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07 May

The People on the Volcanoes

Photos by Nina Bach Andersen & Sabrina Drevsfeldt Photos by Nina Bach Andersen & Sabrina Drevsfeldt

The island of Heimaey was flooded by lava in the 70's. The entire population of the island was evacuated, and everybody lost everything. Now they have returned to rebuild their society from scratch - because they cannot settle down anywhere else.

Without the streetlights it would be impossible to spot the house across. The cold glare of the light bulbs is reflected with mirror-like accuracy in the black surface of the water. If one of the many cars on the island were to turn on, against all expectations, it would echo loudly between the rocks and awaken the four-legged balls of fur behind the enclosures.

Slowly, pebbles begin to pull free from the raw mountain cliffs. They tumble into the harbour and splash down next to the flung-aside cutters. The earth vibrates. Suddenly the globe opens up towards the east. As if Satan is lying on his back with a blowtorch and is ripping it open. From this fissure the insides of the earth come spraying up.

900 metres away, 18-year old Helga Jónsdóttir wakes up startled. Somebody is knocking on the door to her room. Her father asks her to come down into the living room. Quickly.
She is immediately fully awake. She knows that she is in trouble, because next to her is lying her boyfriend Arnór, who was supposed to have gone home hours ago. They are after all not married yet. But it is so nice to lie in his arms. Suddenly she sees a flare of light out of the corner of her eye. She walks over to the window - and freezes.
"Wake up," she screams.

Arnór moves over to the window and takes her hand. The fire can be seen in their eyes. Together they watch their home in flames.



The Mountain of Fire
In January 1973, a volcano erupted on the island of Heimaey south of Iceland. At 2 AM, a 1,600 metres long fissure opened and lava spewed forth over the eastern side of the island, where several hundred houses lay.

The eruption came without any previous warning, and the river of flowing rocks reached the first houses so quickly that the police was only warned a few minutes after the surface of the earth had opened. The police, fire department and the bravest of the inhabitants of the island went to the opening and was met by 100 metre tall pillars of magma standing so densely together, they looked like a wall of fire. A wall that would turn out to disintegrate their community.

The islands of Vestmanna, which is the name for Heimaey and the surrounding rocky islands, is a hotspot for volcano activity. Only ten years earlier the new island of Surtsey had risen from the depths of the ocean - just a few kilometres from the coast of Heimaey.
Nonetheless, over 5,000 people made their homes on Heimaey in 1973. Many had never seen the mainland, and most had grown up on the island. This was their home, their island, their people.

And it was those people who had to be evacuated from the volcano, later known as Eldfell. In English, The Mountain of Fire.

A Silent March
The few police cars on the island systematically drove around in the small streets with sirens buzzing to awaken the families of the town. Everybody was to move to the harbour, so they could be sailed away. Every fishing boat was in due to a storm the day before. A storm which had been sent from above in more than one sense of the word.

The streets were quickly flooded by families, who left their homes unlocked and lights still turned on. A few ladies had handbags and blankets in their arms, but most brought only themselves.
"We didn't take photo albums, clothes or jewellery. We didn't lock or turn off the power. Everybody believed we would be home again in a few hours, at the most a few days. Nobody could imagine being away from the island longer than that," says Helga Jónsdóttir, who was a teenager when the eruption happened.

She remembers an island, a home, which was overrun by mother Earth, but where people did not let fear take hold. People followed each other silently and determinedly through the streets, almost as if on their way to a funeral. Nobody said a word. They just walked.

The islanders marched to the tune of steady paces, exploding lava and crackling house walls, as if they had tried it a thousand times before. They marched through a war zone, where burning rocks made sounds like cannon fire, and where the coolness of the night air was replaced by a heavy heat.

"It smelled like nothing I have ever smelled before. It was a smell that came from deep inside the core of the earth. Like something ancient and trapped that just wanted out," says Helga Jónsdóttir.

When most of the inhabitants of the island reached the harbour, it was almost half past two. People gathered around the 60 to 70 boats, which lay swaying in the wind with their engines on.
Few anticipated that their homes would be gone when they returned. Even fewer imagined that they would not see their island in years. Nobody imagined that there would be many who would never return home again.



The Cutter
Helga has bare feet in her shoes. She steps off the pier and down onto the wet steel in the bottom of the cutter. Her knuckles are white from clenching Arnór's hand. A feeling has filled her since they left the house. A feeling as if were she to let go now, she would not see him again for a long time.

Normally, her father is not a man whose orders you refuse to follow, but this particular night Helga does not care. Back in the house she insisted on going with Arnór away from the island. Their hands are like welded together.
On the pier, the families come flooding in. Cars are abandoned one by one. All of them with the keys in the ignition. Steadily, people move aboard the fishing vessels. When one boat is full, it sails off.

