Hours before Mount Sinabung’s deadliest series of eruptions on Feb 1 that killed 14, authorities were planning to return nearly half of the 30,000 evacuees to their villages which lay just outside the 5km-radius of the volcano.
That idea has now stalled, as the latest casualties from the eruptions proved how unpredictable the volcano can be ever since it rumbled back to life in 2010 and then in September last year, following 400 years of dormancy.
While authorities have cleared out all villages within a 5km-radius it considers a danger zone, it also proved how easy it is for the restless evacuees living in 42 shelters to take a chance and visit their homes or for curious ones to venture in for a peep.
When The Straits Times was there two weeks ago, the towns had largely been deserted. Its scenery changed from lush greens to browns and ashen grey as we journey south-west from Berastagi town towards the smaller villagers closer to Mount Sinabung.
The scenes and the eerie silence we came across made us feel we were in the Dead Zone.
The dome of a mosque in one town we passed had caved into its compound, revealing only its tip oddly poking out of the thin wall.
At another town, two plates left out on a bench have gathered a thick coat of volcanic ash. Brown-stained clothes hung out on a laundry line. Next to it, the roof of what used to be a house had caved in, revealing tattered curtains turned dowdy in brown dust.
As I was photographing a dried-out maize plantation coated brown in ash, a dog came over and sniffed at me, hungry for food more than attention. It was among several abandoned dogs, chickens and other livestock in these cleared-out villages.
As people fled, they abandoned their livelihoods.
The town seems stripped of its soul as hardly anyone is seen.
Indeed, fields of cabbages, tomatoes, corns, onions, chillies, are among the thousands of hectares destroyed by volcanic ash.
But some people have defied danger, going in to protect and clean their houses or retrieve their assets.
As we passed by Tiga Pancur town, Mr Cipta Tanjen, 42, was spotted with seven others masked up sitting in a shop, taking refuge from the wind.
“We are taking turns guarding our house from looters,” he said, saying it felt safe.
Later, down the road, Mr Boni Sitepu insisted we see his tomato farms. So we trailed behind his motorcycle in our car to his town of Berastepu, located about 3.5 km away from the volcano.
But while there, we heard eruptions and saw ash being blown up in the distance.
As we left, we had to stop the car at one point as visibility plunged and we could not see beyond 3 metres.
We managed to leave the town before a major eruption but for those who died on Saturday, it was too late.
It was also a reminder of the continuing danger from a natural phenomenon that volcanologists have repeatedly said was hard to predict, and warned all not to take chances firstname.lastname@example.org