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Murillo (Colombia) (AFP) – The smoke emanating from the perpetual snow crater reminds them of the latent eruption threat. But most of the peasants at the foot of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Colombia remain anchored to their crops and animals despite the urgent call to evacuate the area.
Luis Cañón, a 50-year-old peasant, says he is “afraid”, although he sees no other way out than to “resign himself”.
“One who is going to throw away things, crops, animals and when he returns there is nothing,” he explained to AFP with a straw hat and a colorful poncho tied around his neck.
The threat has been palpable since the end of March, when the daily average of earthquakes inside the volcano went from 50 to 12,000.
From then on, the authorities increased the eruption risk alert from yellow to orange and ordered the evacuation of the areas surrounding the Ruiz, where some 57,000 people are in danger.
“The peasants have cows, horses, bovines, goats and poultry, and that somehow prevents them from moving and carrying out the preventive evacuation (…) for fear that they will be stolen,” acknowledged the presidential adviser, Luis Fernando Velasco.
But given the refusals of the majority of the locals to comply with the order, the national government adopted “exceptional measures to move about 80,000 animals (…) from the alert areas,” according to a bulletin.
“Fear is Great”
A few scattered houses interrupt the desolate landscape. All around are majestic peaks that rise more than 5,300 meters, from where rivers and streams flow everywhere.
The ghost of the Ruiz eruption in 1985 is still around. Within hours, an entire town was swept away in the ensuing avalanche, and 25,000 people perished under the mud. It was the worst natural disaster in the country’s history.
Luis Londoño still remembers that “very scared” November 13. At night a nearby river “roared” and people ran everywhere “crying and shouting that this was the end of the world.”
A resident of Herveo, a municipality near the volcano, the man fears that the tragedy will repeat itself.
“The fear is great that the snow is going to explode, it is the comment of the whole town,” says the 65-year-old man, who has not yet decided to evacuate.
“I am calm”
Nicknamed the “Sleeping Lion,” Ruiz went through decades of slumber prior to the 1985 avalanche and erupted again ten years ago.
From time to time “some ash” falls, says Cecilia Gallego, a resident of Herveo, a town framed by the peak of the volcano. There, the majority views the evacuation with skepticism.
In the afternoon the mist clouds the landscape and the fumarole is camouflaged behind a thick white.
The danger of the Ruiz is not in its lava, but in the pyroclastic flows, a mixture of incandescent material, such as ash and rocks of various sizes; moving at high speeds.
This fiery cocktail can melt the glacier and push avenues of mud that devastate everything in its path.
“I’m calm, because the day is beautiful and nothing strange is seen,” adds Gallego, with gray hair and a crucifix on his neck.
Few travel the steep trails that surround the volcano. One or another peasant passes by with his mule and his face reddened by the cold of about 3°C. Some soldiers control the passage to the natural tourist park that is closed today.
President Gustavo Petro asked to speed up the evacuation of thousands of people who live in the areas closest to Ruiz.
The Geological Service issues daily bulletins on the activity of the volcano and although the records are fluctuating, the alert is maintained.
“We are concerned that the earthquakes are getting closer to the crater and that, according to volcanologists, is not the best of signs,” counselor Velasco warned.
More than three decades ago, the image of Omaira Sánchez —a 13-year-old girl who, after the avalanche that buried the city of Armero, was left with mud around her neck and her legs trapped in the rubble of her house— went around the world, revealing the severity of what happened.
“That was being born again,” recalls the local who today lives off tourism around the hot springs that emanate from the snow.
And although he knows that “everyone is not going to leave”, he does, he announces before locking the door of his workplace and leaving in his truck.