Wednesday, September 21, 2005


At the end of the school day, I hurried to the Regensi Hospital. In a spacious modern ward, I found Agung sitting up in bed, his head supported by a number of pillows. On chairs on either side of him sat his mother and one of his sisters. Agung still looked pale but he gave me a sunny smile.

"How are you?" I asked Agung.

"Fine, mister," he said. "The doctor says I have to stay a few more days."

"He’s eaten a little food," said his mother, a woman whose thin face and threadbare clothing suggested she had had a hard life.

A muscular looking female nurse left her desk at one end of the room and came over to talk to us. "Agung is doing well," she said. "He’s no longer so dehydrated."

"What’s made Agung ill?" I asked.

"A virus," said the nurse.

"Does the doctor know which virus?"

"No, but Agung’s temperature is down. He should be able to go home in a few days."

Within two days, Agung was striding around the ward and chatting up and charming the nurses. Some of his young friends came to visit him and he showed them round the public parts of the hospital. Within a week of his arrival in hospital, Agung was able to go home.

Paying hospital bills was relatively easy as I had been left some money in the will of a much respected female friend from London. This talented lady had been adopted as a child and she suspected that she might have been related to a world-famous Scottish writer who had links to an aristocrat who had been a top politician.

Mo, my driver, was kept busy. Every morning, after he had delivered me to school, he set off to various kampungs and hospitals. There were numerous children who had to get their medicines. One of the many with TB was Yayat. When Yayat got better, and was able to leave hospital, it was discovered that his mother was dying of cancer and had to go into hospital. Agung’s friend Gadi had an operation to remove his appendix and his scar took a long while to heal. A young lad called Bayou was given a heart operation. Hermanto’s mother was one of several who received treatment for typhoid.

As I settled into the back of my Mitsubishi van, at the end of a tiring school day, Mo reported bad news in a soft and sympathetic tone. Leper Iwan was dead.

As Mo related what he knew of Iwan’s death, my main reaction was a feeling of depression caused by guilt. Mo had made the usual delivery of money to Iwan one month previously and had found the boy to be in reasonable health. But, at some point after that, Iwan had started vomiting up blood. Medicine from the local doctor had not led to any improvement. Iwan did have extra money in a bank account I had opened for him, a bank account to be used in the event of sickness requiring hospital treatment. But Iwan had not visited a hospital, possibly because he knew that hospitals did not welcome lepers. Iwan had tried to phone me, but could not get through. I had recently changed my phone number and had forgotten to give the new number to Iwan. It was many months since I had paid Iwan a visit.

Next evening, I went to see Iwan’s granny. The toothless old woman tried to appear cheerful but she was obviously missing the boy she had been mothering for many years. She told me she was going to move in with relatives. I asked her what had made Iwan so ill. She said the local doctor did not know. There were no indications of TB or dengue fever.

The house in which Iwan had stayed belonged to Min’s family. Min’s mum decided to sell it, in order to help pay for her house in Lamaya. It was difficult to find a buyer for a home that had seen the deaths of a boy from tetanus and a boy who had had leprosy. At least that was the argument of the young woman from whom we had originally bought the place. We had paid her twenty two million rupiahs, equivalent to around 6,000 pounds sterling. This astute lady offered to buy the house back for twenty million rupiahs, a sum now worth around 1,000 pounds sterling. The offer was reluctantly accepted.

Indonesia’s economic crisis continued, which meant that poor people had a struggle to buy enough to eat. When I was visited each late afternoon by my youthful neighbours, Agung, Fajar, Hermanto, Saban and a few others, I began providing them with meals of chicken and rice. I pointed out to Ami, the maid, that her portions of chicken looked incredibly small, but she indicated that to kampung Indonesians these were normal sized helpings. The little street singers, Ali and Dikin rounded off the evenings with musical entertainment. I loved these evenings because of the company of the bright eyed children and the happy singing. It was like being at an enthusiastic and well-mannered scout jamboree. On occasions we would watch a video, which was usually Mr. Bean or a Disney cartoon. As the days went by, the number of children arriving for a free supper grew in number. At its peak there were almost thirty children gathered in my lounge, and they were always helpful and polite. Without being asked, they would help with the serving of the food and the tidying away of the empty plates. These people were used to domestic chores. After some months, Ami announced that she thought she might be expecting a child and could no longer cope with all the work of cooking for the multitude. Sadly the free suppers came to an end and the number of visitors returned to previous levels.

