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Published: January 2008

Living With Volcanoes

Volcano Feature

The Gods Must Be Restless

Living in the shadow of Indonesia's volcanoes

By Andrew Marshall
Photograph by John Stanmeyer
All hell is about to break loose, but Udi, a 60-year-old farmer from the village of Kinarejo on the Indonesian island of Java, will not budge. Not even though a mere three miles (five kilometers) separates the smoldering peak of Mount Merapi from Kinarejo. Not even though columns of noxious gas and the nervous tracings of seismographs signal an imminent explosion. Not even though the government has ordered a full-scale evacuation. "I feel safe here," he says. "If the Gatekeeper won't move, then neither will I."

Merapi is a natural-born killer. Rising almost 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) over forests and fields, it ranks among the world's most active and dangerous volcanoes. Its very name means "fire mountain." An eruption in 1930 killed more than 1,300; even in less deadly times, plumes drift menacingly from the peak. Some of the surrounding area, warns a local hazards map, is "frequently affected by pyroclastic flows, lava flows, rockfalls, toxic gases and glowing ejected rock fragments." As the volcano's rumbling crescendoed in May 2006, thousands fled the fertile slopes and settled reluctantly into makeshift camps at lower, safer altitudes. Even the resident monkeys descended in droves.

Not Udi and his fellow villagers, who take their cues from an octogenarian with dazzling dentures and a taste for menthol cigarettes: Mbah Marijan, the Gatekeeper of Merapi. Marijan has one of the more bizarre jobs in Indonesia, or anywhere else, for that matter. The fate of villagers like Udi and of the 500,000 residents of Yogyakarta, a city 20 miles (32 kilometers) to the south, rests on Marijan's thin shoulders. It is his responsibility to perform the rituals designed to appease an ogre believed to inhabit Merapi's summit. This time, the rituals seem to have fallen short. The warnings grow more urgent. Volcanologists, military commanders, even Indonesia's vice president beg him to evacuate. He flatly refuses. "It's your duty to come talk to me," he tells the police. "It is my duty to stay."

Marijan's behavior might seem suicidal anywhere else, but not in Indonesia, an archipelago of 17,500 islands that straddles the western reaches of the hyperactive Ring of Fire. It's a zone of geophysical violence, a juncture of colliding tectonic plates that loops more than 25,000 miles (40,200 kilometers) around the Pacific. Geography has dealt Indonesia a wild card: Nowhere else do so many live so close to so many active volcanoes—129 by one count. On Java alone, 120 million people live in the shadow of more than 30 volcanoes, a proximity that has proved fatal to more than 140,000 in the past 500 years.

Death by volcano takes many forms: searing lava, suffocating mud, or the tsunamis that often follow an eruption. In 1883, Mount Krakatau (often misspelled as Krakatoa), located off Java's coast, triggered a tsunami that claimed more than 36,000 lives. The name became a metaphor for a catastrophic natural disaster.
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