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A Note on the Explosion of Mount Merapi 2010

A car chased by Wedhus Gembel (the Heat Cloud)

Yesterday was a shocking day for Indonesia. Within hours, two monstrous natural disasters happened. One was Tsunami in Mentawai Island, West Sumatra Province. The other was the explosion of Mount Merapi. More than 300 were declared dead in the Mentawai, while 30 in the later. My deepest condolences for all of the victims.

Mount Merapi, is one of the most active volcano in Indonesia and some say it is the most active volcano on earth. Its volcanic activity can be categorized into two. Smaller volcanic activity happens each 2 - 4 year period. Bigger volcanic activity happens each 10 – 15 year period. And for 18 years, each time there is a volcanic activity, there is a figure that cannot be separated from it. His name is Mbah Marijan.

Mbah Marijan was an abdi dalem (a man giving his servitude to Keraton Yogyakarta [an old Javanese Palace]). He was given the task as the gate keeper ‘juru kunci’ Mount Merapi. He was given the task from the palace to always guard people living surrounding Mount Merapi. Some said that he had mystical power that can calm the angry mountain through his prayers. He became a legend for Mount Merapi.

Mbah Marijan came into prominence during a volcanic activity in 2006. Mount Merapi was declared ‘Dangerous’ by the government. With this, all people living surrounding Merapi should be evacuated. However, Mbah Marijan refused. He insisted to stay in his house which was located only 5 km from the peak of Mount Merapi. His refusal became a national sensation. Governers of Yogyakarta (who is also the King of Keraton Yogyakarta, the palace in which Mbah Marijan gave his servitude) attended him and asked him to willingly accept offerings to evacuate him. Still, he refused. And surprisingly, after Mount Merapi erupted (which is characterized by producing heat clouds –which heat can reach up to 600 Celsius ) Mbah Marijan was still safe.

Mbah Marijan as the gatekeeper of Merapi was more trusted by people living surrounding this mountain. People would not leave their houses if he said ‘It is still perfectly safe, you can still stay at home’, even if the government begged them to evacuate immediately.  This way of thinking –you may call this as irrational- stem from Javanese Culture. Javanese Culture is marked with the belief for the elder, belief for the sacred people, belief for superstition, and belief for what modern people say as illogical. Thus, they tended to believe Mbah Marijan as a sacred figure, that some said possessing mystical powers. They would not heed government for sure. Moreover, they live in a very remote are, on the slope of Merapi. Thus, when Merapi erupted yesterday, 15 people were found dead at the house of Mbah Marijan. Mbah Marijan himself was also found dead inside his house. Some of the victims were rescuer teams who came to ask him to accept the evacuation offering.

Long before yesterday, government already declared Mount Merapi as ‘Dangerous’. With this status, people living surround this active volcano should be evacuated. However, people seemed not too care with this status. They still acted as usual, doing their daily chores and works at the slope of Merapi. As the result, when Merapi suddenly erupted around 5 p.m., massive evacuation just started. The local society started to get panic when they really witnessed that the Mountain was truly erupting. As the result, many victims suffered acute respiration infection, caused by breathing the ashes from the eruption. This should not happen, if local society cared more to what government instructed to them.

In this post, I want to address two points. The first is concerning Mbah Marijan himself. As a Javanese man, I wholly understand his position as the gatekeeper of the mountain. I should say that he is a very great man. Why? Because he really carries his duty until death takes him away. His duty as the gatekeeper obliges him to remain on his post no matter what the cost is. He is the ‘controller’ of the mountain. He feels his duty and he commits of the task given to them. It cannot be understood from the perspective of rational and logical thinking. He acts as what the King has said to him. In a Javanese culture, King’s saying is an order. Moreover, Mbah Marijan is an abdi dalem whose job is to always obey the King. King’s saying is absolute in Javanese culture. Thus, no matter how science has changed the way people think –to be rational and logical- it does not affect Mbah Marijan at all. His life is given entirely to his job, as the guardian of the Mountain. And he is really committed to it, till death. This kind of idealism is what Indonesia’s leaders must apply i.e. to be committed to their jobs and not violating the oath they have been sworn on. In this way, Mbah Marijan has surpassed nearly all Indonesia current leaders.

Secondly, this event then shows me that how Indonesian society living in the remote, traditional area is still cut off from the outside world. Most of them refused to be evacuated until Merapi really exploded, until they witnessed with their very own eyes. All government instructions were not heeded, and they preferred to believe in more superstitions. What causes this? Surely it is all because they do not get equal education as those living in big cities or towns. These people live on the slope of the most active volcano on earth. Yet, they still cannot realize the danger they live on everyday. A Tell me, how long has Indonesia been freed from colonialism? It has been 65 years! And for this long, our government cannot provide equal education for these people. They cannot make them aware of the danger watching them every single day. 65 years should be enough to educate one or two generations, to educate them about the danger of living on the most active volcano on earth. And yet, it turns out to be a failure. In addition, it is worsened with the bad infrastructure for the evacuation route as well as the inhumane shelter. Our government realizes that this is the most active volcano, then why don’t they build a more humane shelter so that the refugee can live like humans any time they need to do so? All I can hope is that this will be starting point to better the lives of these people.

Mount Merapi at its normal status
This note is written as an expression of my grievance and anger witnessing, I am sorry to say, people’s stupidity that is mostly caused by the failure of government in spreading equal education and prosperity in this so called prosperous country. May all the victims rest in peace. 


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