Ami showed no obvious signs of being pregnant and by the time I left Indonesia she had still not had the child that she was obviously keen to have.

I had dinner with Carmen and Fergus at the five star Meridien hotel, opposite Jakarta’s World Trade Centre. I had always regarded the Meridien, owned by a member of the Suharto clan, as a favourite oasis of luxury to which I could escape when I had had enough of equatorial heat and dust and squalor. The interior of this modern and relatively small hotel suggested luxury liners and comfortable colonial architecture. The food in the main restaurant, prepared by a French chef among others, had once been among the best in Jakarta. By 1998 standards seemed to have slipped. Perhaps it was the economic crisis or perhaps it was a change of management and staff. The hotel seemed less French and more British.

Carmen, Fergus and I sat in the Brasserie. Fergus, who liked to watch his figure, ordered a simple nasi goreng rice dish from the a la carte menu. He was drinking water. Carmen and I ordered wine and went for the international buffet which included regional French and local Indonesian food. The soup was not hot, although it tasted nicely of onions. The coq au vin was tepid.

"How’s the Nasi Goreng?" Carmen asked Fergus.

"There’s a fair amount of chicken and prawns. But it’s not as good or as cheap as they do in Blok M," said Fergus, adjusting his dark glasses.

"It’s a breakfast dish," said Carmen. "You can’t expect too much."

"How’s the coq?" Fergus asked Carmen.

Carmen gave one of her loud titters. "The chef’s coq has a good flavour," she said.

"Mine’s not very hot," I complained, being slow on the uptake.

"Kent, you’re suffering from Jakarta stress," said Carmen, perhaps detecting a tendency on my part to be over-critical of the food. "We all are."

"It’s the ninjas," I explained.

"Ninjas?" queried Fergus, who preferred the sports pages to the news pages of the press.

"Mysterious deaths in East Java," said Carmen. "Have you seen the Jakarta Post stories about the murders of over a hundred people? Murders by black-clad figures dressed as Ninjas. Villagers have set up vigilante patrols to protect themselves."

"I remember reading about that," said Fergus. "Someone was killing village witch doctors. It’s what happens when there’s political turbulence. You get this kind of paranoia. Some villager imagines seeing Ninjas. Vigilante patrols are set up and they end up killing innocent people."

"It isn’t just dukuns getting killed," I said, probably sounding stressed. "It’s Moslem preachers and mentally backward youths."

"Mental patients have been dumped in villages," said Carmen, her voice rising with excitement.

"Along come the village vigilantes. They think the mentally backward youths are Ninjas. The youths get their heads chopped off. The heads are paraded on poles. It’s a psychological warfare operation."

"Run by Ninjas?" said Fergus, smiling and sounding sceptical.

"The Kopassus regiment, the army’s special forces, have used Ninjas in East Timor," said Carmen. "They dress their people up in black costumes. They try to terrify people in order to control them."

"Some of the Ninjas are said to have arrived in villages in trucks," I pointed out.

"Bodies have been chopped up," said Carmen, "and bits of bodies have been chucked into mosques. Sounds like a black-op."

"It’s like when Suharto came to power in 1965," I said. "There have been ‘death lists’ going around."

"Why would anyone threaten Moslem preachers?" asked Fergus.

"To undermine democracy," said Carmen. "There may be elections next year. The murdered Moslem preachers are members of the pro-democracy NU organisation. That’s the largest Moslem group in the country."

"The NU is Wahid’s group?" asked Fergus.

"Correct ," said Carmen. "Is this country going to continue to be run by the army? Or is there going to be democracy? If there’s lots of instability, then the army remains in control."

