JAVA, Indonesia — A drama that pits modern science versus an ancient culture is playing out on the verdant slopes of one of the world’s most active volcanoes.
Mount Merapi, which has been rumbling ominously for weeks and throwing off lava streams and gas clouds, could explode any time. Yet as many as 30,000 villagers who heeded the warnings of experts and government disaster officials last Saturday and fled their homes are now returning to their villages on the slopes of Mount Merapi — which means "Fire Mountain” in the local language — even as it continues to spew streams of lava, hot gas and ash.
“These people are listening to what they say are spirits from the mountain,” said one frustrated disaster worker, “and they seem to have lost confidence in the scientists.”
The local farmers say they know “Fire Mountain” better than the experts armed with high-tech devices. They believe the spirits of the volcano are not angry enough to explode and shower them with deadly clouds of gas and fiery rock.
Slamet, a 32-year-old farmer with a wife and child, explained why he will not leave the mountain. (Indonesians often only have one name.)
“Allah will protect us and so will the spirits.”
Video: Watching Mount Merapi He is a devout Muslim, as are 90 percent of this nation’s 220 million people. However, Slamet and his mountain neighbors also hold animist beliefs and feel that the mountain provides for them. In return, they give offerings of rice and packages of fruit to the rivers and streams, and at least once a year a priest climbs to the volcano’s crater and gives a live offering of an animal.
These Muslim men have also been known to gather naked in groups late at night and run in circles around their villages to ward off an eruption. Such immodesty is usually frowned upon in Islamic societies.
And, indeed, in the early hours of Friday morning, a group of two dozen farmers set off on a silent march around one of the villages three miles from the lava flows. The march, they said, was an appeal to the volcano spirits in an effort to “calm” the mountain.
They were followed by journalists for a half an hour before saying they needed privacy. One reporter was told later than many of the men wanted to walk naked without the still and video cameras.
Distrustful of experts
That powerful tradition is proving almost impossible to counter for vulcanologists.
Slideshow: Mountain of Fire So, when the experts and the government warned of an imminent eruption last week, the villagers only half believed Mount Merapi would turn on them. Instead, they see the smoking giant, which rises almost 10,000 feet into the clouds, as their friend and benefactor.
The volcano's activity on Friday had decreased marginally from the previous day, said Subandrio, head of the Merapi section at the Center for Vulcanological Research and Technology Development in Yogyakarta, the ancient royal capital near the mountain.
'Not this time'
For the past two weeks, one vulcanologist explained, the mountain has been growing a massive lava dome, 300 feet high and leaning to the south from the edge of the steaming crater.
If that dome collapses, as a similar one did in 1994 killing 66 people, this could be a far worse disaster.
But try telling that to the villagers as they leave the shelters to return to till their land, harvest their rice and red chiles, and send their children to school.
“Yes," they say, "but the spirits tell us not this time.”
Fred Francis is an NBC News correspondent on assignment in Java, Indonesia. Reuters contributed to this report.