Dire warnings that a volcano on the Indonesian tourist island of Bali will erupt have caused tens of thousands to flee, but some who survived its last eruption in 1963 refuse to leave the danger zone while others are pulled into it by the power of tradition.
Gede Bagus Ariksa Sudana and Yesi Fitriani, a young couple planning to legally marry in April next year, spent Sunday at Gede’s village, Beluhu, inside the area declared off-limits, for a steeped-in-tradition Hindu wedding ceremony requiring prayers at a family shrine.
Sudana, who is Balinese, came from faraway Kalimantan on the giant island of Borneo, where he’s a policeman, and Fitriani came from her hometown of Bandung in Java. They were aware of the risks, said Sudana, but had put their faith in God.
Dressed in handsome traditional finery, the couple were tender with each other and photogenic, but also keenly aware that most of Sudana’s family couldn’t attend the all-important traditional ceremony.
“God has his own will and by his blessing we can conduct the ceremony today, even though it’s a small ceremony, because most of our family are still in the refugee camp,” Sudana said, standing in front of the shrine in a dusty yard at the family home.
“Even though they’re not coming here, we can ask for their blessing. Even though they’re still at the refugee camp, that’s enough for us,” he said.
The area is home to about 6,000 people, but around only 50 are left, said its head of adat, or tradition, who was on hand for the ceremony.
Businesses were shuttered and the roads empty except for police patrols and the occasional villager returning to tend to animals or check on property.
They are part of a larger exodus of more than 140,000 people from the surrounds of Mount Agung since authorities raised the volcano’s alert status to the highest level on Sept. 22, though they say about half of those people have left villages in safe areas and should return home.
“We’ve been planning this for more than a month. At that time, we didn’t know this was going to happen,” Sudana said. “At the beginning, we were really worried. I was worried this whole ceremony will not happen.”
His grandmother, Nengah Mungkreng, remembers Agung’s last eruption in 1963, which over two major episodes in March and May of that year killed about 1,100 people.
“There was no sign at all,” said Mungkreng, who was 25 in 1963.
“The volcano just suddenly exploded, spreading lava and then raining ash,” she said. “The difference now is we can feel the earthquakes.”
Government volcanologists say instruments are recording hundreds of volcanic earthquakes daily as the mountain is fissured by rising magma. A dramatic escalation in that type of earthquake was the basis for officials to put the volcano on high alert and warn that an eruption was possible anytime.
Gede Windu, a villager who spends his days tending goats in a dried-out river bed that the cone-shaped mountain looms over, said he was about 7 years old when Agung erupted in 1963.
The sun-beaten 60-year-old remembers terrific explosions, raining ash and the village becoming enveloped in darkness before the family fled.
He recalled it being more awe-inspiring than terrifying.
“I didn’t know what fear was because I was too small,” he said. “I wasn’t that brilliant like the current generation. We were kind of stupid.”
After the eruption, Windu said he and his family lived in an evacuee camp for about eight months and returned to their village after the government stopped giving out food.
Back in the village, it was a hand-to-mouth existence, he said, because it was two years before the land could be properly farmed again.
More than half a century later, Windu is in no hurry to leave his goats and says he won’t leave unless officials make him.
“Seeing the situation now, I think it’s nothing,” he said. “I experienced much worse before.”
“Now the earthquakes are very small, but my children have already run away,” he said. “They’re really afraid. If they experienced what I experienced, they’d run even faster.”