In the shadow of a monster


Villagers flee an eruption from the Mount Sinabung volcano, on the island of Sumatra, February 1, 2014. (AFP Photo / Chaideer Mahyuddin)

Villagers flee an eruption from the Mount Sinabung volcano, on the island of Sumatra, February 1, 2014. (AFP Photo / Chaideer Mahyuddin)

Mount Sinabung, a volcano on the western Indonesian island of Sumatra, exploded spectacularly at the start of February, spewing out huge clouds of red-hot ash and rocks and leaving at least 16 people dead. AFP photo stringers, Sutanta Aditya and Chaideer Mahyuddin, found themselves running for their lives alongside villagers as volcanic ash rained down around them.

For Aditya it became a very personal story -- two of his friends died in the eruption. He had been with them just the night before and they had been discussing their plan to go and film a documentary about the volcano. After the eruption, he raced to the area where he thought they had been taking pictures and desperately called one of their mobile phones but got no response. He was shivering and in a state of panic but kept working.

As for Chaideer, when the volcano spewed a huge cloud of above him, he thought for a moment he would never see his wife and children again.

Jakarta photojournalist Adek Berry headed up to the volcano the day after the eruption. Here is her account:

A victim of the eruption. February 1, 2014. (AFP Photo / Sutanta Aditya)

A victim of the eruption. February 1, 2014. (AFP Photo / Sutanta Aditya)

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By Adek Berry


It was not the first time I'd covered volcanic eruptions in Indonesia, one of the world's most seismically active countries -- in 2006 and 2010 I reported on Java island's Mount Merapi, which left hundreds dead and wrought vast devastation.

There was a sense of nervousness and anticipation among the journalists as we waited one morning under the shadow of the volcano, which has been erupting intermittently since September, on the edge of the "danger zone".

This is a five-kilometre (three-mile) area around the volcano's crater from where people have been evacuated and which was supposed to be off-limits. Those killed in the eruption had ventured into the zone, most of them seeking to take pictures. Journalists were milling around alongside rescue officials, soldiers and villagers, waiting impatiently for something to happen.

Photographers Sutanta Aditya (red jacket) and Chaideer Mahyuddin (white T-shirt) run with villagers to escape an eruption. February 1, 2014. (Antara Foto / Irwansyah Putra)

Photographers Sutanta Aditya (red jacket) and Chaideer Mahyuddin (white T-shirt) run with villagers to escape an eruption. February 1, 2014. (Antara Foto / Irwansyah Putra)

A search and rescue team was about to head into the zone to bring out the bodies of the victims and were willing to take journalists with them -- but only had space for six.

There was a moment of hesitation among some reporters as we absorbed the fact the mission would involve getting very close to an extremely active volcano that just days earlier had killed several people. But my hesitation lasted only a moment and I jumped forward and put my name first on the list.

However an advance team returned quickly and reported they had found nothing, meaning the mission to evacuate bodies was cancelled. It was a lucky decision. Just half an hour later, Sinabung erupted violently, spewing hot ash up to 2,500 metres (8,200 feet) into the air.

An erupting Mount Sinabung, February 1, 2014 (AFP Photo / Sutanta Aditya)

An erupting Mount Sinabung, February 1, 2014 (AFP Photo / Sutanta Aditya)

I had been transmitting some pictures to our regional photo desk in Hong Kong from my laptop at the time but we had positioned our car so it would be easy for me to take photos of the volcano if it erupted.

I quickly stopped transmitting when I saw a policeman rush up and start taking photos with his mobile phone. I felt a rush of excitement as I shot pictures and video but there was also a growing sense of danger as we approached the volcano.

The scene was spectacular, especially seen from so close -- Sinabung emitted a thick, black mushroom cloud that moved slowly across the sky. Officials rushed towards our car, some waving their hands desperately as they urged us to leave.

I felt the adrenaline surging through my body, my heart was pumping hard.

Lava flows down the side of the volcano, February 6, 2014. (AFP Photo / Adek Bery)

Lava flows down the side of the volcano, February 6, 2014. (AFP Photo / Adek Bery)

While the experience was scary for me at times, it was nothing compared to what Chaideer and Aditya experienced. The smoke thinned out as the volcano stopped rumbling and we drove to a safer distance further away, where we encountered villagers watching the latest eruption.

Mount Sinabung erupts again, February 3, 2014. (AFP Photo / Adek Berry)

Mount Sinabung erupts again, February 3, 2014. (AFP Photo / Adek Berry)

Unlike us journalists who swoop in when the eruptions pick up, people in the area have been living with almost daily blasts of ash and rocks since the volcano rumbled back to life around five months ago after lying dormant for several years.

Around 30,000 people have been forced out of their homes and into evacuation centres, leaving behind all their belongings, their crops destroyed by volcanic ash and their villages turned into ghost towns.

Whirlwinds in the ash-covered countryside near Mount Sinabung. January 26, 2014. (AFP Photo / Sutanta Aditya)

Whirlwinds in the ash-covered countryside near Mount Sinabung. January 26, 2014. (AFP Photo / Sutanta Aditya)


Adek Berry is photojournalist based in Jakarta who works for AFP.