A Certain Kind of Thunder

“A Certain Kind of Thunder” is the first part of the Bali Bombing story which unfolds throughout Sunday 13 October, 2002.

October nights in Bali can be most pleasant.  The cooler winds from the south east have begun to lose both their strength and their chilly edge as Australia warms up.  Temperatures in the evening can sit around 24°C with barely a breath of air, the humidity comfortably low.

The night of 12 October, 2002, was just such a night, it was also a time of relaxation on the eve of my departure for Australia.  It was an evening full of happy and enthusiastic conversation with friends.  One of them Nita Noor had been involved in some NGO work with poor communities in West Bali.  The other, from the UK, was a long term resident of Indonesia.

Thunderous rumbles broke the conversation.  Such events are common enough on this small island, with its dramatic relief, but there was something unusual about this. Conversation paused and then quite naturally resumed, later much would be said about the private thoughts that filled this moment.

Idealistic and animated discussion absorbed us.  We chatted about many things but of particular interest was Nita’s account of environmental management issues around the margins of Bali’s large national park and my plans for widening the field study programs my company was designing to service the UK schools.  I was tired; a little sunburned, looking forward to sleep and optimistic about the future of field study activities in Bali and Indonesia.

Dreaming I was in a war zone I watched military trucks carrying men dressed like storm troopers, travelling through a bombed out landscape dotted with the shells of buildings.  They were sweeping up people, taking them away to some other place, de-populating the landscape.

Wandering through this depleted land I encountered Nita and her child. They too picked their way amongst the devastation.  I felt protective.  My concern mounted, many truckloads of people had been removed if we remained in the open we would be next. The roads were far too dangerous, so shepherding my friends to a bombed out building, we took shelter.

Trucks rumbled by on the road as we unobtrusively crouched behind piles of rubble.  At the rear were the remains of a wall several metres high. Staying here meant certain capture.  Escape was our best option, but to escape we’d need to scale the wall and for that time we’d be visible to the street. Deciding to make an attempt we struggled to help one another over the wall, but almost immediately we were seen and apprehended.

My mobile phone rang.  It was about 6.00am.  Matina’s voice delivered the news from Australia.  It was the worst news I could imagine.  A bomb blast in Kuta, as many as 12 dead, unknown numbers of injured. She encouraged me to get down there as soon as possible

I went next door and roused Nita who’d stayed over. Her mobile phone started to ring.  Friends from various environmental groups and NGOs were organising a voluntary relief effort.  There’d been three explosions, two of them huge and one apparently more symbolic outside the US Consulate.  The toll in deaths and casualties was substantial. We were needed quickly with whatever medical supplies we could muster.  We speculated on who might have done such a thing.  Our theories ranged across the political spectrum.  There was no time and insufficient information for any further analysis.

As our small group of volunteers set out from Ubud, bound for Sanglah Hospital in Denpasar the reality that lay ahead was far graver than any of us could imagine. Throughout the next four days many were asking “Why?” but this was, for the time being, overshadowed by the imperative of dealing with the consequences of this act of terror. It consumed almost all of our energy.

Arriving at the Sanglah hospital precinct in mid-morning we were struck by the crowds, cars, motorbikes, and people on foot converging on the area.  Something quite major had happened, it was now most apparent.  I felt very emotional, tears welled in my eyes.   We parked, a few streets away from the hospital, and went on foot.

The atmosphere in the hospital grounds was overwhelming.  The crowd was huge; there were anxious and distraught tourists everywhere. I felt the urge to pray, all I could do was repeat, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

We joined other people, expatriate and Indonesian, a truly global mix, setting up an information counter to assist those looking for friends or relatives.  I gave what assistance I could.  The hospital is a confusing complex of buildings and covered pathways and since I’d been there before with emergencies I was at least able to find my way around better than most.

It quickly became apparent that large numbers of people, including many Australians, were missing.  I remember glancing down a list of missing Australians to see if there were any familiar names.  There were none.  The list continued to grow.  Sometimes there was good news as a person was found, mostly it was bad news.

Some time during the afternoon I rang Sydney Boys High School. I was expecting to resume work there the next day.  I left a message explaining the gravity of the situation. I felt I had no choice but stay on and offer whatever assistance I could.

The afternoon was spent giving people directions, reassuring people, photocopying lists of the missing, attempting to coordinate with other volunteers, struggling to gain some sort of an overview of just what was going on and waiting for the evacuations that must eventually begin.

Frustration began to grow I wanted to provide more tangible assistance to the injured, so I was relieved to learn there was to be an evacuation flight later in the day.   We weren’t sure exactly what time it was scheduled but we all we new that volunteers would be needed to escort and facilitate.

Periodically there were calls for blood donors, constant requests for O type blood suggesting that there were many non-Indonesian victims. Although O is a universal donor it’s preferable to give people their own blood type if available. In Indonesia there is a higher incidence of my own group B.  Finally there was a call for B.

When confronting difficult situations I often seek distractions.  These aren’t just trivial matters, they might involve intensely intricate reveries or perhaps, as in this case, problems that have absorbed my thoughts for some time, matters that I’m working on as part of my ongoing attempt to better understand life.  The relation between blood group and ethnic history was one such pre-occupation.  What an opportunity this was with such a globalised group of Bs.

