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Indonesian Journal: It's Funny Until 13 People Die

All day yesterday and into this morning, the TV news here has been airing admiring stories about Mt. Merapi's former spiritual gatekeeper, a much admired but apparently deeply stubborn 83-year-old shaman-volcanologist who went by the name Mbah Marijan.

He died Tuesday when he refused to leave his volcano-side home, despite many repeated efforts by authorities and friends to get him off Merapi. I wrote a little yesterday about the televised scene of rescue workers prying his body from the ashes of his home. Watching on TV as workers manhandled his corpse - images of a sort we never or very rarely see on TV news in the United States - I felt like maybe some moments, including this one, ought to remain private.

What did I or anyone else gain by way of understanding the story of Merapi's eruption with unfettered, unvarnished, televised access to the guy's death chamber? Yeah, it was gross. Yeah, the guy's very dead. And?

I still think the footage was in poor taste but what's really grotesque is the fawning encomiums for Marijan (whose real name, according to the New York Times, was Penewu Suraksohargo) that fail to mention his central and very direct role in the deaths of 13 other people at Merapi the other day.


According to the Indonesian government and press reports, 29 people were killed in this week's eruption. Fourteen of them died in Marijan's house. Marijan reportedly believed he had a supernatural connection with the volcano and that he could stop lava from flowing down the mountain. He opted to stay because he thought it was his "duty" to do so.

This is quaint and kind of anthropologically fun, old-timey, Old Java stuff - until it starts killing people. Especially people who didn't necessarily believe in those hokum powers.

Among those killed in Marijan's house was the editor of a news Web site. Another of the dead was a Red Cross volunteer. According to a report published in the Jakarta Globe, these men and others had visited Marijan in an effort to get him to evacuate. "In the final minutes before Merapi erupted on Tuesday afternoon, 13 people were still in his home trying to convince him to evacuate," the Globe reported. "They were all found dead with him."

Marijan emerges in these vacuous and platitudinous TV puff-pieces as a wizened and gruffly charming Javanese throwback, a reminder of a different and older age that maybe we don't completely want to forget about in our mad rush to Western-style modernization.

That's fine. Every nation likes their crotchety cranks.

But in their haste to label Marijan a national figure and one who died, I guess, for his beliefs, even if that death was completely unnecessary, the television media here is trafficking in the very worst kind of heroic-mythmaking bullshit.

Marijan was free to think whatever he wanted - although I can't help but wonder how much of his thinking about his singular spiritual role at Merapi was shaped by the attention he's gotten, from the local and international media, since replacing his father in 1982 as the main conduit between the humdrum human world above and the capricious spirit world inside the volcano. But I'm not sure he was free to risk the lives of 13 others in a heat-ball death Tuesday afternoon.

Yes, the men who died in Marijan's house made a choice to be there. They could have stayed away. But they were trying to help take him to safety - a noble effort, to be sure - and they would have never been there if Marijan hadn't decided to hole himself up on the mountain as it rumbled and prepared to explode.

According to the Globe, Marijan told a friend last week that he wasn't going anywhere.

"He said he couldn't [leave] because he had a responsibility," that friend told the Globe. "And that because 'my time to die in this place has almost come, I can't leave.'"

Maybe Marijan's time was up but I'm guessing the younger men who died trying to rescue him weren't thinking their clocks were ready to run out. Marijan got to be 83. The Red Cross volunteer was a year younger than me. Maybe he saw it differently but I'm not ready to die. And especially not for such an ultimately ridiculous and inexcusably selfish old man.


Brett McNeil is a former Chicago Tribune reporter, Chicago Journal editor, and Fulbright English teacher living in Indonesia. He blogs at The Year of Living Volcanically and is also the Beachwood's new Southeast Asia correspondent.


* Indonesian Journal: Buying Flowers, Burning the Koran
* Indonesian Journal: The Control State
* Indonesian Journal: The Swarm And The Sick House


Comments welcome.


Posted on October 28, 2010

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