Monday, November 8, 2010

Indonesia's Pompeii?

THE city of Yogyakarta is the living, breathing heart of Java, the world's most populated island. It is a centre for mysticism, fine arts, ballet, music, puppet shows, and ancient, colonial and modern architecture. It enjoys special administrative status within Indonesia that includes a hereditary sultan as governor.

Then there are its scenic views, none more famous than the revered Mount Merapi volcano looming over the north of the city. The mountain has delivered life and death down its slopes for millennia. The events that have transpired since October 26th are a reminder to the Javanese faithful of its awe-inspiring power.

Nearly 400,000 people live in and more than 3m around Yogyakarta. These people, as well as the sultan’s palace and other priceless treasures, are in grave danger right now from Mount Merapi, which has failed to return to sleep after nearly two weeks of near-daily eruptions that have killed at least 122 people and displaced more than 150,000 others.

It is the volcano’s worst spasm in more than a century. Flights to the city have been cancelled, given the deadly heat clouds and fatal bursts of hot lava launching from Merapi's belly and landing up to 20 kilometres away. Rail is the only way in for now, but even that may not last.

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia's president, and key members of his cabinet have rushed from the capital Jakarta (a safe 450 kilometres away in west Java) to set up an emergency command post. Last night in Jakarta there was talk of the disaster becoming Indonesia's Pompeii, the Roman town that was partially buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. The coming days will be crucial.

The masses of central Java, despite being predominantly Muslim, are strongly influenced by Javanese mysticism. They treat Mount Merapi with God-like status. The grand old volcano has played terrible games before, and then gone back to sleep. Indonesians are praying that this time Mount Merapi will again retreat into hibernation. The Economist

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