The blood donation room was surprisingly orderly.  I glanced around.  Some 20 to 30 people were calmly waiting to donate.  It was getting late and I wanted to make sure I was available for the evacuation.  I asked the Sister in charge if I might jump the queue as an Indonesian speaking Australian since I was shortly needed for the evacuation.  She obliged and explained that I’d be next.

Looking around I was struck by the crowd.  Most were either Indonesian or seemed of Semitic or Central Asian appearance. What I found was consistent with the theory as I understood it.  Back in Sydney a friend from the Walter and Eliza Institute in Melbourne had explained that B was more common amongst Asians and certain Judaic groups.

An emotional Balinese donor cried out, “The Muslims did this; soon we’ll go and kill them’.

He began repeating the general message, “We must go and kill the Muslims, wipe them out”.

“Why must we go and kill the Muslims”, I asked.

“They did this” was his response.

There was something familiar about him. There was an unreachable quality, a surety, a single-mindedness that would take him to the point of exacting his form of justice.   He seemed consumed by this singular notion.  There was something transforming in his passion as if he was on the edge of that most dangerous of all trance states amok. I understood that it was pointless interrogating him any further.

As I lay down I had a chance to relax and meditate on what had just happened.  He reminded me of someone that I knew in Sydney, a man fed on drama, a man with an underlying need to rage.  After the bombing of the WTC he stayed up all night watching endless repeats of the second jet crashing into the tower and the ultimate collapse of the structures. The next day he was in a completely altered state. There could be no reaching him once he was so singularly focused.

Extreme events like these gave certain people a licence to act out their aggressions.  In Bali, in its extreme form, it was a well known trance state called amok.  In our own society I think we’d locate it on the spectrum of behaviours known as personality disorders.  We’d say that the person concerned had an anger management problem.  We’d have treated it with therapy, here in Bali where it got right out of hand it was regarded as a form of demonic possession and the person running amok could end up dead, the victim of summary justice.  I later learned that on this occasion, a team of Balinese priests worked tirelessly to disperse unseen demonic forces that might encourage a mass outbreak of such behaviours.

In Balinese terms the bombing represented a huge up welling of negative forces, a gathering of the most sinister spiritual energies. In my own terms there was definitely something very evil afoot, yet the compassionate response of the volunteers, the love and the dedication expressed by the doctors and nursing staff, and the Balinese people at large, was such a fine example of the most positive spiritual energy. I came to understand it as the Holy Spirit at work.

After donating blood my head pounded.  I made my way to the Apotek and bought some paracetamol, then found some food on offer in the hospital’s front courtyard.  It was very gratifying that so many Balinese restaurants had responded with free food for volunteers.

Just after 5.00pm news came that some of the seriously injured were to be flown out by the RAAF on several flights later that night.  It was confirmed that volunteers would be required to accompany them to the airport I was keen to help.  Shortly after dark, around 6.00pm, a young woman wearing a hijab appeared.  She had a sweet innocent face, it was almost angelic.

If only my unfortunate ‘friend’ could see her, I thought.  He seemed to buy the whole package of demonising Muslims that had become such a prominent part of the conservative stand on foreign policy so ably promoted by our highly concentrated media. This sort of demonisation played into the hands of the types of extremists that might be responsible for this.  Islamic extremists wanted to claw back what they saw as western deviations within the Islamic world.  As part of this process they found it convenient to caste ‘Westerners’ as dangerous crusaders.  Such a tag had gained even more potency since George Bush’s reference to the new crusade against terrorism. My ‘friend’ was on the same wavelength as the Neocons, his solution to the WTC bombing was elegantly simple, “We should just bomb that black thing they all walk around in Mecca”.

We followed the young woman to the Melati Ward. I made a mental note to remind my ‘friend’ of the role played by young Muslims in dealing with this disaster.  It’s a role that was subsequently well documented in John Darling’s film “The Healing of Bali”.

At the Melati Ward  I heard someone calling for some Australians who could speak Indonesian.  This turned out to be our Vice Consul, David Caplin. I stepped forward.

David asked me and another Australian, Asri Kerthyasa, to take some small buses and visit private clinics and hospitals.  We were to liaise with hospital staff to determine whether there were any injured Australians that might be classed as walking wounded. The plan was to put them on a QANTAS flight going directly to Sydney.  Medical assistance couldn’t be guaranteed at Denpasar airport, in flight, or when they arrived in Sydney.  So some triaging people was imperative to ensure that no serious cases were taken on this flight.

After we collected as many injured people as possible, we were to return to the main public hospital at Sanglah before taking them to the airport.  I recruited an Indonesian friend Ellie, someone I’d already known for many years, the son of a good friend a successful business woman from Ubud. We got into the bus and left for the first private facility. I can’t remember the names of all of the places we visited but I do remember that one was called Kasih Ibu another Prima Medika, there were three others.

At the first facility, maybe it was Kasih Ibu, I met an Australian doctor, John Hogg. I was surprised to encounter another Australian.  It was quite reassuring.  In the course of his work we visited those patients that were believed to be Australian so that we could assess their condition and determine whether they were fit for the flight.

