Islands In the Storm (Maxim Magazine. 2001)


© Dan White. No repro without permission.

Atambua, Indonesia. Carlos Caceres sent one final e-mail as the militias bore down on the small compound in which he was sheltering with his two colleagues.  “We sit here like bait. These guys act without thinking and can kill a human being as easily and painlessly as I kill mosquitoes in my room”. Ten minutes later Carlos was disemboweled, dragged into the street, doused with petrol and burnt in front of a raging mob. His two colleagues were beheaded. The Indonesian soldiers assigned to protect them had mysteriously disappeared. Carlos was an American working for the United Nations, but in today’s Indonesia life counts for little and it was in someone’s interest to see Carlos burn. Indonesia is falling into the abyss.

As is my arse. I am feeling every bump in the track as I sit in the back of a four wheel drive making its way down dusty roads just across the border from Atambua in East Timor. In the company of 4 Timorese builders under the command of a deranged Bosnian called Zoran, we have passed the last checkpoint manned by Australian military and this is officially Indian Country. East Timor is now supposed to be an independent country under UN control. But someone just across the border in Indonesia doesn’t seem to agree. It was only yesterday that a few miles away Carlos had been burned in the street and no one knows what the Militia will do next. We have a UN escort but in the back of my mind I am painfully aware that in clashes between the UN peacekeepers and the Militia it is the militias who have come off better. Only a couple of weeks before on this very road, they captured a UN soldier and cut off his ears before they shot him. Merciless and with nothing to lose, these are the men who laid waste to this island. Proxies for a mysterious evil, dressed like LA street gangs.

To right and left there is little but high grass and burned out buildings, perfect ground for an ambush or snipers. I feel exposed and vulnerable. Everything is burned. Every house, every car. Even the paddy fields have been polluted and laid waste. It looks like the scene of giant forest fire. What they didn’t destroy they put on stolen trucks, which were spirited away to Indonesia. Those who refused to leave were massacred, their bodies loaded into containers and dumped in the deep water of the Pacific Ocean. Dusk is approaching as we approach the town of Suai. I hear gunfire and instinctively hit the deck. Everyone else is sitting bolt upright. “Plenty militia! Maybe 2 miles from here. No problem. They only make signal. Maybe go see their family. Maybe they are shopping”. They may be shopping, but I am shaking as this lunatic continues to make jokes and spends the next ten minutes imitating my frenzied sprawl over and over again much to the amusement of everyone else in the pick up. But close gunfire is not uncommon on this road. We are on our way to the sight of a massacre.

Sitting in a makeshift cafe set up against a blackened stone wall Antonio Milifretas tells his story. “Fucking militia” he says. His eyes are unfocused and his fingers drum constantly on his thigh. Sometimes when people swear in a language that is not their own it can sound absurd. Not this time. There is nothing humorous in Antonio’s vacant, staring eyes. Along with hundreds of others, Antonio Milifretas was made to lie on the ground and then they were systematically sprayed with gunfire only ten yards from where we are sitting. Women were raped and three catholic priests bludgeoned to death in cold blood. Antonio took two bullets through the shoulder but by laying down and playing dead he managed to escape to the long grass and the hills as attackers went through the nearby buildings looking for TVs, cash and women. But the men who shot him and killed his friends weren’t wearing only the bandanas and T-shirts of the militia. Every third one was dressed in the uniforms of the regular Indonesian army, they were carrying M16s and they were giving the orders. They were following a plan. A plan hatched long before by dark forces. People with much at stake. A plan implemented from regional military headquarters only kilometres away from The Golden beaches of Bali. An Asian Ibiza at the eye of an approaching shitstorm.

No one is sure why things happen in Indonesia. Everyday in some part of the country there is mayhem and bloodshed. Like some kind of absurd fairground game as soon as one scene of destruction and death calms down another one blows up. It almost looks systematic. Co-ordinated. Bomb plots, ethnic violence a sinking economy, a feeble and corrupt government and a brutal and paranoid military, the whole country is on the verge of meltdown. In Timor the militias rage virtually unchecked, killing villagers and international aid workers. In the Moluccas, the famed spice Islands, Christians and Muslims battle it out on the streets, the army often taking sides with one side or the other. In Kalimantan former headhunting tribes are back in business chopping up their enemies with machetes and eating their vital organs in order to make a political point. In Poso, Sulawesi, the streets ran with blood earlier this year as rival gangs fought each other through the town. Mass graves are still turning up. Jakarta has been rocked by bomb blasts, riots and mob lynchings. Muslim fundamentalists whose loyalties no one quite knows attack any symbol of ‘decadence’ in their relentless quest to turn the whole nation into a medieval Islamic state. The Government is only barely in control and no one is quite sure who is controlling the Government. There are factions within factions and it is to someone’s advantage to see that the chaos never ends.