Helga and Arnór can feel the shoulders of the other passengers touch theirs. The smell of fish is sharp, and under their soles are thick cakes of bird droppings. The moorings are let go and the rhythmic sound of the engine mixes with the roar of the volcano. They stand by the railing. The sea is dark and angry.

Suddenly, Helga holds her breath. She pulls on Arnór's sleeve, and without a word she points towards the depth of the sea. Glowing hot lava is streaming forward beneath the boat. Like a wildfire on the bottom of the sea. Now he is also holding his breath. Will the boat make it out? Or will it burn under their feet? The seconds feel like hours as they glide through the harbour passageways. As the cutter passes the final pier, Helga and Arnór breathe again.

Above their homes, a pillar of grey and black smoke has risen.

The voyage on that January night in 1973 was five hours in a storm, through the cold and the darkness in overfilled fishing boats. During the night it was decided that while the eruption was happening, the inhabitants could not be allowed to return to the island. Half past seven in the morning the first boat arrived in the Icelandic harbour town of Thorlakshavn.

Here, civil defence had arranged busses to the capital of Reykjavik. Those who did not have friends or family in the city were quartered in schools or sports halls.

During the bus ride, a radio voice often announced that now this street was gone, or now that house had been flooded. With frozen faces, and nothing but the clothes they were wearing, the islanders awaited their fate.

The population of the island was over one night torn apart and placed various places in a country, which to many was overwhelming and unknown. Most lost contact with family and friends.
In the weeks after the eruption, the inhabitants tried to pick up the pieces of the community they were not allowed to return to. The radio channel Ayol Pistol was launched, where children could send greetings to their disappeared school mates, and a post office only for mail to Vestmanna islanders was established.

The people of Heimaey felt that they were a long way from home.

"I felt like a refugee. Even though it said Iceland on my passport, I didn't feel Icelandic. I am from the Vestmanna Islands," Helga Jónsdóttir tells us.

On Heimaey, the streams of lava flowed closer to the town and harbour every minute. Nobody knew for how long it would go on, and if the island which they had left would ever be the same again. Almost 300 people stayed on the island to fight for its survival.

Searing Snow
The fire fighter Raggi Bald is standing on the docks of Heimaey. He is staring at the ocean, which has just ferried his wife and children to the mainland. Behind him blows an orgy of colossal clouds of ash and boiling rocks. He has remained behind to fight for the island.

The wind shrieks from the east. That means that all the flaming rocks are thrown through the windows of the houses on the island, setting fire to everything around them and meticulously eradicating the eastern part of the island.

Now is the time. With the other fire fighters, Raggi drives the heavy, red cars forward and pumps them full of water. In full uniform they race out to the buildings which are engulfed by flames. Several tons of water spray out of the hoses. Nothing helps. The houses are boiling. They fall apart like potatoes boiled for too long.

Meanwhile, the ash falls like snow everywhere on the island. Black snow, which sears instead of freezes. Black snow, which is invisible against the dark skies. A struggle continues throughout the next weeks, which seems endless.

The volcano continues to put up a fight. Raggi and the other men give up trying to save the houses on the eastern side. Now they are concerned with people's property and the rest of the town. They attach steel plates to the windows of the buildings to avoid flaming rocks through the glass, and they carry tons of furniture down to the harbour so it can be ferried to the mainland.

Raggi's swollen hands get torn on the fabric of the mattress, as he carries it from his brother's house on the road of Landagata. The fire has reached the backyard, and he can sense the walls are threateningly shaking in the embers of the thick ash, which is now several metres tall.

"Hurry! I think we need to leave now!" Raggi signals the other men in the house. Their battered bodies complain as they rush out of the main door, which they dug free only moments ago. They run and take cover behind the walls of the neighbour, but in that moment Raggi turns his gaze towards his brother's house.

The dull smell of sulphur and cracking cement assaults his head, and his eyes tear up. His brother's house is reflected in his blank pupils, and it is then that the lower floor gives up. The villa crashes down with a blunt sound, like a house of cards.

Raggi is exhausted. He has been working 18 hours a day since the volcano erupted. But he has to continue working.

The Struggle of the Patriots
The eruption of the volcano continued for several months, and 400 houses were buried in lava. In February the power went, and the lava expanded the island with all in all 2.2 square kilometres. Meanwhile, about a 100 of the men on the island worked to limit the damages. They lived in the houses on the western side of the island. High up so that the lava could not reach them.

