive by clinging to a plank of wood after the wall of water hit his village, Detumonga. His wife and three children were killed.

"About 10 minutes after the quake we heard a loud, thunderous sound," he told Agence France Presse. "We went outside and saw the wave coming. We tried to run to higher ground, but the wave was much quicker than us."

The quake, which struck 13 miles beneath the ocean floor, close to the island chain, was followed by 14 aftershocks, the largest measuring 6.2. The Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, cut short a state visit to Vietnam, where he had been due to attend a summit of Asian leaders, to oversee relief efforts. Indonesia has declined offers of overseas assistance.

The National Disaster Mitigation Agency, set up after the 2004 tsunami, said 4,000 people had been left homeless by the massive waves. As the islands are 12 hours away by boat, aid has been slow to get through. Some tents arrived yesterday by plane and helicopter, officials said, but many people were still waiting for emergency supplies.

Merapi had quietened down by last night, according to Indonesia's chief vulcanologist, Surono. "There are no signs of another imminent eruption, but I cannot guarantee anything, and we don't know if this is just a temporary rest," he said. "I have advised local officials to continue the evacuations."

As tributes to Marijan, a widely loved figure in Indonesia, were posted on Facebook and Twitter, many houses on the volcano's slopes lay in ruins, covered in white ash. A hospital spokesman in Yogyakarta, Endita Sri Andrianti, said some bodies were burnt beyond recognition. "We are still collecting details to identify them," she said.

Merapi's deadliest eruption was in 1930, when it killed 1,300 people. Seventy died in 1994 after the volcano's lava dome collapsed. Although the island remained on red alert yesterday, local television showed some villagers returning to their homes.