Villagers near Mount Merapi in Central Java caught between a rock and a hard place

Ms Tasri (in grey veil) along with her neighbours, staying in a temporary shelter in anticipation of Mount Merapi's eruption. PHOTO: COURTESY OF NEIGEN ACHTAH SAPUTRA

JAKARTA - Central Java resident Tasri still remembers vividly the rumbling, heat and flames spewing from Mount Merapi, Indonesia's most active volcano during its last major eruption in 2010, which left more than 300 people dead and 20,000 others displaced.

"I am now scared that the volcano will erupt again because we don't know how big it will be," the 65-year-old mother of two told The Straits Times from the makeshift shelter of Tlogolele village, in Boyolali regency, where some 280 residents have sought refuge since Nov 8.

The coronavirus pandemic has added to the worries of those in the shelter, with each family allowed just 4 sq m of living space to ensure that they can keep a safe distance from others. Mask wearing is also mandatory.

Although there is still risk of infection at the shelter, Ms Tasri said she felt more comfortable there than at home.

Indonesia's geological agency raised Merapi's alert level to the second-highest on Nov 5 due to increased activity and warned of a new eruption which could send volcanic material and hot ash clouds spewing as far as 5km.

As at Sunday (Nov 29), 2,157 people - mostly the elderly, pregnant women, children and those with disabilities - from four districts in Central Java and Yogyakarta have been evacuated to shelters near their villages.

Around a quarter of a million people live within a 10km radius of the 2,968m volcano, which sits amid surrounding fertile soil - largely due to the ash from its eruptions - highly suitable for farming.

In May 2018, the volcano spewed sand and pyroclastic material and sent ash as high as 5,500m into the sky when the people of Keningar village - which is the nearest to the mountain's western slope in Magelang regency - were holding a communal event. It spread panic among the residents, many of whom, perhaps not surprisingly, have now opted for evacuation.

Village chief Rohmat Sayidin said: "The residents were worried and scared because they were traumatised by the 2010 and 2018 eruptions."

Mining, hiking and other activities close to the Merapi have been halted. Last Tuesday, the Borobudur Conservation Agency covered 56 openwork stupas in the famed and popular tourist destination Borobudur Temple in Magelang to protect them. A similar move was taken on Thursday at nearby Mendut Temple.

Mr Bambang Pawitan, a resident in Magelang, arrived at a shelter on Nov 6 with his parents, wife and 4½-year-old son.

He said he felt like being caught between a rock and hard place because of Merapi and Covid-19.

"I'm traumatised by the 2010 eruption," said the 35-year old, who witnessed it close up. "If I didn't evacuate, I wouldn't be worried about getting infected by Covid-19. But, as I have evacuated, I am increasingly worried."

Mount Merapi, Indonesia's most active volcano, as seen from Tlogolele village. PHOTO: COURTESY OF NEIGEN ACHTAH SAPUTRA

As at Sunday, Indonesia has reported 534,266 Covid-19 infections and 16,815 deaths - both the highest in South-east Asia.

Tlogolele village secretary Neigen Achtah Saputra believed that voluntary evacuation was appropriate for its residents.

"We don't force our residents to evacuate. Otherwise, the evacuation will only last for two days. If they are aware of the danger posed by Merapi, they will stay (at the shelters)," he said.

Each day the village emergency team entertains the evacuees, especially the elderly, with campur sari, a blend of Javanese and modern music, and provides them with necessities , he said.

Local media said groups of volunteers have also been visiting the shelters to help children with their studies or with other activities, such as playing games and storytelling.

Officials are happy with the evacuation process, saying they were carried out according to health protocols to ensure safety.

"Adherence to health protocols is a must. Shelters provide spaces to wash hands and are also equipped with thermo guns. Evacuees must also wear masks," said Mr Safrudin, an official at the Central Java disaster management agency.

In Magelang, for instance, evacuees had to take Covid-19 rapid tests and their health conditions were checked before admission to the shelters, he added.

At least three evacuees in the regency tested positive and were sent to hospital.

Each family occupies a 2m x 2m space separated by plywood to maintain physical distancing in a temporary shelter in Magelang regency. PHOTO COURTESY OF NATIONAL DISASTER MANAGEMENT AGENCY

Evacuees like Mr Bambang, who shuttle daily between the shelter and his house some 20km away to feed his three cattle, are already worried about their future, saying that they may need further government assistance to restore their livelihood once they can return home.

"We are running out of money. We already spent cash to buy seeds to grow our plants, but then we left them to evacuate and they are useless now," he said. "Hopefully, the government lends a hand so we can get back into farming again."

Another mountain, Mount Lewotolok on Lembata Island in the eastern province of East Nusa Tenggara, erupted on Sunday (Nov 29), sending a column of smoke and ash 4km into the sky, AFP reported.

A flight warning was issued, while the nearby Wunopitu airport was temporarily closed. No injuries or damage were reported, but the authorities raised the volcano's alert status to the second-highest level in anticipation of potential lava flows and expanding the no-go zone from 2km to 4km.

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