On 7 April 2019, mighty Mount Sinabung, an active volcano in Karo Regency in North Sumatra, erupted. The mountain had lain dormant for centuries before roaring back to life in 2010, and it’s been continuously active ever since. Sinabung erupted again on 9 June, spewing an ash column 7km into the sky. Pyroclastic flows then tumbled down the mountain. Fortunately no casualties were recorded.
Given that it’s been erupting for almost a decade now, Mount Sinabung is also one of Indonesia’s longest running natural disasters—but one that’s often underreported. Sinabung lies in the Karo Highlands, a chilly farming area at an altitude of 1,300m. Despite the government’s best efforts and plans to build a glitzy “volcano park”, it’s hardly an international tourist hub.
Sinabung has killed on more than one occasion. In 2014, 16 people died after pyroclastic flows tumbled down the mountain. In 2016, seven more perished when the volcano awoke yet again.
In addition to the deaths, as Sinabung continues to erupt—seemingly with no end in sight—it’s left a harsh legacy in its wake. Some 7,000 people have been affected by the eruptions, and hundreds have been displaced. They’ve lost their homes and have been moved outside the official Red Zone of 7km to new housing provided by the government. Their former residences now form ghost towns that crumble slowly in the shadow of the volcano.
One such town is Berastepu in the district of Simpang Empat. It’s about 4km away from the mountain—well inside the Red Zone. Along the road to Berastepu, there’s a hut with a sign outside advertising tuak, a local palm wine often enjoyed in the Karo Highlands.
Inside it are a group of villagers who proudly describe themselves as “security” for Mount Sinabung. According to them, it’s their job to make sure that people don’t enter the Red Zone, particularly when there’s just been an eruption. “We’re scared now, so we won’t sleep near Sinabung,” they say. “When we were younger we would work in the fields all day and then swim in a stream near the mountain to cool off. But now we’re afraid.”
“This mountain is so stubborn,” they lament. “It hasn’t erupted for about a year, but here we are again.”
About 10 minutes down the road from the hut is Berastepu. No one lives there full time anymore. All the villagers were evacuated by the government for their own safety in 2013, following one of Sinabung’s most vicious eruptions. At that time, hot ash rained down on the buildings in Berastepu and caused many of the roofs to collapse, making the village uninhabitable.
One such building is the former home of Victory Sitepu, a local coffee farmer. He’s been relocated to a new government home outside the Red Zone, some 8km away from the volcano, but he still comes to Berastepu to tend to his coffee plantation six days a week. “Of course, we’re scared,” he says, “but we still try to interact with our environment. We have to.”
“The coffee fields are still productive, so they generate income for us,” he continues. “We’re just trying to make a living here.”
This is the central problem with Mount Sinabung.
While the villagers have been moved to safer ground, they can’t possibly take their land with them—plots that have often belonged to their families for generations. This means that, eruption or no eruption, the villagers have to risk returning to the Red Zone to harvest their coffee. If they stay away from their land and plantations, they’ll have lost not just their homes, but also their livelihoods.
Asked again if it doesn’t scare him to work in such a volatile environment, Victory says that there are lots of different types of fear. “Think about the ocean,” he explains. “So many people are scared of the water. But for surfers that’s their domain. We’d be scared, but they’re not. It’s the same here. If you’re scared of ash clouds, then don’t live next to a volcano.”
He gets on his motorbike and turns back. “This is our world,” he says.
Then he drives off, back to his new house and away from his home.
Aisyah Llewellyn is a British freelance writer based in Medan, Indonesia, and New Naratif's Editor in Chief. She is a former diplomat and writes primarily about Indonesian politics, culture, travel and food. Reach her at email@example.com.