Towards the end of February, the gas came. And the smell. The thundering magma released sulphur and ammonia and the heavy gas settled in basements, at ground level and in the valleys of the island. Several places were now forbidden territory. The gas could kill a grown man merely with the first breath. But the animals on the island did not stand a chance. The streets were filled with dead cats, mice and kicking birds, whose wings had been burned.

The government tried to limit the number of men who stayed on the island or went back, while the eruption was still happening. But that was impossible.

"It was a force they could not control. New men arrived every day. We were on a mission, because our society was not to be destroyed by this," says the fire fighter Raggi Bald.

In March, the lava reached the island's vital harbour, and the mission now required ingenuity. The men on the island devised spraying cold sea water onto the lava to make it change direction. It had never been done before.

It worked. The men did not ask for any permission from the mainland for any of the "missions" they carried out. And the government did not do much to control them either. They lived in lawlessness. They became like warriors. Grew full beards, which they refused to shave until the eruption was over. Found their dinner in the many freezers of the town and joked about "what was on the menu tonight". Gathered around the lava and played guitar, while singing campfire songs.

"We did what we could to get through. We felt like patriots. On the Vestmanna Islands we had always managed on our own. We did as well this time," Raggi Bald says.

The eruption lasted for nearly half a year, before the earth closed up again in the month of July. But only two thirds of the island's inhabitants would return, as it turned out.

With Lava Under Their Feet
Like snowflakes sprinkled over an extinguished fire, Raggi now spots several people on the island. Bent over and with travel bags over their shoulders they slowly trot through the ash, which stands several metres tall. They raise their legs at every step and some hold each other's hands on the way towards their homes.

It is late September. Raggi smiles and waves with both hands as he recognises a couple. Lately, every day a new light has been turned on in one of the homes, and for every light, Raggi's concern for the island diminishes. None of those who stayed during the eruption knew if the island would ever return to life again.

On Heimaey, the returning citizens can feel the fighting spirit. Every day, Raggi and the other islanders dig from dusk till dawn. The ash lies like a five to six metre thick blanket over the town, and in the end the islanders shovel away 2.5 million cubic metres of black pebbles.

But their fighting spirit does more than that. If you must live with a volcano, you also have to get something useful from it. A local engineer gets an idea. An idea about building a district heating station around the volcano and in this manner acquire heat to the island. With that in mind, Raggi raises his chin and stands up straight.

Thick Skin
On the Vestmanna Islands, the fisherman Guðlaugur Fridþórsson is the ultimate ideal of how indomitable these people are. In March 1984 he swam five kilometres in winter-chilled water, when he and eight other crew members capsized east of Heimaey.

The other crew members froze to death in the cold waters, but Guðlaugur swam for six hours until he reached the coast, after which he walked several kilometres in drenched clothes and bare toes to reach his home.

The doctors said it was a miracle. The islanders praised him.

Every year since 1986, the students of Heimaey's Sailor School have swum the same distance to remember the Vestmanna fisherman, albeit in a swimming pool. Later it was discovered that he had unusually thick skin, almost like that of a seal. It was the reason why he did not freeze to death.

Everybody knows the story of the thick-skinned fisherman. And it was with pride that they relate it to strangers. A layer of unusually thick skin seems to be part of the self-image of the islanders.

"Vestmanna islanders do not complain. We are raised with strict discipline, and we are taught that nothing is given freely. In our community we stick together and do things our way, because we know from experience that we can only count on ourselves," says Helga Jónsdóttir.

The people of the island are brought up on sagas and historical tales of the trials and characteristics of the Vestmanna islanders. The urban legend of the crooked legs of the sheep lives on in 2009. The inhabitants still claim that the steep terrain gives the sheep crooked legs.

And even the little children know the details of the Turkish invasion of Heimaey in 1627, where more than 400 people were taken captive and used as slaves in Muslim countries. Many of them found their way back to the Vestmanna islands.

"I think it is in our genes to fight for our existence, our life here on the island. We have so many examples of people, who have done amazing things and survived incredible situations," says Raggi Bald.

Despite its diminutive population, the island had the first school on Iceland, the first telephone, the first air route and the first extensive system for a coast guard. The people of the island have always striven to do well. And do it alone.

"We should be an independent country. In the hearts of most, we already are," says Helga Jónsdóttir.

A Rusty Society
36 years after the earth spewed its insides out onto the homes of more than 5,000 people, the hardy people and their island are getting back on their feet again. In the streets, houses with corrugated iron are lined close to each other to shield against the wind. Some appear bright and newly painted, while others still hang their heads.

They have scratched windows, spots of rust along the facades and weed growing some way up their cement ankles. Heimaey was not dug free of the ash until 1982.

