On the morning of the 4th I head off at 5.30 to get to Abang, a low lying, semi mountainous area which lies almost due east of the volcano. I want to check out the situation in Ngis and neighbouring Tista with evacuees coming from Ababi and surrounds. That’s the plan anyway. The foggy run through Kintamani and Suter is almost a commute for me now, through to Rendang. The bike – fixed and delivered back in record time by the boys down in Duta Intika’s Kawasaki workshop, now outfitted with new chain, sprockets and ball bearings – hums smoothly down to the valley floor between the Rendang ridge and the volcano to my left.

I stop at a couple of ‘warung’ coffee stalls where a bunch of trucks are parked, the drivers taking a break. Truck stops are always a mine of local information, and for the price of a glass of thick, muddy Balinese coffee I get some of the low down. The best bit is from the owner: “The mountain is erupting because foreigners brought beef sandwiches up the mountain. The only beef allowed up are cows for sacrifice.” More science to absorb – local wisdom can be a real mixed bag.

On on. In no time I come into Muncan, the main part of which lies on a flat outcropping of a longitude-ish ridge right down length of the volcano. Muncan is in KRB zone I, meaning the least harmful of the three danger zones which lies between 9-12 km radius from the crater. I am surprised to see the local junior high school is open and students are on their way. When I ask a local, he explains that KRB II is higher up. Higher up is basically almost a straight line up the ridge. I wonder if the lava or lahar will know to stop at the 9km mark. So many of these zones seem so arbitrary when you are on the ground.

Above: junior high school students in Muncan. Below: a truck carrying left over stock from Harapan Jaya’s quarry

Five kilometers or so up, in the Sebudi area I find where the trucks are loading ‘stock’ aggregate from Harapan Jaya’s quarry. Well at least they aren’t digging up new sand and rock. On the way out of the quarry I see a group of Javanese workers at the road: “We’re just waiting for the last few trucks and then we are heading back home”. Most of the heavy equipment in these quarries is operated by Javanese.

The road takes me thru Selat, where I forgo my usual stop at Gusti Aji’s warung, but there is a seemingly hapless policeman I’ve never seen there at the crossroads. I stop and ask him innocently which zone Selat is in. “Oh Selat is danger free… Umm I mean, I’m not sure what zone it is in, I’m sorry”. I feel sorry for him; clearly no one has taken the trouble to brief him. Unfortunately this is not an isolated case. To make things worse, some of the zones get changed. Now to be fair, danger zones for a volcano aren’t really a fixed thing – situations do change and it is a headache to predict exactly what will happen where.

In Duda I stop in on the village head, and hand him our (Mt Agung Relief Response) flyer on evac procedures and What’sApp him a version of Eko Teguh Paripurno’s information sheet on volcanic eruptions relevant to Mt Agung, evac considerations etc.. I think I woke the poor guy up but he soon becomes quite alert as he starts reading the material. Over and over I find people in the zones thirsty for simple, clear material that gives them the opportunity to make their own decisions and arrangements in an informed and rational manner. So far it has all the evac has been executed in summary style with people being ordered what to do with no real clear understanding about what’s going on.

I ride on to Sibetan, and at the top of the hill see that the tarpaulins we delivered to refugees there haven’t been put up yet. Hmm. Down at the bottom of the snaking road that winds itself through the thorny salak fruit plantations, I drop in at the village administrative office. The village head, Nengah Kompiang, is in for a change, and so is my contact the village secretary, Doblé. I pull out some evac procedure flyers and transfer soft copies of Eko’s mini manual for laypeople. As I launch into my “you need to socialize this to your people” rap, he tenses up. “I’m sorry sir but people are fed up with me talking. There has been so much confusion and change of plans, now people harass me every time I try to give them new information”. I try and massage him into being more pliant, and I think I detect a certain compliance. This is not an easy time to be a civil servant! Also in the office is Gede Raka from the refugee group on top of the hill who is already on the defensive and tells me he will immediately put the tarpaulins up “ I didn’t have any ladders..”. I nod, and tell him to please take the tarps with them if they have to move. Simple things can make such a difference in emergency situations.

