The Traumatic Experience of Merapi Eruption- A view from the Survivor

“When I was at the first evacuation camp, I could hear the rumble non-stop for 48 hours. I just couldn’t close my eyes at night!”

“I was very lucky. If I left 10 minutes later, I would have been killed by the gembel wedus !


On 26 October and 5 November 2010, the most active volcano in the world, Mt.Merapi, erupted with the highest intensity in a century. The immediate effects were devastating. It claimed the lives of at least 353 people, majority of them being burnt by the hot pyroclastic flow. A lot more were injured due to burns and respiratory problems. Residents staying within 20km from the summit of the volcano were evacuated to safer distance and this accounts for about 400,000 evacuees.

The ash splashed into the sky has spread as far as 30km. Yogyakarta, a city at the southern side of the volcano, was covered by ash during the event. Magelang, another city at the west of the volcano, received a heavier impact, recording ash fall as thick as 4cm. The air quality was so bad that the Jakarta International Airport has suspended all its international and domestic flight. The nearer airport such as Yogyakarta Airport and Solo Airport were forced to close due to the low visibility around the region. The economic loss was eminent.

On the media, we were constantly updated about the death toll, the progress of the volcanic activity and the disaster management by the government. Little was reported about the condition of the evacuation camp and even less is known about the problems faced by the victims. To gain an insight into the life encounter of the victims, I have visited the main evacuation camp, Posko Maguwoharjo, to conduct interviews with the evacuees there.

merapi victim evacuation camp

(Muslim woman praying in Posko Maguwoharjo, main evacuation camp)

It was in the night of 14 Dec 2010 when I met Ibu Suriyati. She was walking on the corridor after attending Islam seminar conducted by the local religion teacher. I introduced myself to her as a student of the UGM medical faculty. I explained that the purpose of the interview is to gather information for my school assignment and the same material will also be used to fuel the donation drive for the Merapi Victims.

Her response was very welcoming. She was very interested to tell us her story before and after the eruption of Mt. Merapi. She started by explaining her involvement in the mitigation effort to evacuate the villagers.

“I was part of the Communication Team that delivered the information about the update of the Merapi status to the local people. When the danger level was raised to level 2 (waspada), the head of the National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) has ordered notification to the local people about the potential eruption and the evacuation plan”, said the 36- year- old woman.

The local government was taking this matter seriously. Talks were conducted in almost every village during the mitigation stage. Local warning system was established to alert the villagers in the case of a need to evacuate.

“When the Status was raised to Level 3, my family felt rather uneasy about it. We live in Desa Umbulharjo, about 4 km from the summit of Merapi. If there were a serious eruption, our lives would be at risk. What would happen to my cows and my house? The thought of this made me very stressed and I can’t sleep at night. My husband also became more sensitive and temperamental. He got angry easily with small matters. I understand that he was stressed with the volcano”, added Ibu Suriyati.

“So Ibu, can you tell me the situation when the Merapi erupted? Did you see the lava flow? From my place, I only experienced the raining of ash and tiny rocks”, I asked the woman.

merapi lava flow

“That was the scariest event that I ever experience. The land was shaking, as if having an earthquake. I can clearly see the arch gate at the entrance of the village swinging from side to side. From the direction of the volcano, I could hear the thunder sound. It was raining at that time. So I thought it was because of the usual thunder accompanying the rain. However, the rumble lasted for quite some time, which is atypical for normal rain. My neighbour later told me that it was the eruption sound of Merapi. I also see multiple lightning striking near the volcano”, recalled Ibu Suriyati in slight fear.

She did not observe the lava flow because of the thick clouds surrounding the volcano. It was a traumatic experience to be shaken by the tectonic earthquake. When somebody dropped an object in the house and produced a loud noise, she would be shocked, fearing that the volcano erupts again. The neighbourhood was clouded with uncertainty awaiting instruction from the local government to evacuate.

Nevertheless, Ibu Suriyati was aware of her responsibility to evacuate the local villagers when she received instruction from the Head of District. People from the village were moving to an evacuation camp located about 10km from the summit of Mt.Merapi. However, there was a problem. The well-respected elder from the community, Mbah Maridjan refused to leave his house. He was the spiritual guardian or “gatekeeper” of the volcano, appointed by the King of Yogyakarta, Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX. The late Mbah Maridjan advised other villagers to leave, but he himself insisted to stay.

Photo Mbah Maridjan, Juru Kunci Gunung Merapi Menjadi Korban Gunung Merapi

(Mbah Maridjan, spiritual guardian of Mt. Merapi)

Ibu Suriyati attempted to persuade Mbah Maridjan to evacuate, but gave up after understanding that Mbah Maridjan was determined to stand on his position even till his death. She left the village in time before the deadly pyroclastic flow struck the village.

“I was very lucky. If I left 10 minutes later, I would have been killed by the gembel wedus (pyroclastic flow)! Thank God that my family is safe”, said the woman in relief.

