Every day, Endang and his wife, Elas, trek to their two-room, wood-and-bamboo home near this village in western Java. They spend the day cleaning the grit off the house and trying to grow what they can in their ash-covered fields. At dusk, they trudge back along the gray paths to a refugee camp on higher ground away from the slopes of nearby Mount Galunggung.
Their task is an essentially hopeless one, for their land has been laid waste by the accumulation of tons of debris from the volcano. And their home -- already uninhabitable -- is among the thousands likely to be swept away when the monsoon rains finally come and wash the ash down the slopes in a devastating mass.
Yet they and nearly 30,000 other refugees refuse to abandon their homes and land, once among the most fertile on Java. Moreover, they have become a source of worry for local government officials and volcanologists who want residents to stay away from areas they evacuated when Mount Galunggung began erupting in April.
"It's very dangerous," said Iranto, assistant geologist at a volcano observation post in the nearby village of Cikasasah. "The government is trying to prevent them from coming back. But some people now think an eruption is nothing. They are used to it."
Since April, Mount Galunggung has erupted more than 350 times; 36 of the eruptions have been considered major. According to volcanologists, falling rocks have killed three people and destroyed more than 1,000 homes. About 70 million cubic meters of volcanic ash have been deposited over a wide area, turning valuable rice fields and fish ponds into a gritty wasteland. About 420,000 people face food shortages as a result.
In addition, two jetliners nearly crashed after their engines clogged while flying through plumes of ash. Air traffic subsequently was diverted around Java.
But the experts fear that the worst is yet to come. For them, Mount Galunggung is a disaster waiting to happen. Far more davastating and potentially deadly, they say, will be the almost inevitable floods of cold lahar -- volcanic ash mixed with rain -- that threaten to wipe out at least 210 villages still inhabited by 300,000 people.
Moving with great speed and weight -- scientists estimate it can flow at 70 miles per hour down a 60-degree slope -- the lahar can carry along boulders the size of houses and obliterate everything in its path.
Among the places threatened is the town of Tasikmalaya about 12 miles southeast of Galunggung.
According to Adjat Audradjat, director of the Volcanological Survey Institute in Bandung, the greatest danger from lahar floods is in an area extending six miles from the volcano's summit.
But a much larger area could suffer severe flooding when the lahar clogs up rivers and streams, he said. In all, it is estimated that 1 million people might be affected.
Galunggung, the only dangerous volcano of 120 active ones in Indonesia, "is similar in many respects to Mount St. Helens," said Jack Lockwood, a visiting American volcanologist advising the Indonesians. Although the Washington state volcano was more powerful, "the number of people affected by these eruptions here is far greater than at Mount St. Helens," he said.
Given the high potential for catastrophe, some volcanologists and relief workers believe the government is not doing enough to move people out of the danger zone. They complain that there is no effective evacuation plan and that measures to cope with the predicted lahar flow are inadequate.
"They're building pitifully small dams against the lahar," said one foreign expert. "And for the most part they're building them in the wrong places. If we get heavy rains, the dams will be futile." Relief officials note that the Indonesian authorities are depending on a warning system of beating on wooden drums.
Harun Rashid, a director of the National Disaster Relief Organization in Jakarta, disagrees that there has been inadequate preparation to evacuate thousands of people from the areas threatened by lahar.
"They know how to save themselves," he said. "They know when to go, where to go and how to go." He said the government has spent $15 million in its relief effort and given villagers 2.5 million sandbags.
For many inhabitants of Java, the home island of 63 percent of Indonesia's 150 million people, Mount Galunggung's long series of eruptions after lying dormant for 64 years carries far wider implications than the physical damage to the landscape. It thus helps to explain an important factor in Indonesian life.
Although predominantly Moslem, the population of Java is heavily imbued with mystical beliefs, and many see political portents in the disaster. Government opponents especially are taking heart in the belief of some Javanese mystics that the eruptions signify that President Suharto is losing the wahyu, a divine source of power comparable to the "mandate of haven" of Chinese tradition. According to legend, natural disasters are a major indicator that a leader's wahyu is fading.
"People in West Java believe the eruption of Galunggung is a warning and a sign of the coming and of Suharto's power," said one dissident in Jakarta. He and other Indonesian political observers recalled that when Mount Agung erupted on the island of Bali in 1963, Balinese mystics interpreted it as foretelling the political demise of the late president Sukarno. He was displaced following an unsuccessful Communist coup attempt in 1965.
The significance of the beliefs -- as far-fetched as they may seem -- has not been lost on Suharto, who is known to have mystical leanings himself and to keep soothsayers called dukuns in his entourage. While Suharto's dukuns may interpret the eruptions differently, one fear reportedly is that if enough people believe he is losing his grip, it could lead to unrest and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
While rival soothsayers play the politics of the volcano, farmers like Endang cling to fading hopes that they can keep their homes and land. The alternative is to join the government's "transmigration" program to resettle residents of overpopulated Java on the sparsely inhabited outer islands of the far-flung archipelago.
According to Harun Rashid, more than 14,000 evacuees from the volcano's danger zone have agreed to transmigrate, and thousands of others will eventually have to.
"Even from the danger zone, most of them refuse to be transmigrated," he said. "Now we have to apply a kind of law enforcement. We have to force them to choose transmigration."
Accordingly, he said, government food aid to evacuees still in the area's refugee camps was being cut off this month, and the inhabitants were being told to leave the barracks built for them if they refused to transmigrate.
So far, the measures have failed to sway Endang.Squatting on the bamboo floor under the damaged clay tile roof of his house, he said he still hoped to eke out a living from his small plot.
"As long as I'm strong enough to cultivate the fields, I prefer to stay here," the 50-year-old farmer said. "But because the soil is getting worse and worse, I may decide to transmigrate."
As he spoke, Galunggung rumbled and belched a cloud of gray smoke into the air, and children went out of the house to look. But it was another minor eruption, and it did not hold their attention long.
In the village of Cibaju, across a murky stream banked by drifts of ash, houses clustered around a mosque stand damaged and deserted, and a once-teeming fish pond is a shallow expanse of ash.
Nearby, a 35-year-old farmer wearing a dusty cap backward on his head paused while clearing ash from around his house.
"As long as the land can be planted, we will try to grow something," he said. "We're just waiting for our luck to change." Apparently it still hasn't. "I was growing onions," he added, "but yesterday the ash came again and destroyed them."