by Rio Helmi

My days blur by under Mt Agung, the clouds swirling around it, and inevitably as November creeps up on us, the rains have started to pelt the inner zones – sporadically, but heavy enough to cause minor landslides. On the back roads gravel and dirt collect on dips and corners. On these small winding roads, if one is in hurry (in emergency evacuation mode) this will be a hazard.

A few days ago I paid a quick visit to the camps in Tembok on the northeastern coast of Bali. In Tembok you have 7,000 evacuees to a permanent local population of 4,000+. It could be a disaster, but they have organised themselves really well, and the evacuees are pro-active and self-reliant: they have their own clean-up crews, people are delegated into different tasks, they rotate shifts – they are active.

In camps where they just sit around it’s not that great. The sooner people are engaged in work and economic activities the better. It’s also important to preserve community social structures. Meanwhile I check out the simple bamboo structures that the evacuees have put up and they are nice in a rustic way. I find a few people sitting in the newly built supply hut – “It’s nice and cool in here!” I’m hot outside here; I can’t imagine what it’s like for mountain people.

Nice and cool in here…

As I sit and discuss strategies to bring down the 3,500 odd people still up on the volcano slope with Dewa Komang, the Tembok village head, he quietly points out that 600 more went back yesterday up to their farms. Clearly having a camp where they can easily get to their livestock, feed and water for the animals is what is needed. It’s like having to build a village in a week. I feel daunted but we need to press on. At least the Department of Agriculture’s livestock services have approved a site, and allegedly have contracted an independent construction company to build shelter and a shed for the feed.

More small miracles are needed – we are going to have to scrape together another 350 million Rupiah (about US$ 26,000) for housing for people. Somehow when I think of it in dollars it doesn’t seem like a lot to save 3500+ lives. Oh, make that 4,100.

I take my leave and race up the road to Ban in the red zone. It’s getting late and there is a monstrous dark cloud wrapping itself around the volcano. There are people coming down from their farms (typical evacuee pattern now, spending the night in the camp and the day up on at their farms). But there are also people in full ceremonial gear. Ah it’s Anggar Kasih Julung Wangi, yet another Balinese holy day. I spot Nengah Alit, a pemangku (priest) from Temangku. We chat at the fork on the road to Ban, Pempatan and Besakih. Despite the rain clouds and the late hour I take the right fork just to see.Mangku Nengah Alit

The road goes up steeply, and I’m glad for the 650cc Kawasaki effortlessly taking me up higher. I come to a small, clustered hamlet. A little further on I nearly meet my nemesis: the road suddenly disintegrates into red, muddy, sharp rubble on a steep slope. Here a 650cc twin is suddenly a liability, a heavy beast. Lots of fun turning the beast around on a steep slope covered in huge, sharp, rocky gravel – and so not wanting to pick up 220kg of bike plus load here in the rain. I manage, just. Down at the hamlet people huddle away from the rain. They tell me half of them still live up here. I take stab at the distance from the crater: I’d say 3.5 kilometers.

I swing back on to the Ban-Pempatan-Besakih road. It plateaus out in the middle section, at around 900 to 1000 meters above sea level. Wedged at the bottom of a steep river gully, the road runs alongside a dry river bed. Then it crosses it. I stop and assess. The river comes straight down from the volcano, only some 2,100 meters above me. There is no other way out of the valley except back or forward to the other end. It’s at least 2 kilometers either way. As our Merapi local expert Pak Sukiman explained to us during a presentation, pyroclasic flow comes straight down these types of gullies at speeds of up to 750 km/h.

My mind swings back to the presentation that Pak Sukiman from Merapi gave the other day, with videos of these ‘hot clouds’ (pyroclastic flow in colloquial Indonesian) flashing down the mountain at the speed of sound. And as I stop at the fork to Cegi, the traffic is constant. Bikes with families aboard, cars full to the brim (even some local tourists taking selfies), trucks laden with rocks sneaking through this un-policed road.

Since my last post, much has happened, but perhaps the most significant thing is that we’ve established a working rapport with the official task force in Tanah Ampo through the commander, Lt.Col. Fierman Sjafirial Agustus, who was handed the job right at the end of his command duty as the commander of Karangasem regency. Initially, the Bupati or regent was automatically in charge. She then handed it off to her vice-regent, who then turned around and handed it to Pak Fierman. All of this in a matter of days. As very little substantial planning took place in the weeks when the alert level was 2 (Waspada) then 3 (Siaga), suffice it to say that he inherited quite a tangled ball of yarn. I don’t envy him at all, but he is doing his level best. Luckily he is quick to assess various courses of actions, thinks laterally, is open minded and makes decisions with deliberation, but rapidly.

Lately he’s been discussing the need to clamp down on traffic through the red zones, which in the last week or so has gotten out of control. It’s not a popular decision with some local politicians, but the flow of traffic is getting ridiculous. I send him some videos from the Cegi crossroads. I was at the operational center in the morning, and he has already ordered members of the elite Raiders battalion to help man the roadblocks. He’s still treading softly but it can’t last forever, and this route is a liability.

Further down the road (where a couple of days ago I gently but firmly ushered out a Russian couple on a scooter on their way to Amed who had no idea about the volcano; it didn’t show up on their interactive map). I find a new roadblock set up by locals. Not that it’s doing much.

Days later, the roadblocks are still ‘open’ but the Task Force commander has assigned one soldier from the elite Raider battalion to accompany local babinsa, village non-commissioned military officers. There is a bit of confusion as to how they are supposed check the numbers of people going by but at least they are at it. The idea is to get a reasonable estimate of how many people are in the red zones during the day vs the night.

The potential of thousands of casualties is very real.

