Violence and extremism are no more a recent phenomenon in Indonesia than in countries like the UK and the USA. Both Indonesia and the USA fought wars of national liberation against colonial powers. Both have constitutions and a sense of nationhood, grounded in such violent struggles. Many countries have their own uniquely violent histories and their own particular forms of extremism. Attempting to make some historical sense of violence, extremism and associated acts of war and terror, requires some consideration of their context. This is often a useful exercise because it helps to resolve a sense of perspective and scale.
The Bali Bombing was an horrific event that touched me personally, yet for me it’s difficult to distinguish between the madness of the suicide bomber and the madness that suffuses the actions of a nation state that, while understanding the imprecision of its technology, still persists with actions that euphemistically result in collateral damage, the death of innocents and destruction of their homes and infrastructure. When I see images of white phosphorous raining down as people scatter in terror, I’m reminded that we live in a world where love for our fellow humans is held in scant regard by many.
Writing about the Bali Bombing of 12 October 2002 is a theme that recurs for me, but I’ve published only a small part of what I could say on this tragic event. Some of my work is far too graphic for accessible online publication, such material best lends itself to the print medium not the openness of the Internet. More is yet to be written but I’ve waited for a greater maturity of insight, which I hope might come, before writing further on this subject. Part of the process has been a re-visiting of the places where I lived and worked before and during those tragic days.
The Journey Back
Australians often regard Indonesia as a dangerous and unstable place where violence is common and where, since it’s the world’s largest Islamic country, terroristic groups abound. Still others have a sense that Indonesia is a threat to our national security, such people are fundamentally wrong. Despite events like Moslem Christian conflict in Maluku leading to the massacre of Christians by the Javanese Laskar Jihad; the beheading of Madurese Muslim transmigrants in West Kalimantan; the destruction of churches; and, the bombing of Borobudur in 1985, tolerance has deep foundations in Indonesia. My journey was coloured by countless reminders of this.
On my last visit to Bali Saturday 12 October, the day before my planned departure for Australia, was a relaxing day spent with an old friend exploring some of the eastern coastline. Driving back to Ubud we fell into a discussion about capital punishment. Nita and I never avoid the controversial. If we disagreed, we agreed to disagree, this is the nature of our discourses. The one thing we offer one another is a thorough hearing, although perhaps sometimes I interrupt too much. On this day we simply agreed to disagree, having no sense that within a very short while we’d be overtaken by an act of mass murder and find ourselves working in the macabre setting of the morgue at Sanglah Hospital, Denpasar. Here my role was the inexact task of identification of the dead using ante mortem materials and hers was one of interpreting and translating communications, ultimately between Interpol and the Indonesian and Australian forensic police teams that eventually snapped into action.
Preparing to re-visit Denpasar’s Sanglah Hospital and making a first visit to Kuta’s former Sari Club was a challenge. Feelings of matters unfinished, of being wrenched away from a place where much healing was still to be done, of the separation from Indonesian friends who shared this uniquely disturbing journey, still haunted me. I also felt a particular need to pray for the souls of those who met such an untimely end in this act of mass murder, yet I wasn’t ready to jump on a plane and immediately confront the places where I’d worked eight years earlier. Travelling along an indirect path via Jakarta, Solo and Ubud was the best way for me to approach this challenge. Apart from anything else it was necessary to acclimatise and to begin to resonate more sympathetically with Indonesian cultures before I confronted the central purpose of my visit. Much was to happen on the way that helped my preparation for this final encounter, none the least of which were my planned visits to two Orthodox Christian communities.
Gus Dur’s Departure
Gus Dur’s passing was a surprise. I knew he’d been ailing and was recently discharged from hospital. His passing when it came was yet another opportunity to reflect on what he brought to Indonesia. I was reminded that he was a man of the centre, a man of tolerance imbued with rich Javanese syncretism, tempered by his years as a student in Cairo and matured through his long years in opposition to Suharto’s New Order regime and his exposure to the world. He was a quiet man of action. I wrote about him and I thought about him a lot on my journey. Everywhere I went I met inclusive tolerant Indonesians acting in his tradition and grieved by his passing.
As I travelled I became more focused on that deep root of tolerance that has grown along the archipelago, a foundation of respect for the religion of others, enduring years of assault from the extremist fringes of Indonesian society and continuing to flourish. Shortly after Gus Dur’s death a chance encounter with a young man working at Kopi Tiam Oey, a coffee shop on Jl Agus Salim, re-affirmed the power of this syncretistic tolerance. Chatting about recent developments in Indonesia and the purpose of my visit he expressed interest in my journey. When I explained my intention to visit the Holy Trinity Orthodox church in Solo for the Feast of the Nativity, his response was typically Javanese.
“That’s really interesting. I’d love to come as well. When do you leave?”
It was clear from the beginning that he couldn’t come, as he was far too busy in Jakarta, but this way of expressing interest and approval is commonly encountered in Indonesia. This was such a refreshing break from the stereotypical representations of Indonesians, too commonly portrayed in the Australian press. In reality the core of Javanese culture, in particular, is kejawen a syncretistic merging of Hinduism, Buddhism and Sufism. A visit to the Sultan’s Palace in Yogyakarta reveals this blending in decorative symbolic form.