One thing is certain. Somewhere in the secret chain of command figures the aging ex President Suharto and his parasitic family. He ruled the country for 32 brutal years. Despite Indonesia being one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, during the long years of Suharto and his military dictatorship, this was a place where saying the wrong thing to the wrong person was liable to see you ‘disappeared’ – pushed out of a helicopter or tortured to death in a secret basement. In 1998 Suharto was ousted in an orgy of bloodshed. In Indonesia money talks. Corruption and violence are the only certainties. The Suharto clan stole over 45 billion dollars in graft during their years of power – enough to completely pay off the national debt. Suharto and his family aren’t paying off debts. They are paying off scores. They are using their vast wealth to create chaos and ferment mayhem. Most chillingly of all they still have the loyalty of influential factions in the army. The elected President gives orders which are never carried out. Huge bombs have wrecked the stock exchange and foreign embassies. The military, humiliated by its reduced role and angry at the way its wings have been clipped is hand in glove employing all the black arts of special ops against the citizens of their own country. All the while package tourists and backpackers sun themselves on beaches or surf the waves of Bali or Sumatra oblivious to the mayhem that may soon engulf them. No longer. In January trouble spread to the tourist island of Lombok only 22 miles from Bali – the jewel in Indonesia’s tourism crown and one of the most popular holiday destinations in the world. As the bloodshed continued, thousands of terrified tourists joined the lines of Indonesians fleeing the island. Chaos is beginning to spoil the holiday.

We arrive in Jakarta just as the city is going up in flames. This is a modern city. A city of neon and freeways, but beneath the façade it is a city of fear. We have come to see Suharto. For the third time Judges have demanded his presence in court on charges of corruption. We want to see this stand off between the old order and the new. Already the tension is building. There have been massive explosions for which no one has claimed responsibility. Explosions carried out with military precision. Suharto is an old man. His doctors are saying he is too ill to stand trial. But his health, like the man, is an enigma. The monsoon rains have started. The whole street is awash with a downpour that is so fierce it almost obscures the sun light. I am sheltering in a roadside cafe with a camera crew waiting for the waters to subside when through the false twighlight flames go up. In the time-honoured tradition of embarrassing ex dictators, Suharto is judged to be no longer ‘sound of mind’ and therefore cannot answer his critics.

His critics who are gathered in numbers outside the courthouse have exploded in a fury of anger, the molotov cocktails arcing through the rain. Vehicles have been blown up and the chaos is now at my feet. Before we can work out what is happening military police are outside the café. They are pointing guns straight at us and screaming blue murder. These men of the BRIMOB paramilitary mobile brigades are the elite bullyboys of the former regime. Hands raised we emerge from the shelter of the verandah into the downpour yelling “Bule!, Bule!”. “Foreigner!, foreigner!”. We are pressed to the ground, lying flat in the water screaming our credentials.

We are not the ones they want and with a couple of glancing blows from the wooden staves and one camera smashed they move on to the business of really serious violence. Terrible beatings are inflicted on those they catch. Some are protesters, but some are simply bi-standers. One is only a 14-year-old girl with the words ‘mice are nice’ emblazoned on her T-shirt. She is crying for her mother as the blows rain down. She is dropped by a jab to the gut with a wooden stave. She doesn’t get up. A BRIMOB soldier fires a flaming tear gas canister straight into the face of an injured and crouching man at point blank range. Amazingly he is still alive, but the soldiers and police then beat him to a pulp with rifle butts.

As we try and run back through the crowd to find shelter we see isolated soldiers being dragged from vehicles and the air is rent by the crack of M16s as they laager up and fire to scare off their attackers until re-enforcement’s arrive. It is time to get out. This is out of control. This is a war zone. But in Jakarta it is par for the course. The insanity has become the norm. Sometimes they do it for fun. When the protesters are not fighting the police or the army, they fight each other. In one ‘minor incident’ 30 people were seriously injured and hospitalised. “We like to practice” one of their leaders told me. This pitched battle warranted only one paragraph in the local newspaper. The whole city is working itself up for the big bang. Suharto is free. His money is intact. The fuse is lit. The military are waiting.

