The 'Forgotten' Victims of Indonesia's Mt. Sinabung—a Volcano That Won't Stop Erupting
Life in the Ring of Fire

The 'Forgotten' Victims of Indonesia's Mt. Sinabung—a Volcano That Won't Stop Erupting

As Bali prepares for the eruption of Mount Agung, the victims of another volcano, 3,000 kilometers away, wonder if they will ever be able to return home.
October 3, 2017, 2:49pm

Yeti is tired of hearing about Bali. The tourist hotspot is currently bracing for the eruption of Moung Agung—a massive volcano in the island's interior. The last time Mount Agung erupted, it left an estimated 200 dead and thousands homeless for months on end.

But months are a drop in the bucket for Yeti. The mother of three was told to evacuate from her village in Mardingding, North Sumatra, more than two years ago when her own volcano, Mount Sinabung, rumbled to life once again.

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Mount Sinabung is one of the most-active volcanoes in Indonesia—a sprawling island nation located in the middle of the Pacific Ring of Fire. It became active again in 2010 and has erupted almost a dozen times since then—displacing an estimated 7,000 residents of nearby villages in the process.

"They didn't even give us a day to pack," Yeti told VICE. "They said we had to leave immediately, so we had no choice."

The displaced have since been left to languish in hastily built shelters located a mere seven kilometers from the volcano. We passed at least four warning signs announcing that we were reaching the perimeter of the "Red Zone" just to reach Yeti's camp. The signs, which were tacked to trees that lined the path, warned that the area was prone to deadly lava flows.

The camp is little more than a dusty village of blue tents and lines for food rations. Each tent sleeps about 10 people and smaller families often have to share, Yeti explained. There are some 200 families at the temporary shelter. No one has a mattress. Some of the tents were built with cement floors, but others, in the rush, were set up directly on the dirt.

"So of course when it rains, they flood," Yeti told me.

Indonesia is one of the most-disaster prone countries on Earth. The nation has more active volcanoes than anywhere else. It sits on several active fault lines. The forests burn in the dry season. Droughts scorch the land during the dry season in places like Central Java and torrential rains cause floods and landslides during the wet season.

In 2016, the worst year in decades, natural disasters affected more than a two million people. They left 375 dead. It's incredibly difficult, not to mention costly, to provide for the victims of natural disasters in a developing country as massive as Indonesia—a nation that roughly spans the same distance as the United States but has a small fraction of the money. So sometimes people fall through the cracks. People like Yeti.

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Yeti was on-duty at the camp when we met her. She was passing out rations provided by the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNBP) and keeping track of who received what. She was candid about her life, which she seemed to approach with a steely reserve. Whenever we asked her a question she didn't like, she would respond with a question of her own.

"What would it take for you to be able to move back home?"

"What do you think it would take?" Yeti responded. "Everything was destroyed."

She's impatient to restart her life. At night the temperature drops and the camp becomes so cold that most people struggle to fall asleep on their frayed plastic mats. This is what life is like in the shadow of Indonesia's least news-worthy volcanic eruption. Mount Sinabung erupts so often than it can't hold the country's attention for that long. Whenever the volcano blows its top, and this happens a few times a year, people die. The last time it erupted, hot clouds of ash killed seven, and injured three others. The scenes the clouds leave in their wake look post-apocalyptic. Gray ash covers everything. Homes collapse. Bodies are left badly burned.

Yeti once sent her husband on the dangerous journey back to their village, which is a mere three kilometers from the active volcano, to check on their home. It was covered in volcanic ash. The ash had burned through parts of her home's roof. "Now it's totally destroyed," she said shaking her head. "Destroyed."

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Yet, she still wanted to return home. "I don't want to move to the new government housing," Yeti said. "I want to go back to my village."

As we spoke a small crowd formed around us. They all echoed Yeti's sentiment. "We are from Mardingding." "We want to go back to Mardingding." "I was born in Mardingding."

The central government has already started to build rows of pastel-trimmed cement homes for the evacuees about five minutes away from the camp. When we drove past the workers were taking a break, eating mangoes plucked from a nearby tree. This new village was still shockingly close to the volcano's danger zone—and while the structures were better than a tent, none are close to being finished.

Not that anyone in the tent village wants to move in. Yeti and her fellow villagers had their own coffee plantations back home. They grew their own coffee in the volcano's fertile soil and sold the beans themselves. Now those valuable plots are land are on the wrong side of the red zone. The evacuees are instead stuck living off government handouts and working as temporary laborers on other people's fields in the safe zone—a job Yeti despises. She and the rest of the evacuees call it "piggybacking." They hate it. It reminds them of everything they've lost.

"Now to pay for the things our children need for school we have to work in the fields," she told me, pursing her lips to say, "someone else's fields…"

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For now, that dream seems impossible. Mount Sinabung erupted that morning as we drove to the camp. It erupted a second time that afternoon, spewing ash 2.5 kilometers into the sky. No one in the camp wore a mask. The government told them they were all safe, so they tried their best to ignore the volcano erupting a short distance away.

How does it feel to live in an evacuation camp so close to the volcano for so long?

"What can I even say any more?" Yeti said. "The children had to move schools. We have to live like this," she said as she pointed to the ground of the communal hall that instantly turns to mud whenever it rains.

"What can I say? What would you say?" she continued. "If you're asking me about sadness, then yes, we are sad. Asking me about trauma, then yes, we have felt that too."

There was a sign on one of the walls of the camp that records the amount of money going in to help the evacuees. According to the sign, the camp's residents received more than Rp 1 billion ($73,838 USD) in aid in 2017 alone. But the money doesn't last long when there are more than 900 mouths to feed.

"We rarely get any meat," Yeti said. "Today we only have kangkung and rice to eat. We would love for someone to bring us some fish. And maybe some blankets and mattresses."

The situation doesn't look like it's going to get better any time soon. The disaster agency's spokesman recently tweeted a photograph of Mount Sinabung rising over a squat village. A thick plume of smoke rose from the volcano's peak. "Mount Sinabung has been sleeping for the past 1,200 years. But it woke up… and it's been erupting since then. No one knows when it will stop."

It was time for lunch in the camp. Yeti sounded the siren, calling the other evacuees to gather in the communal kitchen. As she walked toward the camp, she pointed to Mount Sinabung, a volcano that was still erupting daily. It was so close to the camp that it looked like you could reach out and touch it.

"Tell people that we need more food," she said. "Tell them we've been forgotten."