A few days ago, the governor of Bali makes a few statements that are aimed at having the alert level reduced. It’s a bit puzzling, this obsession with saving the tourist industry and government projects over the safety of the population around the volcano, especially after the level of unpreparedness the provincial and sub-provincial governments showed in these last weeks. Hardly any planning during the level 3 phase, and complete panic at the announcement of level 4, and now this. Is it not clear that the alert level is the jurisdiction and prerogative of the volcanologists, the national volcanogical center for the mitigation of geological disaster (PVMBG)? In any case yesterday in a press statement, the PVMBG clearly stated that they were not bringing the alert level down merely because of a temporary reduction in frequency of tremors, and that there were other important factors to take into consideration, and these factors do not indicate a reduction in the danger. The level remains at level 4 “Awas” (more or less “great caution”). They even went as far as to state, “It is not we who (arbitrarily) determine the alert level, it is the mountain’s activity that determines it.” Hopefully the message gets through.

The river Unda where it runs through Dukuh in Sidemen valley.

On Thursday, on the way back from checking the numbers at various checkpoints, I have a hunch and head to small tucked-away evacuee camp in Br Dukuh, opposite Sidemen, halfway down the valley below Sangken Gunung. I’m also concerned at how close they might be to the river Unda, where all locals bathe. It runs straight down from the volcano – a cold  lahar or pyroclastic highway? I’ll have to consult with an expert. Meanwhile at the camp the situation has definitely improved: the tarps provided by the Gunung Agung Relief group are keeping out rain and wind, and they have mats though not enough mattresses, and bins to store their personal belongings. But I’m glad I dropped in. There are now around 100 evacuees, almost double the original number, and they have 50 kilos of rice left between them. The next day I take the pick-up and with supplies from the Gunung Agung Relief post at Kopernik. Cat and I drop them off. They are so sweet, all the kids coming out and we have a great chat with them all. They all come out and wave us off.

Yesterday, Saturday 21st, despite having decided to cut down on these nearly daily 200km rides, I find myself blasting to Budakeling, to attend a socialization talk to evacuees and the local community who is refusing to evacuate. I find that the talk has been cancelled, and the head of the village drags me into the hall where there are a handful of evacuees from high up on the slopes of Bebandem district, the local district officer, the head of the local police sector and the Babinsa. “Could you please talk to them?” he pleads. I’m a bit taken aback at this sudden turn of events, but I’m trapped. I do my best, translating into my median level Balinese (No way I’m even going to try High Balinese in Karangasem!!!!) whatever I have learned over the last weeks from the volcanologists that I have interviewed, from Pak Sukiman’s talks. It seems to work, and the evacuees seem resolved to move on to safer ground.

The local community however, is proving to be more difficult. The officials and I have a long discussion, and I emphasize to them that they need to organize evacuation well, working out destinations and contacting those destination villages, working out camp sites according to the basic needs, setting timetables for the move (they had previously agreed with Manggis but as they didn’t move in time, other villages took their place, and again this happened in Padang Bai). Evacuation routes need to be planned well and confirmed with the BNPB/BPBD disaster mitigation bodies, etc etc. I get the feeling that they aren’t exactly on top of it. On the brighter side of things, I receive news from one of the Babinsas in Rendang that more than half of the inhabitants of Pemuteran in the danger zones have re-evacuated (after going back) to their sister village Pengotan in Bangli and also to a camp in Rendang.

The Klian of Br Galih and an evcauee’s “stall” in Br Kreteg, Sibetan

On the way back from Budakeling, by chance I discover a camp from Galih in the Banjar Kreteg, Sibetan. I find the Klian or headman, Pak Made Sumartana among a group of men sitting around idly. He is the only one in full traditional Balinese dress. There are 400 people here in an open wantilan pavilion. Rain will definitely be a problem. Many of them have gone back up and fetched belongings; one woman has even brought all her goods from a small shop she ran, and they sit in a pile in the middle of the pavilion. There doesn’t seem to be much other effort at earning money – they tell me there is no work to be had there. Pak Made takes me to see their main kitchen with a wood fired stove. I notice their one and only water filter looks a tinge moldy, it’s exposed to sunlight, and one of the filter candles seems badly installed. Ewa from Kopernik tells me over WhatsApp that we need to replace it and re-train them.

A warung (food stall) lunch in Duda, a quick gawk at construction which has restarted on the local market place despite it being in the red zone, then past the check post where I see really high numbers on their tally – high school kids whiz through a corner of the red zone to get to school in Sidemen, and a high priest’s cremation is coming up in couple of days here so devotees are coming up from Denpasar. In Selat I find locals are finally taking things into hand. They are blocking sand trucks from going up to the quarries, a group of about 10 pecalang (local security) and some other local men have set up a partial barricade. We chat and I watch. A couple of drivers try to slip them money but they refuse. Hopefully it’s not just because I am there but they do seem pretty determined. In any case it’s certainly more than the police are doing. On the next radial road I find a chilling sign: “Any thieves coming into Padangaji Village will leave dead”.

Above: construction of a market pushes on despite being in the red zone. Below : pecalang action in Selat. Bottom: a sign in Selat

I manage to catch the task force commander at the local military post in Menanga/Rendang on my way home. He is briefing the local Koramil commander (hard bitten man), babinsas, and the local district officer. We exchange notes, and he is pleased to hear about Selat. He tells his men: “We can’t order the people to do this or that, we have to work with them. If they knock down barricades (which they did a few days ago) you don’t have to pschase them down, just fix it. The people have to be the ones doing preventative measures, we are only here to help and to make them aware, so you have to be able to reach out to them. I don’t want to hear about how hard that is.” Finally I take my leave and head up to Suter, Penolakan and home. I check the bike’s clocks. Damn, another 200 km day.

Feature image, taken by drone, provided courtesy of BNPB. All other photos ©Rio Helmi