On this night, exactly six years ago, a volcanic eruption took place killing 41 people. The first of many that would go on to claim the lives of a total 394 victims, destroy more than 3000 homes and displace thousands. The devastation also killed over 3500 cows and goats, destroyed farm land and forests which for many represented their key economic lifeline. Where our school lies, near to three great river valleys, following the eruptions which poured out so much lava and debris, now only one still provides water.
Why would anyone want to come back after so much destruction? To restart their lives on what is still Indonesia’s most active volcano?
“Merapi gives…provided you don’t take too much.” – Anon.
In many cases of communities that reside near active volcanoes, most often the culture and mythos that surround them perceive the mountain as something threatening, to be feared. With Merapi, this is generally the opposite, the residents have a very holistic view of their mountain. It is mysterious, powerful and potentially dangerous for sure, but provided that is it treated with sufficient respect, Merapi is generous.
Unless you are one of the residents who have lived here all their lives, it’s hard to believe that six years ago there was nothing but sand and rocks here – all that remained of a once beautiful, lively village surrounded by thick woodland. The thick trees and bamboos have since returned, grass and vegetation is lush everywhere you look and interspersed by little cottages surrounded by flowers. Even, rare animals such as eagles, civet cats and deer have started to return. The houses seem simple, but almost inevitably in front of every house is at least one new car, one jeep and one motorbike.
Following the eruptions, the areas worst hit attracted visitors and well wishers from all over, curious to see first hand the impacts of one of nature’s most destructive phenomena, and to support those affected. Slowly this adapted into a way for Merapi’s residents to rebuild their lives by offering offroad tours. The tours were a success and the tourism industry boomed. Now there are nearly 30 different tour companies based here and near to 500 vehicles that operate the tours. The land has regained fertility and provided the rains are good, the cows and goats grow fat and healthy on the lush grass. For nearly all the residents of Umbulharjo, almost all report being more secure financially than before the eruptions. Merapi can take, but gives back much more.
“Now we are more prepared.” – Anon.
It is estimated that over 300 people have chosen to return to rebuild their homes and live in the upper-most villages, even though the area is classed as a high risk disaster area. However, visit any home and their is a sense of deliberate simplicity in the way people choose to live. Many of the houses have just concrete or earthen floors, appliances like fridges and washing machines are rare. Rooms are small and plainly furnished. There is a sense that their time here is borrowed so no need to spend a lot of time and energy investing in things that a difficult to relocate. Savings are more often spent on new animals, vehicles and jewellery.
At night time, vehicles are always instinctively parked facing down hill. Where phone reception is often unreliable here, all the tour communities use wally-takie radios. In the event of an emergency, these radios all have a special frequency built in for communicating to the whole village. Even at night time, these are always left on.
“These [vehicles, jewellery] are things we can take with us easily. Before, I spent so much time saving up for all these nice things for my house…and they were all eaten by the eruption. All I need now is somewhere warm and comfortable to sleep, close to my family…for my cows to be full – it’s enough.” – Anon.
It’s been six years, life has returned and prospered on the mountain. But where there is prosperity and joy, not even for one moment is there ungratefulness or complacency. For Merapi’s residents it was a gift to be spared, but an even greater gift to be able to return.