The 2,914-metre (9,616-foot) volcano near Yogyakarta in Central Java unleashed a series of violent eruptions on Tuesday, hurling molten rock, deadly heat clouds and fine ash across the neighbouring countryside.
Among the dead was an old man appointed by the sultan of Yogyakarta to act as the volcano’s spiritual guardian, but the danger was not enough to keep local residents away for long.
At Umbulharjo village about 10 kilometres (six miles) from the volcano’s smoking crater, police and volunteers were turning people away at a checkpoint on the road into the danger area.
Locals arrived on motorbikes with bundles of fresh grass for their livestock, saying they wanted to check their homes.
“People are going home with sacks of grass to feed their cows. Some say they need to see the condition of their houses while others want to pick up belongings as they don’t have enough clothes at the shelters,” said Wawan Fauzi, a villager manning the checkpoint.
Officials said the mountain, Indonesia’s most active volcano, was quiet on Wednesday but warned the almost 30,000 people who have fled to temporary shelters not to go back for the time being.
Up to 7,000 more had ignored orders to evacuate the 10-kilometer exclusion zone.
“Many of them treated this matter lightly and didn’t think the volcano would erupt, and even if it did they thought their homes wouldn’t be affected,” Disaster Management Agency spokesman Priyadi Kardono told AFP.
“They’re still in the danger zone but we’re not forcing them to leave their homes. Now that they’ve heard the news about deaths we hope they’ll want to come down.”
Bardi Wiyono, 55, expressed concern for her five cows.
“I want to find grass to feed them and milk them,” she said after arriving at the checkpoint on the back of a motorbike being driven by her son, only to be turned away.
“I’m actually still traumatised about what happened but I have a motorcycle and it will be fast for me to escape,” she said when asked if she was scared of another eruption.
Government volcanologist Surono said it was too early to say whether it was safe for people to return.
“Merapi’s volcanic activity has dropped significantly but the threat is still there,” he said.
The mountain, which in Javanese tradition is sacred, killed two people when it last erupted in June 2006.
Its deadliest eruption occurred in 1930 when more than 1,300 people were killed. Heat clouds from another eruption in 1994 killed more than 60 people.