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Crisis looms for Mt. Sinabung victims

Publication Date : 27-01-2014


When Mount Sinabung erupted last September, Boni Sitepu, 44, and his family of four stayed on for a week before they were forced to evacuate, leaving behind their tomato, cabbage and corn farm worth 30 million rupiah (US$2,460) a month.

"This is land from my grandparents and it has given me all of the things I own and put my two children through school. I just cannot accept leaving it," he said, looking helplessly at his ash-covered farm in Berastepu village, 3.5km away from the volcano.

Then there is Cipta Tanjen, 42, who sneaks out from his shelter daily to go to his village in Tiga Pancur to keep watch with seven others, to prevent looters from raiding their abandoned houses.

They are among farmers whose livelihoods have been snuffed out by the deep layers of ash spewed by the volcano that has been erupting intermittently for the past four months. It first became active in 2010 after 400 years of dormancy.

Nearly 29,000 displaced residents are living in cramped conditions in 42 shelters set up to cope with the growing humanitarian crisis as the eruptions show no signs of abating.

Two weeks ago, the number of refugees shot up by over 2,000, as officials evacuated more villagers near the 5km-radius exclusion zone after a fresh wave of violent eruptions saw thicker ashfall, causing some houses to collapse.

Indonesia, home to 127 active volcanoes, sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, a seismic belt where most volcanic eruptions and earthquakes occur.

Four million people across the country live less than 5km from a volcano to farm its fertile land.

Volcanologists say it is hard to predict when Mount Sinabung will stop erupting, having placed instruments only in 2010 to study its behaviour.

Dr Surono, Indonesia's most respected volcanologist, warned that those living on its edge must heed warnings and be prepared to lose all that they have.

But lulled by centuries of its inactivity, many brave living on its edge to make a living out of its fertile slopes, planting corn, coffee, sweet potatoes, chilli, cabbages and other vegetables, some of which are exported.

About 80 per cent of Karo's population are farmers, and of these, a third were affected by the eruptions.

Supplies of daily necessities such as rice, instant noodles and clothing from donors, such as large corporations and businessmen, have helped the evacuees.

Dr Saberina Mars, commander of emergency coordination for the shelters, told The Straits Times that there is enough medication to last three months, but she is concerned over thinning supplies of diapers, bandages, masks and other disposables.

And not all items donated were appropriate.

Masjid Agung shelter's coordinator Suwanto Sitepu said: "We need the right kinds of things. For example, while we are grateful to have surgical masks, these are not the right kind of masks to prevent ash particles from being inhaled.

"But we take what help we can get and hope that, God willing, things will be fine."

Apart from material deprivation, the evacuees are suffering emotionally as well.

Depressed evacuees have suffered heart attacks over losing their land, said Ketut Putrayasa, 40, a Salvation Army volunteer.

"We have seen about 30 such cases. We try to give some counselling for emotional support. It's hard when you've lost everything and are now living like a refugee, with so much uncertainty."

To relieve boredom and keep up evacuees' spirits, volunteers have been going round screening films at night and conducting exercise sessions in the morning.

At the Paroki church shelter, home to 1,100 evacuees, some young people keep busy making coffee powder and baking pastries using donated grinders and ovens.

Nearby, a group of older women weave baskets. They all hope to sell their produce.

One of the bakers Desi Fransiska, 22, said: "Doing something together makes me feel like we are trying to help one another."

Some brave the thick ashfalls to try their luck outside the shelters.

Agen Surbakti, 42, makes some money charging a small toll fee to drivers passing through his town on the main road that cuts through several towns.

"Honestly, I make enough money to buy only cigarettes," he said. "I came here because it is too depressing sitting there facing the four walls and hearing the same stories from everyone."


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