“This Is Our World”

Author: Aisyah Llewellyn

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.

Mount Sinabung - New Naratif
Sinabung has been erupting continuously since 2010. Aisyah Llewellyn

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.

Mount Sinabung - New Naratif
Following the eruption on 7 April 2019 the roads around Sinabung were covered in ash from the volcano. Aisyah Llewellyn
Sinabung - New Naratif
Just outside the Red Zone, around 4.5km from Sinabung, the surrounding fields of cabbages and carrots are covered in its ash fall. Aisyah Llewellyn

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.

Berastepu - New Naratif
The village of Berastepu lies in the shadow of Mount Sinabung, just 4km away from the mountain. Aisyah Llewellyn

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.

Berastepu - New Naratif
The local school in Berastepu has been closed since 2013 when the town’s inhabitants were evacuated and is now slowly returning back to the jungle. Aisyah Llewellyn
Sinabung - New Naratif
A group of villagers describe themselves as “security” for the mountain and stop people from entering the Red Zone following an eruption. Aisyah Llewellyn

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.”

Berastepu - New Naratif
Berastepu has been almost completely abandoned, including its church which has long been boarded up. Aisyah Llewellyn

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.

Victory Sitepu - New Naratif
Victory Sitepu was born in Berastepu and regularly returns to the Red Zone to work on his coffee plantation. Aisyah Llewellyn

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.”

Sinabung - New Naratif
Ash coats the roads and surrounding scenery on the outskirts of the Red Zone. Aisyah Llewellyn

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.

Sinabung - New Naratif
No one can predict when Sinabung will erupt again, and locals describe the mountain as “stubborn”. Aisyah Llewellyn


Aisyah Llewellyn

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 aisyah.llewellyn@newnaratif.com.

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