I get on my way to Abang when the phone rings, blaring into my helmet via Bluetooth – a mixed blessing. It’s the no-nonsense ladies Petra and Ewa back at the central coordination at the Kopernik office in Ubud. Secretly I admire their focus and overall grasp, and they’ve become tolerant of my chaotic, on the spot field notes I call in rolling from one location to another. Not to mention how diplomatically they dissuade me from doing stupid things in the field. Right now they are keen on re-routing me from Abang to Amed as they have a new contact there. I’m skeptical but do as I’m told – in any case it’s the same direction but just a bit further. I had resigned myself to not finding a solution for us to participate in within the Amed area.

Though Amed, tucked behind a high ridge to the west, is technically a safe zone just bordering on a KRB 2 zone where evacuees from up the slopes of Agung and also the popular diving resort of Tulamben have taken refuge, it is problematic. Amed, and much of Abang could be cut off from logistical supply routes for weeks as the main access road runs perpendicular to the projected lava and lahar flow. Water supply is already not easy at all. In Abang in particular the main water supply comes down from the slopes of Agung – clearly vulnerable. And in arid Amed I fear competition for resources between the two to three thousand of evacuees and the local inhabitants once the supply lines get cut off. Evacuation by the back road would be possible but it’s small and twisting road that won’t be easy to get 23,000 starving people out on.

Above: The young and the old baby born just days before evacuating, and an old man who had children in 1963, in a camp in Amed. Below: an evacuee in another camp in Amed.

In Amed I connect thru Magda – an ex UN person with experience in Africa – with Komang “Bajing”, who is a great find. Originally from Datah deep KRB 2, he has lots of contacts here in Amed and up on the slopes. He’s got a good grasp of the situation, and thinks outside the box. I visit a couple of camps, one in a temple complex closer to Culik which has 600 people in it – and two toilets. (two days later I hear another NGO has built a row of toilets for them – great). With Komang I visit one by the beach and it’s a similar situation. But here, though it is not as clean as at the temple site, there is a neighbor who has opened his simple house to the women with small children. There are two toilets in his house, and he also agrees to have three more temporary ones installed in his land. Some people just give more and more! Meanwhile we arrange for Komang and some friends to attend a training session on sanitation and building toilets, in Ubud.

Komang Bajing and I sort out a game plan, and I head off home. It’s too late to drop in at Abang so I shoot back to Kopernik in Ubud. This is when I hear about the sad news that the people of Br Pemuteran in Desa Pempatan have suddenly gone back to their village. As it turns out, the local district officer (Camat) has been at them for a week or so to move to an official site they are setting up in Kubu, Bangli. They are very reluctant. The Camat tells In Pengotan they have been warmly received as they have ancient ties with the village. Those families with young children have even been given the use of the houses in the village that are emoty most of the year as their inhabitants spend most of the time in houses in the fields. They have joined in activities in Pengotan, and so forth. Udayana University has even agreed for some of their research land in Pengotan to be used to keep their cows, one of the major issues for the evacuees from mountain areas. Pengotan has been the shining example of the ‘sister village’ model. Now the Camat is telling them that they won’t receive any government support if they stay there, and that they will be considered “self-reliant” etc. So they felt pressured to move to Kubu, which they don’t know and have no ties to – and made a spontaneous decision to move back.

On the 5th, after the 10 o’clock coordination meeting at Kopernik I hum and haw about going up to Pemuteran. Finally I can’t stand it anymore and head off. I want to first visit Pak Pande, head of the neighbouring banjar, Br Pule. This is even closer to Agung, and I almost get lost in a maze of dirt tracks through the forest. I can’t imagine an orderly emergency evacuation from here. Pande tells me about that night. “We got the message to move urgently. The kulkuls (hollowed out wooden alarm ‘drums) were signaling and the message came thru for us to go to the Agricultural Office in the direction of Rendang. When we got there we found others (from Pemuteran etc) had also gathered. Then we were told it wasn’t safe there, so there was lot of confusion as to where to go. Finally we collectively decided to go to Pengotan in Bangli because we have an old relationship with them. It was pretty chaotic. Some of us went to other family ties in other areas. We finally arrived in Pengotan in the middle of the night.”

Pak Pande, head of Dusun Pule and his family.

