'All We Do is Sleep': The Crushing Boredom of Life In One of Bali's Evacuation Centers
Local residents evacuated from villages on the slopes of Mount Agung doubt they can last an entire year.
Wayan Rengge remembers the first time he saw lava. He was a six-year-old boy living in a Balinese village near Mount Agung in 1963 when the volcano blew its top. Hundreds died. Thousands more were displaced for almost a year. But Rengge doesn't remember feeling afraid.
"I was happy that I got to watch it," he told me. "It was like liquid fire."
Today, the 61-year-old grandfather is about to see Mount Agung erupt again, this time from a sports center crowded with more than 1,500 other evacuees from villages throughout in the danger zone.
The volcano rumbled to life with a series of tremors last month. Then, on 22 September, disaster officials raised the warning level to awas—or "critical"—and warned that an eruption was imminent. The warning sent more than 140,000 local residents fleeing villages located in, or near, the "danger zone"—a region surrounding the volcano that's roughly 9-to-12 kilometers from the crater, depending on altitude.
Two weeks later, the volcano still hasn't erupted. The government has organized mass evacuations of residents and cattle from the mountainsides. The local government has set up 427 official evacuation camps in places like sports centers and village squares. But even more people have fled Mount Agung to stay with relatives in villages farther from the volcano.
Rengge's village—which was located a mere 7 kilometers from the crater—was one the first to be evacuated. Everyone was crowded onto trucks and driven to the Sweca Pura sports center in Klungkung district, one of the biggest camps.
Life in the crowded center is a mixture of boredom and discomfort for the evacuees. An estimated 1,500 people were staying at the sports complex by the time I arrived. Some families slept on thin foam mats on the basketball court, and even more huddled outside under large tents provided by the national disaster mitigation agency.
For many of the older refugees, a volcanic eruption is old news. When Mount Agung last erupted, in 1963, the violent spurts of lava and ash lasted the rest of the year. Back then, locals didn't leave the area until months after the initial blast. An official count noted that 608 people died during the last eruption, although that figure likely doesn't include those expiring from starvation or poisoning in the months that followed. Other estimates place that figure in-excess of 1,000 dead.
"The signs are similar to back then," Rengge told me as he lounged on a mat under a basketball hoop. "We first had smoke, followed by ashy rain. Then, fire."
The eruption occurred before Rengge started school, so he had time to check out the lava flows when he wasn't working on his family's farm. "It was fun," he said. "On the way home from the field, we would watch the fiery lava. Lots of people watched."
He got used to the earthquakes. The villagers had their own beliefs about what was going on. "We believed the earthquakes was God producing gold," Rengge said. His family's house was separated from the crater by a river, and, fortunately, the lava stopped on the other side of the stream.
"It was only after someone died that we ran," he said. That was about six months after the first eruption. Rengge, and his parents, grandparents, and brother, fled to Duda Timur village, where a stranger took them in for four months.
When they finally returned home, their house was still standing. "The lava didn't reach our house," Rengge said. But they couldn't farm for three years. The family survived by bartering firewood with other villagers.
Today, Rengge still lives in that same house, which has since been renovated—until the government told him to leave yet again.
Straddling the Pacific Ocean's "Ring of Fire," Indonesia boasts more active volcanoes than any other country on Earth. Just in the last decade, the country has seen eruptions of three volcanoes: Sinabung, Merapi, and Kelud.
This time around, the government hopes that early-warning technology and early response measures could help Bali avoid the worst of the disaster. A team of volcanologists and seismologists at an observation station at Gunung Agung have been meticulously recording the mountain's volcanic activity.
"We've installed sensors in the mountain that record each tremor," said I Dewa Mertheyasa, the head of the observation post. "We can now see that there has been increased activity. And then we also rely on visual observation to see the condition on the surface of the caldera, how it's expelling smoke."
While ground-level quakes have lessened in recent weeks, the situation below the surface is still highly volatile. "Fluctuations are normal, depending on the magma," Mertheyasa explained.
The volcanology center recommended the evacuation of all villages within a 9-12 kilometer danger zone. But once the alarms went out, villagers outside the danger zone also fled, doubling the expected amount of evacuees.
The government has since declared the area to the west of the volcano to be safe, and many of those villagers have returned home.
While older residents like Rengge were taking the expected eruption in stride, younger evacuees were far more anxious.
"I have only heard about the last eruption through stories from my grandparents," said Luh Budiastini, a 34-year-old mother of two and the daughter-in-law of Rengge. "When the government first announced the alert, we thought it would erupt the next day. We took what we needed, like clothes. Important documents like our family card were already stored in one place so we grabbed them."
Now Luh, like most of the evacuees I met, was more concerned about the precarious and uncertain nature of their lives than the actual volcanic eruption. No one knows when the volcano is going to erupt, or how long they will have to live in the shelters.
Life in the sports complex was tough. The air was boiling hot. Some families were stuck in these large refugee tents. Those who were able to claim a space inside the basketball court had the luxury of a solid roof over their heads, but the building came with other problems. The toilets constantly overflowed and the staff left the lights on all night, making it almost impossible to get a full night's sleep.
"It's not nice here," Luh told me. Although the government, NGOs, private donors, and a tireless army of volunteers are providing basic amenities like food, water, and blankets, life is far from normal.
The disaster relief crews set up large fans around the property to little effect. A large screen showed a television show on one side of the basketball court, but the room was so noisy that it was hard to follow the plot; except at night when the projector was left on when people were instead trying to fall asleep.
There's also zero privacy. The families have tried to build walls of sorts by piling plastic bags of their belongings high in a bid to demarcate their own space. But the makeshift walls do little to dull the constant sound of 1,500 people all living in one sports complex. "It's hard to sleep because it's so noisy," Luh said.
What's worse, she said, is the torturous boredom. "In the village, we have work to do," Luh said. "Here, all we do is sleep, wake up, get bored. We have no certainty, no purpose in life."
In the mornings, she helped the other volunteers cook meals. Sometimes she goes on walks with her children, but never too far. "I don't know the area here, so I'm afraid," she said.
Her twin children, 11, have been re-enrolled at a local school near the camp. But even they miss home. "Just yesterday my son skipped school—he has a pet cat back home and he wanted to see it again," she said.
"I just follow the government's advice," Luh told me. "But I still want to go home. If it's one year, I wouldn't be able to make it. In just two weeks I've already gotten bored."
Many of the evacuees told me that they hope the volcano won't erupt after all—a belief the government cautions against. "It depends on the data," Mertheyasa, the volcanologist, told me. "For us humans, it's difficult to determine precisely when it would erupt. What's evident is the high level of seismic activity."
Luh told me that she still refuses to believe the volcano will eventually blow. "Personally, I still don't believe it because from what I can see with my eyes, there are no signs," she said.
But if it does erupt, her father-in-law isn't worried. "Once it's safe, we will go back home," Rengge said. He's lived for decades on the volcano's slope, and he has no intention of leaving permanently. I asked how he could be so unafraid.
"This time we were relaxed because we already knew what happens from before," he said.