Everywhere I went I continued to encounter deep respect for Gus Dur.
“Dia Bapak Negara”, said one old friend, a Balinese Hindu.
Another wrote to me of Gus Dur facing down mobs in Bekasi who were opposed to churches operating there.
The City of Surakarta – Solo
Arriving in Solo, the tolerance was still most pronounced. This is a city of great religious diversity. Initially staying at the imposing Sunan Hotel, I again fell into conversations with Javanese syncretists. Such is Solo’s tolerance that even Abu Bakar Bashir and his Pesantren al-Mukmin of Ngruki are to be found here.
The Feast of the Nativity when it came was a Blessed event. About 50 worshippers including representatives of the Protestant, Hindu and Buddhist communities attended the Liturgy. A Nativity feast in the nearby church hall saw the invitation of a children’s choir from the Pantasuhan Wisma Kasih Kudus – the Holy Gift Orphanage. These children weren’t Orthodox, yet they were welcomed and enthusiastically participated in the festivities. Their common bond is that almost all lost parents in the inter-religious violence that ripped through Maluku in 1997, in the dying days of the New Order regime. In all there are 71 children in the Protestant orphanage and a further 26 have moved on the tertiary education in various parts of Indonesia. The children radiated a natural beauty, in the festive moment,, apparently unencumbered by the tragedies that had overtaken their families. Their presence was a true reminder of the gift of Christmas, the gift of a clear path to the development of goodwill and love amongst all humans.
Finally in Bali
Moving on to Bali, I started to feel apprehensive about visiting Sanglah Hospital and the site of the bombing in Kuta. A fall into a deep drain one dark night slowed me down and gave me pause for thought. Finally it was time to visit Sanglah and Kuta.
Sanglah seemed almost as crowded as 13 October, 2002, but this was merely ramai, as the Indonesians say. An orderly buzz made all the more interesting by the many people in traditional Balinese dress. I approached the reception desk. The last time it was staffed by a volunteer from Perth, now two traditionally clad Balinese women happily answered my questions.
“We don’t have a church where you can pray. We have a Musollah or a Pura.” I thought for a moment.
“I’d like to pray in the Pura if I may, but it seems as though you’re having a traditional ceremony.”
“No it’s fine”, said the elegant young woman. ” Just follow me, I’ll take you to the Pura.”
A persistent droning background resolved into prayers chanted in the ancient language of Kawi as I approached the temple. Inside it was very busy. Musicians sat together in a pavilion, the faithful sat praying before the shrines for the Tri Merthi and the Padma Sana. I was led off to the side. A Pemangku approached me.
“Excuse me Bapak Pemangku do you speak Indonesian.”
Almost as soon as I’d said this I regretted it, but I was thinking of the village Priests I knew from Ubud and Penestanan where priestly fluency in Indonesian was not to be taken for granted. He looked at me sincerely without the slightest sense of surprise.
“Yes, I do”, he answered.
“I’m a Christian, but with your permission I’d like to pray here.”
“Of course”, he said, encouraging me to step towards the place where others were praying.
“Would you like incense”.
“No thanks, it won’t be necessary. I’d like to stand and pray if I may”.
“You may”, he said.
So I stood before the Padma Sana, the Seat of the Supreme God and I prayed with the priest standing next to me. First I read the standard opening to an Orthodox Christian passage of prayer, finishing with the Lord’s Prayer then I read the Prayers for the Dead. When I’d finished the priest reached out and held my arm.
“That’s all I said. Thank you for letting me read Christian prayers”.
“As long as you prayed for world peace it’s fine”
“In particular I prayed for the souls of the dead”, I said somewhat apprehensively. “I know this isn’t the Pura Dalem, but it’s the only one.”
“That’s fine”, he said, “They’re the purified holy spirits.”
I left feeling overwhelmed by the priests acceptance of my need to pray, there was no sense of any barrier merely inclusiveness.
Moving on to the site of the Sari Club in Kuta, I was struck by the size of Kuta’s new developments. I still remembered much of it as ladang, as open spaces with small huts, coconut palms, grassy fields with Banteng cattle and water buffalo grazing. Landmarks were difficult to spot. The road was overshadowed by multistorey buildings now. Finally the unmistakable monument to the victims of the bombing.
Ignoring the sign that said entry forbidden, I walked up to the stones panels displaying all the victims’ names. I read the Indonesian names, moving on to the Australian names then systematically all the other names. Once completed I came back and read some of the names that were of particular importance to me.
Joshua Kevin Deegan son of the Magistrate from South Australia, Brian Deegan
Jonathon Ellwood who’s body I helped identify from his hotel room key
Kathy Sarvatori nee Hackett who’s father Noel coached me in Rugby on Coogee oval, many years ago.
Dimitra and Elizabeth Kotronakis, the friends of a colleague
I read the same prayers then stood in contemplation, stepping back so that I could view the monument from the opposite corner. I was in a state of walking meditation.
“Transport, transport, boss?”
The silence was broken. It was time to go and have breakfast.