The first eruption was just the beginning of her nightmare. Over the course of two weeks, due to increasing intensity of the eruption and expansion of the danger zone, she was shifted 7 times from a nearer evacuation camp to further evacuation camps, before finally settling down at the main evacuation camp, Posko Maguwoharjo. In addition to the psychological trauma caused by the eruption, the frequent reallocation and re-adaptation to new environment contributed to her weariness and distress.

During the interview, I happened to meet her husband, Pak Tono. So I took the opportunity to understand the perspective of the man. I inquired about his feelings about this incident and how he was coping with it. He looked rather calm in answering my questions, probably having accepted the reality after spending 8 weeks in evacuation camp.

“The eruption this time was much stronger than the previous eruptions. When I was at the first evacuation camp, I could hear the rumble non-stop for 48 hours. I just couldn’t close my eyes at night! The eruption has taken away everything we have. The whole village was destroyed by the pyroclastic flow. Basically there is nothing left on the ground. I have worked so hard over the years to accumulate such wealth, but it just return to the point zero. Morning I milk the cows, like the rest of the people in the village. Afternoon I will go to the valley to collect sand for sale. In the evening, I will collect grass to feed the livestock. Now I don’t know what I can do for a living. The cows are dead.” said Pak Tono.

merapi kinahrejo village

(the view of Desa Kinahrejo after the eruption)

“So how long will you be staying here? What is the plan for the future? Are you getting any form of help from the government?” I asked.

“In the day I will go to work at the shelter construction area. The government is planning to build 300 unit of temporary shelter for us. So far we have only completed 50 units. I think we will have to stay in the evacuation camp for another 6 months. When the shelters are completed, we will shift to the shelter. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) has given his words to replace our livestock. I really hope he will deliver what he promised. So far we haven’t received any information about the reimbursement”, replied Pak Tono.

I continued by asking Ibu Suriyati whether she will want to go back to her village. She thought for a while and gave a negative response. She explained that the volcano will erupt every 4-5 years. She cannot imagine that she has to flee from the Merapi every half a decade. It was such a traumatic experience. Furthermore, whatever property she has will be destroyed.

“What is the purpose of working so hard to accumulate wealth? In the end, I will lose everything when Merapi erupts again. My efforts will just go to waste! I will never want to experience this again!” exclaimed Ibu Suriyati.

She later added that there is a misconception of the public regarding people from Cakringan (the district which her village belongs to).

“They said people from Cakringan value their property more than their lives. Because of that some villagers were killed by the pyroclastic flow when they returned to their house to feed the livestock after the first eruption. This is NOT TRUE! It is not because we care more about our property than our lives. It is because of the bond we share with our animals. Every day we feed them with grass. They are like part of the family. Would you be so cruel to let your family members starve?” said the woman in defence of the accusation.

merapi cow

It is common for the victims to have psychological problem after a traumatic experience. There is a psychological station set up at the evacuation camp to cater to the mental health of the evacuees. The psychologist has conducted psychological screening to identify those who need intervention. Ibu Suriyati admitted that she was diagnosed with depression. The common approach used by the psychologist to address this issue is correlating the disastrous event as the will of God. It became easier to accept the tragedy when believing that it is part of God’s plan.

Ibu Suriyati elaborated that her condition has improved after getting counselling from the psychologist. The religion seminar had given much console and comfort to her. Getting her mind occupied with activities such as sewing helped her to recover from the depression.

Merapi Sewing class

(Sewing class conducted at Posko Maguwoharjo)

Before ending the interview, I asked what kind of help she needs from the public. She said that the logistic at the camp was quite sufficient. The food supply is supported by the government. It would be best if the fund can be channelled into the redevelopment of the community. Donation should be given directly to the recipients or to the head of village for distribution. The posko did not give any money to the evacuees. From here, I can sense her doubt about financial management of the evacuation camp. It is understandable that the money donated to the evacuation camp will be used for the maintenance of the camp, not for the redevelopment since the evacuation camp is expected to operate for the next 6 months.

Evacuees at Posco Maguwoharjo copy

In conclusion, the interview has revealed that the victims were traumatized by the eruption, and the victims are reluctant to return to their village in fear of the next eruption. Economy activities were disrupted as the livestock were killed. They are short of money to rebuild their previous economy. Modal is needed to buy new livestock. Hopefully when President SBY replaces the livestock as he promised, the rehabilitation of the affected will be completed and economy activity can resume as the past.


Donation Drive for PKPMI-CY Merapi Eruption Victims Funds

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2 Responses to The Traumatic Experience of Merapi Eruption- A view from the Survivor

  1. Yee says:

    God bless whose victims and hopefully their daily life will resume to normal soon.

  2. John Murdock says:

    they r really strong to face that, m missing mbah maridjan too 😦

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