They are still partying in Jakarta. The great leveler here is not violence. It is disco dancing. It may yet be the only thing that prevents a blood bath. Sitting at the bar in JJs, one of Jakarta’s most famous clubs, I am drinking vodka talking to a couple of newly arrived tourists. My nerves are still jangling from the previous day’s events and it is relief to be somewhere the only concerns are drink and women. Barely clothed Indonesian ‘dancers’ are gyrating either on small platforms or on the barstools where they sit. The music is pumping and the dance floor is packed with a mixture of backpackers, bar girls, businessmen and tourists fuelled by bad local Es and expensive spirits. It is like any tourist disco from Chiang Mai to Darwin. Dave and Rachel are from Weleyn Garden City. They are on their way to Bali for a couple of weeks of chilling out on the beach. They both wear the uniform of the British backpacker in Asia. The cheap Khao San Road sarongs, the beaded hair, the Camden Town tie-dye. They like it here. Dave says he likes the people. ”They are chilled out”.

I think of the burned out buildings, the staring eyes of the victims, the hate etched on the faces of soldiers as they break the bones of teenagers. “Yeah – chilled out Dave”. Just as Dave is offering to buy a round he is interrupted by a wave of panic pushing everyone in the crowded disco back into the narrow corridors that lead to the toilets. It is a dead end. People are pushing and shoving and leaping over barriers and across the bar. Then they arrive. Masked men wielding staves and Samurai swords, white prayer scarves around their heads are sending people fleeing in panic. The holiday is over. The Islamic brotherhood have come to town. Metal chairs are flying towards us, the sound of breaking glass, crys of “Allah hu Akhbar” – God is Great – and the wails of screaming bar girls. Looking back I see the masked faces and I know these people are serious and pumped up. The Islamic Brotherhood don’t like vice. They don’t like tourists, they don’t like drugs and they don’t like you. Rachel is screaming and Dave is trying to pull her further back into the crowd. But we need to be in the open. Throwing petrol bombs is almost as common as shaking hands in this country and if they chuck one at us there is nowhere to hide. We will burn. Tourists, who don’t know what have hit them, are screaming in disbelief, their minds muddied by alcohol or overloading on ecstasy. These warriors of God are taking men out from the front of the crowd and beating them. The damage done, as quickly as they arrive, Islamic Jihad disappear leaving a detritus of smashed glass, broken metal, bloodied carpet, a couple of broken faces and small pockets of shocked crying revelers. A single flip-flop lies in a pool of vodka and blood near the broken bar. Rachel is weeping and holding on to Dave. Dave is looking shocked. I am tired. There is nowhere to hide in this country. “Is it like this in Bali?” Dave asks. Not yet Dave, but maybe next year I would think about going to Thailand.

SIDEBAR:

Eat thy neighbour

Arriving in the neat provincial town of Sambas in West Kalimantan, there is nothing to indicate it has a dark past. Tidy rows of small gabled houses with wooden verandahs and neat gardens line the streets. Small children assuage the heat by jumping in pools of recent rainwater or make their way home from school, satchels on their backs. Girls in tight jeans and stack shoes hang around the stores selling CDs and magazines. It is a peaceful place. But this town has a dark secret. They eat people. Twice in the last two years the majority Malay population have turned on immigrants from the island of East Madura with unimaginable ferocity. Using axes and machetes they beheaded and dismembered their victims. Though brutal, this in itself is not that unusual in Indonesia. What is different is that in Sambas they go the extra mile. After murdering the Madurese they then lit fires, barbecued their remains and served them as a snack. Eat thy neighbour. Problem solved.

A local reporter spoke to one of the diners.

“Our cannibal is a teenager. He is shirtless and wears neat denim jeans. My new friend looks like nothing so much as a participant in a giant game of cowboys and Indians. He is chattering with excitement about the things he has seen and done. He tells us that the man whom they are cooking on the road was caught this morning. ‘We killed it and ate it’ he says, ‘because we hate the Madurese’. They taste just like chicken. Especially the liver – just the same as chicken'”

There is an eerie feel to the place. Any mention of the Madurese is met with downcast eyes or an aggressive stare. A warped variation of the Stepford Wives. The girls in stacked shoes ask me about bands that I am too old to have heard of. They whisper conspiratorially, asking if it is true that Prince William fancies Britney Spears. They want to practice their English and ask me to their homes for a meal. It is getting dark. This place is giving me the creeps. I make my excuses and jump on my motorbike. Breaking all speed limits I take the road south. Suddenly I am scared of ghosts.

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