Pak Mandi, head of Dusun Pemuteran and the stalls for the collective’s cows.

Farms in Pemuteran.

I urge him to move back to Pengotan, at least to get his people out of the zone, and to do an orderly, organized evacuation. There is no way it will be safe here. Just as I say that the earth shakes. His old mother smiles wanly. Finally I take my leave and try to find my way through the dirt trails to Pemuteran. Once you take a branch in the trail here it can be quite a while before you find someone to ask. About the only thing my GPS is good for here is altitude. I finally find asphalt and go around to Pemuteran.

On the way I run into tourists on a Landrover adventure tour. I stop and admonish the driver – he’s got a car full of people in a KRB zone II. I ask the tourists if they know they are in danger zone. They look at me blankly. And when I get to Pemuteran the head of the banjar isn’t home. It’s getting late, I’m tired, and getting lost in the forest has taken it out of me. I decide to come back the next day.

The next morning early, with a bullet point version of volcanologist Eko T Paripurno’s prepared by the ever efficient Mila Shwaiko in hand, I head off again to Pemuteran to meet the Klian Banjar, Pak Mandi. His story pretty much echoes Pak Pandé’s. His eye light up when I hand him the information on volcanos and our brief evac procedure notes. A small crowd gathers in his courtyard. Over and over I underline, in different ways, the urgency for them to leave but to do it in a well organized fashion. I also promise that the private sector along with the NGOs that have been working with them up to now in Pengotan will continue to do so, but on the condition that he pushes his people to become self reliant and proactive as soon as they can – something I’m confident they will do faster and with less trauma if they are in a conducive and friendly atmosphere, and in a village which shares similar traditions (adat) with them.

Once again it’s down the road to Rendang and then towards Selat. It’s been raining heavily and I take it easy. Just as well – as I come around the corner a bit after the bridge just before Muncan I come upon a landslide. It has been partly cleared, manually it seems, but there is mud stretched out a hundred meters either way. This could be a bad trend – landslides and slippery muddy roads aren’t ideal for emergency evacuation. The head of Duda village isn’t home, I continue through Sibetan and drop off some of the new material at the village administration office. After which I head to Budakeling.

There I find Wayan Gin in ritual clothing. They are going to do a ceremony for the village. I talk to him briefly, outlining the contents and emphasizing how important it is to sit everyone down together and have everyone agree on procedures etc. I know I can rely on him. He used to an ambulance driver for Toya clinic in Ubud, and is very capable. He is still working in Ubud: “But I come back here during my free time to see what I can do. It’s difficult with these elders digging their heels in. I know we should evacuate but I can’t get a consensus”. He looks tired.

My finally destination for the day is the Tanah Ampoh central coordination spot for the government to try once again to formally register as a volunteer. Once again I am ping-ponged around the entire complex, and nobody quite knows what to do with me. I’m told to wait until a general meeting is over. When someone mentions it will be in another hour I take off. I need to meet some community leaders from Kedampal etc high on the eastern slopes of the volcano, and that’s in Ubud in less than an hour.

I make it just in time, just as the temporary toilet workshop is over. With Komang Bajing six of us sit down. They are from communities that are still hanging on, deep in the danger zones. They tell me that during the first panic evacuation the elders protested vehemently. “And then when the eruption didn’t happen and all our cows were suffering they were more or less saying to us ‘I told you so’. Everybody insisted on going back.” I hand out the material I have and we talk. I remark once again how relieved people are when they get information that is clear and that they can share. And they all understand how much sense it makes to do a proper well organized evacuation. It takes good planning and if we are to help them maintain their livestock that’s a whole other logistical issue: for example just Pemuteran alone has 3000 cows!

I have become obsessed with ‘evac’. From my observation on the ground over the last couple of weeks, I would make an educated guess that there are at least 5000 people well within the most dangerous zones at any given time during the day. That includes communities who refuse to evacuate, and people who come up during the day to look after their cows or search for fodder for their livestock.  If the volcano erupts during the day the death toll could be a lot higher than 1963.

Below: the non-functioning escalators and stock piles of relief supplies which evacuees have to come and get themselves


Text and photos ©Rio Helmi (except the danger zone map below)