For the first time I began to gain a sense of the scale and severity of the injuries that people had sustained.

There was a small burns unit or Intensive Care Unit (ICU).  Dr Hogg was treating a patient who seemed to have burns to more than 70% of his body.  I was surprised that he was still alive.  There were others.  I remember one young Canadian woman whom the Balinese nurses thought at first might be an Australian.  She was with her distraught partner.  I think they had come to Bali on their honeymoon.  There was no skin left on her back while he, apart from minor blast injuries, was relatively unscathed.

There were several others. I remember one couple the woman was Australian and her partner was from New Zealand.  The Australian was fit to travel but her NZ partner wasn’t. There was no way she was leaving.

It didn’t take long to realize that there were no walking wounded in this place.

I gathered up my Indonesian crew and we left for the next facility.

In one place the registrar showed me into a room where there were two young Aussies, both footballers.  I think they played AFL, but they looked strangely familiar just like the young men I’d been coaching at Sydney Boys High School through the previous Rugby season.

They looked fine compared with the serious burns victims I’d just seen.

They were clearly in shock but they were happy at the prospect of going home despite their obvious blast injuries – strips of flesh missing, peppered with little pieces of ‘shrapnel’.  But of course these were the injuries I could see.

“Fine “.  I said, “then lets go”.  The registrar wasn’t so enthusiastic.  One had a severed Achilles tendon, the other a deep abdominal wound that had to be drained the next morning.  They were very disappointed.  I asked them what I could do for them.  They wanted me to help them find their mate.  This really got to me, I had difficulty not bursting into tears.  They were so innocent and the next most important thing in their lives, if they couldn’t go home, was to find their mate.  Having seen the list of missing Australians grow I knew that he could be amongst the dead.  I could only ask them to have faith and if they chose to do so to pray.

I still feel so sad about their shattered innocence.

At the next hospital there was a man from QLD.  I think he was in his early 40s.  He was really knocked around and had some of the same blast injuries as the younger men.  He was determined to go home, although he was on a drip.

I assumed the drip was a saline solution.  He insisted on trying to get to the bus.  With great difficulty, and with him dressed only in a cotton gown, I got him to the landing outside his second floor room.  At this point a senior doctor arrived and explained that he was on a pethidine drip that would run out in about three hours and that he would be in considerable pain on the flight.  We abandoned the attempt at that point.

After visiting five of these private clinics and hospitals I was only able to confirm the seriousness of the injuries that people had sustained.  In short, there were no walking wounded left.

I rang the Vice Consul,  David Caplin, who asked me to bring the bus back to Sanglah hospital and keep it on stand-by along with another two.  This I did, organizing food for the drivers and regularly checking in with the Vice Consul by phone.

Mobile phones became essential throughout the entire period.

After returning to the hospital I spent sometime in the Melati Ward chatting with patients.  The Melati ward had some of the most serious cases. I remember one Australian in particular, I think from SA.  He was badly burned on the back.  He reminded me of my own son Rob, even looked a bit like him, perhaps that’s why I remember him so vividly.  I stayed with him for a while.  He wanted help finding a friend.  I tried ringing around for him on my mobile without much luck.  There was not much else he wanted, perhaps just a drink of water.  He was very brave.

I remember chatting with another woman, I thought she was Australian, she turned out to be Swedish.  Her face and perhaps the rest of her body, were burned.  All she wanted to know was when she would get out of there.  By this stage I knew that the seriously injured would soon be flown to Australia so I was able to reassure her that it would be within about three hours.

Not wanting to lose the buses I kept travelling back and forwards from the Melati Ward to the bus drivers and checking in with the Vice Consul by phone.

By now some of the more seriously injured victims were beginning to be evacuated.  For the first time I saw Australian military uniforms.  There was a Sergeant Major assisting, his Indonesian was quite good so it seemed he didn’t need any back up.  I felt very reassured things seemed to be moving into a more official phase.

Later that evening or early the next morning I handed over my bus duty to another Australian, I don’t remember his name. He was a Homeopath from WA, maybe Bunbury, I can’t be certain. He remained on duty throughout the night.

I went back to Ubud to sleep.

Monday 14 October was a very different kind of day. The seriously wounded having been largely evacuated, it was now time to focus on the ones who lay in the morgue and the stunned friends and family members who still searched for them.

A Prayer for the Departed

O God of spirits and of all flesh, Who hast trampled down death and overthrown the Devil, and given life to Thy world, do Thou, the same Lord, give rest to the souls of Thy departed servants in a place of brightness, a place of refreshment, a place of repose, where all sickness, sighing, and sorrow have fled away. Pardon every transgression which they have committed, whether by word or deed or thought. For Thou art a good God and lovest mankind; because there is no man who lives yet does not sin, for Thou only art without sin, Thy righteousness is to all eternity, and Thy word is truth.

For Thou are the Resurrection, the Life, and the Repose of Thy servants who have fallen asleep, O Christ our God, and unto Thee we ascribe glory, together with Thy Father, who is from everlasting, and Thine all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever unto ages of ages. Amen.

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