"The army is creating the terror?" asked Fergus.

"The top generals were trained in America," said Carmen. "These Pentagon people are experts in psychological warfare. They know all about creating fake terror."

In early November 1998 there was a four-day special session of the Indonesian parliament. It met to consider a future election and possible reforms such as a withdrawal of the military from politics.

The military, claiming that parliament needed to be guarded, recruited a ‘Moslem’ militia. Many people thought that these civilian guards, called Pam Swakarsa, were simply lowbrow thugs and knaves whose real job was to intimidate students and other reformers and protect the old order. Truckloads of these vigilantes, armed with sharp sticks and wearing green headbands, toured key parts of Jakarta. They played Islamic music and threw stones at students. When I spotted a horde of seated Pam Swakarsa, as I drove past parliament, I noted that they looked like sullen cut-throats. Reportedly, these Pam Swakarsa were the origin of Laskar Jihad which later fought in Maluku, Indonesia’s Spice Islands. And some have seen Laskar Jihad as being similar to al Qaeda: knaves and petty criminals at the bottom and the security services at the top.

On November 9th, thousands of students and demonstrators did manage to assemble outside parliament in order to demand that former President Suharto be put on trial and that the army get out of politics.

On November 13th, a large crowd, marching to parliament, were met by marines, police and soldiers from the elite Kostrad regiment. Towards the end of the day, things got violent. While the military used tear gas, the crowd threw rocks. In the area of Atma Jaya University, bullets hit students and street kids. Troops and mobs fought pitched battles. The fighting continued on the 14th November and there was some looting. The violence resulted in the deaths of at least nine demonstrators.

The parliament passed some very moderate reforms, and promised elections for June 1999, but the military remained the power behind the throne. Top positions in government would continue to be held by military figures.

On November the 23rd, when I opened my Jakarta Post, I could see that Indonesia was changing for the worse. In the Ketapang district of Jakarta, not far from the Presidential Palace, ‘Moslems’ had attacked ‘Christians’ and at least six people were dead. Some victims had been publicly mutilated. A newsmagazine later showed photographs of a savage mob hacking a man to death. Eleven churches had been looted and burned. My unease was deep.

Within the next few days I paid a visit to my elderly former-neighbour Mr Samsu; I needed to know what was going on.

"This is about gangsterism and politics," said Samsu, who was seated very comfortably on his sofa. He had a Buddha-like calm.

"Not religion?" I queried.

"One gang," said Samsu, "is Christian. The other is Moslem but it also contains Christians."

"These are gangs operating in the Ketapang district?"

"Yes. The trouble began at a very large Chinese-owned gambling club. There was reportedly a dispute about protection money. The gang that normally protects the club is an Ambonese gang which happens to be almost entirely Christian. Ambon is in Maluku, the Spice Islands. The gang also controls parking and the collection of protection money at shopping malls in north west Jakarta. A rival gang, which happens to be mainly Moslem, allegedly tried to collect protection money from the gambling club’s Chinese-Indonesian owner, but he refused to pay."

"So there was violence. But how is it that the police and military can’t prevent these things?"

"The leader of this mainly Moslem gang is said to have military links and to have helped recruit for those Pam Swakarsa who were guarding parliament. He is also said to be linked to a member of a very powerful family."

"And the Christian gang?"

"Same thing. They are rumoured to have links to a different group in the military and to have links to a different member of that most powerful family."

"News reports made it look as if this was Christians attacking a mosque and then local Moslems attacking the Christians."

"The whole thing may have been staged by a certain group. Local people report that strangers were brought in on trucks."

I woke up early and found myself vomiting blood. I phoned for a taxi to take me to hospital. It was not as bad as on the previous occasion when I had been sick; the floor of the taxi did not get hit. I was admitted to the Regensi Hospital where I stayed for several days. The doctor’s verdict was that it was an unknown virus which had made me ill. He also suggested that I was suffering from stress and that perhaps it was time for me to consider leaving Indonesia.

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