Friday, October 14, 2005


I was making one of my weekend visits to Wisnu at Panti Bambu.

Having parked by the side of the quiet tree-lined road next to the institution, I called in at the office and was greeted with a friendly smile by the girl on duty. This was Milah, petite, pretty and not long out of her teens. She had been sitting reading a newspaper and looked very relaxed in her T-shirt and jeans.

She collected a key from a decrepit filing cabinet and we set off across the sunny, open courtyards. It was lunch time, and some of the shambling, grey-looking residents had been released out of doors to eat their meagre meals of rice, vegetables and soya cake. I noticed that the work of carrying and cleaning-up was being done by trusted inmates rather than by staff.

Wisnu had been transferred to a different building, a structure with very large barred windows. Through these bars I could see Wisnu standing idly among a group of men. Outside this cell, in the open courtyard, stood a handsome, grinning boy, aged about twelve. Unlike Wisnu, this boy looked completely normal, except that he had a metal chain attached to his ankle and he was completely naked.

"Can I take Wisnu to the park at Taman Mini?" I asked Milah, as she released Wisnu from his room. Taman Mini was only a short car journey distant, but I had my doubts that a trip to this famous ‘Beautiful Indonesia in Miniature Park’, would be allowed.

"If you like," she said, without a moment’s hesitation.

Wisnu gave me a shy smile and took my hand. I noted that his legs and arms seemed to have attracted scabies.

"Who’s the naked child with the chain?" I asked.

"Jan," said Milah. "He was found in the street. We’re trying to find his parents."

"Why the chain?"

"He’s a little backward. He might try to run away."

I could have spent some time in a pointless argument about the nakedness and the chain, but I knew that Milah, as a lowly local government official, was not in a position to change procedures; and in any case I wanted to stay in her good books.

"Can I also take Jan to Taman Mini?" I asked.

"If you like," said Milah with a beautiful smile.

"Can a member of staff come with me?"

"That’s not necessary."

"I think someone should come with me."

"No, it’s OK."

Perhaps Milah was the only person on duty and could not leave her post. Panti Bambu was certainly relaxed in the way that it was run. I cannot imagine a British institution allowing a ‘foreigner’ to take two young inmates unaccompanied to a recreation park.

After Milah had found a crumpled T-shirt and some frayed shorts for Jan, my driver drove Wisnu, Jan and I to the 120 hectare Taman Mini Indonesia Indah. Neither child made any attempt to run away.

The park was the brainchild of the president’s wife, Ibu Tien Suharto, and is intended to show off the different styles of architecture found in Indonesia. I remembered that on a previous visit I had seen a Balinese temple, a prahu-shaped building of the type found in Torajaland, and a house with scary woodcarvings from Irian Jaya. On this particular day we concentrated on the food outlets, the Children’s Palace, the carousels and other such amusements. Wisnu was puzzled by the trampolines but Jan had the skills required to bounce up and down. Neither child looked totally relaxed; the smiles were slightly strained, reminding me of the early days of Min, before he was reunited with his family.

"Where do you live?" I asked Jan, as we scoffed ice creams at an almost empty cafe.

"Far," he said.

"What’s your address?"

He shrugged.

"Which town?"

He frowned. Was he trying to deceive me or did he genuinely not know?

"How did you get lost?"

He said nothing. I wondered if he had been ill-treated at home and run away. As he tackled a burger and chips, he grinned a lot, but sometimes the grins were near to tears.

When we returned to Panti Bambu’s office, the young man on duty was sitting, feet up, reading a newspaper. There was no sign of the director. The inmates were all locked up in their gloomy cells. A board on one wall advertised the number of deaths each month.

"Three people died here last month?" I asked.

"Yes," said the young man, with the innocent expression of a schoolboy.

"What happened? Typhoid?"


Wisnu and Jan were returned to their cell.