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Life for people living near Indonesia's Mount Merapi remains dangerous and difficult after two weeks of volcanic eruptions. The death toll from the explosions has now surpassed 200 and more than a quarter of a million people have been evacuated. NPR's Anthony Kuhn traveled to the volcano earlier this week and filed this report.
Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)
ANTHONY KUHN: Indonesia army commandos lead a search-and-rescue mission near the south side of Mount Merapi. In the distance, smoke and gray ash billow from Merapi's crater high into the sky. Heat shimmers up from the scorched earth, a burnt and decaying stench hangs in the air. Commandos and rescue workers pick and shuffle through an obliterated village. They place a few bones and blackened remains in body bags before heading back to base.
Unidentified Men: (Foreign language spoken)
KUHN: There battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Iwan Setiawan reviews his ash-covered troops.
Lieutenant Colonel IWAN SETIAWAN (Battalion Commander): (Foreign language spoken)
KUHN: He says that seven bodies were found on today's mission. They'll be delivered to a nearby hospital. The village lay just four miles from the volcano, well within the 12-mile danger zone delineated by authorities.
(Soundbite of vehicles)
KUHN: The wind blows the ash from Mount Merapi westward, where it rains down from the sky. It crushes the vegetation, including the tropical fruit trees that farmers here grow.
(Soundbite of chopping)
KUHN: In the village of Nglumut, farmer Marioto, who uses just one name, is cutting broken branches from his snake fruit trees. Every chop of his sickle brings clouds of ash cascading down. The pruning will save the plants but they will bear no fruit for two years. And yet, he explains, the eruption is a mixed blessing.
MARIOTO (Farmer): (Through translator) When the volcano does(ph) erupt, I'll have to use fertilizer to help the fruit grow. Now the ash fertilizes the soil and I'll mine volcanic sand and sell it for making concrete. If all else fails, I'll ask for assistance from the government.
KUHN: Local government employee Sabari has also had mixed luck. He's at the Main State Hospital in Jogjakarta City, recovering from second and third-degree burns to his hands and feet. If he's lucky, they won't need to be amputated. He and his son survived, his wife did not. He remembers the eruption began in the middle of the night.
SABARI (Local Government Employee): (Through translator) I heard my nephew's children crying for help. I opened the door and let them in and I got burned by the heat. I hid under the mattress. I waited while it rained for a while, and when I went out I saw dead bodies.
KUHN: Subandriyo is a government volcanologist in Jogjakarta. He says Mount Merapi is Indonesia's youngest volcano and this is its biggest eruption ever. He estimates it has discouraged around 4.6 billion cubic feet of rock, sand, dust and gas. Subandriyo and his team actually predicted Mount Merapi's eruption, including which way the searing gases and rocks would flow.
SUBANDRIYO (Volcanologist): (through translator) Our modeling was good and the preparations for evacuation were good. The problem was with communication. In other words, disseminating the information to the people.
KUHN: Subandriyo believes a man named Marijan, the spiritual guardian of the mountain, is partly to blame. Subandriyo notified Marijan that the eruption was coming, but Marijan's contacts in the spirit world told him otherwise. Marijan was found burned to death in his home. The search for Merapi's next guardian is on.
Most residents near Mount Merapi face their hardships with a stoic composure. Fifty-two-year-old noodle peddler Mohammed Nur sits with his wife and daughters at a soccer stadium to which his whole village was evacuated just before the eruption.
Mr. MOHAMMED NUR (Noodle Peddler): (Through translator) I will always remember this eruption. I will tell my children and my grandchildren about it. I can accept what has happened to me, because, after all, my home was only nine miles from the volcano.
KUHN: As for Mount Merapi's guardian, Nur says he only half-believes what the mystics say, but, he reasons, the guardians are still part of Java's traditions and so many people still listen to them.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Jakarta.
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