"It takes time for a society to get back up again. After the eruption, the most important thing was just that things worked. It did not matter whether it looked good, and you can still see that effect on the town today. It is only in the latter years that people have had the resources to do something about their home," says Helga Jónsdóttir.

In the years after 1973, the Vestmanna islanders worked themselves to the bone to get back to their life on the island, and they could rarely spare money or time for exterior matters.
That is also how it was for Helga and her husband until about half a year ago. That is when the complete renovation of their house was finished. The house which is her childhood home and which they left on the night of the eruption of the volcano. Helga and Arnór were married a few months after their arrival to Reykjavik in 1973.

"We felt that our love grew stronger, and we thought that we had to stay together forever," Helga remembers.

When the couple two years after the eruption could afford to buy a house on Heimaey, they moved back. Since 1996, Helga has owned one of the island's two bakeries. Here, Arnór works as a baker.

Today the population of Heimaey is 4,200. Before the eruption it was 5,300. The people of Heimaey constitute two percent of the entire Icelandic population, and yet nonetheless the society which was toppled almost 40 years ago provide ten percent of Iceland's gross national product today.



Fish is the source of income, and the harbour is the central nerve of the island. It is surrounded by bare cliffs, which during the summer are filled with two million puffins.

The island is made up of mountains, and the streets slope up and down like a rollercoaster. To walk two kilometres feel like ten. On the eastern side there is only barren, fossilised lava in endless amounts. And it is impossible to cultivate any part of the soil.

There are no sheltering trees to take the edge off the tempestuous winds during winter. That is why everybody drives around big American four-wheel drives on an island only 12 square kilometres big.

It is so raw that the Danish King Christian the 6th was supposed to have said in 1738: "Why do we not simply remove all those poor people from these godforsaken islands?" To the experts, the islands are not just godforsaken, they carry risks. Geologists point out that the Vestmanna Islands are one of the places with the world's highest risk of volcano eruptions.

"I would not be surprised if another eruption took place soon. The Vestmanna Islands are situated in a place where the plates of the earth are constantly shifting," says geologist and volcano expert Henning Andersen.

The Icelandic geologist Trausti Gudmundsson agrees with him. In Iceland, he is known for having said that the last place in the world where he would settle is Heimaey.

A Positive Past
Despite warnings about volcanoes and barren rocks, the Vestmanna islanders do not doubt that the tiny spot in the North Atlantic Sea is the only place they want to live. The only place they can live.

"I have always lived on Heimaey, and I can't even imagine living somewhere else. It may be that another volcano erupts, but I am not afraid of that. I have the sea, the mountains, the birds. Nobody ever locks their doors, and there is no crime. This island is freedom," says Raggi Bald.

The islanders believe that there is something about the Vestmanna Islands, which is not found anywhere else:

"You cannot forget this place. There is some kind of force here. If it hits you, it hits you hard - and then it is the only place you will want to live," says 46-year old Pall Scheving, who has also grown up on the island.

This force comes from the history. From the trials. From the struggles. They have brought people together.

Every year in July, the inhabitants celebrate the end of the volcano eruption with a big communal festival, and with just a few years of interval the islanders stand on the docks and recite the names of the people, who were captured during the Turkish invasion in 1627.

Local heroes have their own holidays, and the island is choked full of monuments.

"I feel something for people who lived more than 300 years ago. The past binds us to each other and this island," says Helga Jónsdóttir.

To the people of Heimaey, the past is positive. They look back on it with a sense of being part of a strong people.

"If we had not managed to get the island back on its feet after the eruption, it would have been a crisis of identity to us, and I don't think so many would have returned if the volcano had claimed lives. But in our eyes we defeated nature, and that gives us a sense of security sufficient to make us live here," says Pall Scheving.



The large fishing boats are docked and lie lazing about like on a Sunday in the barely swaying waters. The calm is disrupted by sprinting girls and boys, who are racing each other to the ships. The bikes are tossed in random places on the pier. They have broad tires and are of the kind you would call mountain bikes.

The children jump aboard the partly rusty vessels, fidgeting with ropes and jumping on the railings. The jackets come off and wetsuits appear. One by one they jump into the summer-cold sea, which never gets warmer than a couple of degrees. They dive and splash and ignore the blue colour on each other's lips.

The next generation of Vestmanna islanders are on its way.


Heimaey is a part of the Icelandic island group of the Vestmanna Islands. Heimaey is the largest and the only populated spot of the island group.
Today, about 4,200 people live on Heimaey, and with its extensive fishing industry the island makes up about ten percent of the total of Iceland's GNP.

Last modified on Wednesday, 23 May 2012 10:08
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