May 1998 was a period of political turbulence that marked the fall of “the New Order” – a regime that itself had arisen following the mass killings of 1965.
Riots broke out in major cities across Indonesia, most severely in the capital, Jakarta. The riots were well organized, moving from one place to another, usually starting with burning tires on the streets – strong smelling smoke signals to gather the crowd and ignite the looting and destruction along its path.
These were what I wrote back then, with what I knew and thought at the time. It was originally written in Bahasa Indonesia – I will translate it for you per paragraph.
13 May 1998:
Terdengar tawa bapak-bapak yang sedang siskamling, membuang kantuk dan tegang. Tapi malam merayap seperti “para penjarah” kata radio. Bukankah mereka kita juga? Seperti kaki yang menendang-nendang tangan karena selama ini terus-menerus dinomorduakan. Sedih. “Para perusuh”. Kenapa bukan saudara kita yang sedang marah?
I could hear the laughter men who were on patrol, as they tried to rid themselves of sleepiness and tension. But the night crawled like “the lotters” as the radio called them. Aren’t they one of us too? It feels like my leg that is kicking my arm for getting all the attention. It is sad. “The rioters”. Why don’t they call them our angry brothers?
Para ibu menunggu di rumah, mendengarkan radio, mencoba menenangkan diri dan anak-anaknya. Atau membuat paper, seperti ibuku.
The women are waiting at home, listening to the radio, trying to calm themselves and their children. Or writing a paper, like my mom.
Bunyi pesawat melintas rendah. Di benakku bom berjatuhan. Seperti perang betulan. Bukankah ini perang betulan? Bukan, ini cuma kerusuhan, katanya. Sama saja. Paling tidak orang tidak sengaja saling membunuh. Belum.
I can hear the sound of a plane flying low. In my mind, bombs were falling. It feels like war. Isn’t this war? No, this is only a mass riot, they say. Same difference. At least people are not intentionally killing each other. Not yet.
Para bapak bersorak lagi. Lagu “Ben” mengajak mata menutup dan tubuh merebah. Tapi otak berdengung keras.
The men are roaring again. The song “Ben” is lulling my eyes to shut and my body to lie down. But my brain is buzzing.
Katanya keluarga presiden sudah di Amerika. Lari. Kabur. Seperti Edi Tansil, kambing hitam favorit kita semua. Mudah untuk menyalahkan mereka. Sebab mereka kaya. Mereka bahagia. Apa iya? Bukankah semua orang kaya bahagia? Bisa hijrah ke luar negeri ketika terjadi kerusuhan, tidak seperti kalangan bawah dan menengah, seperti kita? Mahasiswa itu lalu membuang sekenanya gelas air minum plastik yang dibagikan bebas biaya pada demonstran hari itu. Di aspal. Lalu diinjak. Dan ditinggal. Kali ini tidak ada lagi yang memungutnya. Sebab hari ini orangnya sibuk meminta bagian dari kebahagiaan. Dalam bentuk kasur, atau susu bubuk, dari Makro atau Goro.
They say the president’s family are in the US by now. They ran off. Escaped. Like Edi Tansil, our favorite scapegoat (corruptor). It is easy to blame them, because they are rich. They are happy. Are they really? Aren’t all rich people happy? They can fly abroad when there is a riot, not like the lower and middle class, like us? The university student nonchalantly throws the plastic cup from the mineral water that were distributed freely to the demonstrators that day. He throws it on the asphalt, steps on it, and leaves it there. This time, no one is picking it up. Because today, everyone is busy asking for a bite of happiness, in the form of a mattress, powdered milk, from Makro or Goro (that was what was being looted from these bulk grocers).
Dalam benakku terbayang:
“Aaah. Ternyata tidur di atas kasur begini rasanya. Sudah lama aku melihat kasur-kasur busa dan per – “spring bed” katanya – di mal-mal. Sudah lama ingin mencobanya. Apakah benar tidur di atasnya lebih nyenyak?
Kini mal itu sudah tidak ada. Tinggal kerangka hangus dan tawa penonton. Aku untung dapat kasur. Seperti mimpi di awan. Susah payah aku menggotongnya. Gangku terlalu sempit. Dan ternyata kasur ini tidak muat di rumahku. Kasur ini lebih besar dari rumahku. Terpaksa dipotong sebagian. Akhirnya bisa masuk. Tapi rumahku melulu kasur. Bukan hanya melulu bau. Sembilan anakku terlelap. Sepertinya sama lelapnya dengan di atas dipan bambu yang dulu. Malah aku yang tak bisa tidur.”
In my mind I imagine a looter thinking, “Aaah, so this is how it feels to sleep on a mattress. I have seen these foam and spring – spring beds they call them, in the malls. I have wanted to try them for so long. Do we really sleep more soundly on top of them?
Now the mall is gone. The only thing that is left of it is its charred skeleton and the laughter of naysayers. I am lucky to get the mattress. I get to dream upon the clouds. It was hard work to carry it. The alley was too small. And the mattress does not even fit inside my house. It is bigger than my house. So I had to cut a part of it for it to fit inside. But my house is all mattress now. Not just all smelly. My nine children are asleep. They seem just as sound asleep as they were on our old bamboo divan. Now I’m the one who can’t sleep.”
Bukankah hanya barang yang dirusak? Atau diambil, atau dibakar? Barang yang selama ini ditumpuk-tumpuk untuk menutupi insecurity? Sumur tanpa dasar tak bisa diisi, berapapun barang yang kau timbun. Tapi barang-barang ini hasil jerih payah kami. Jadi, hanya untuk itukah kamu bekerja? Hanya demi harta yang fana? Sudahkah dirimu bertumbuh dan berkembang, wangi di kaki langit? Sudahkah kau sentuh sesamamu, kau tanam cinta di negerimu? Telingaku berdengung.
Aren’t these things that are being smashed, taken, or burnt just that – things? Things that have been stashed to cover insecurity, like a bottomless pit that could never be filled no matter how much we try to fill it? But we worked hard to afford these things. Is that why you work? For things that won’t last? Have you grown and blossomed, sweet-smelling at the foot of the earth? Have you touched a fellow human being, have you planted love in your nation? Now my ears are buzzing.
Sebelum api membakarmu, rasanya dia masih terlalu jauh untuk menyakitimu. Sekalipun panasnya sudah terasa. Jari-jari yang beku tak dapat merasakan apa-apa.
Before the fire burns us, it feels too far to harm us, even if we can feel its heat. If our fingers are frozen, we cannot even feel anything.
14 May 1998:
Aku baru saja menyalakan radio Sonora. Orang-orang berhamburan keluar Jakarta. Padahal bertahun-tahun orang berbondong-bondong menuju ibukota. Manusia memang ingin untung. Manusia memang pengecut.
I just turned on the radio to listen to the channel Sonora. People were on mass exodus from Jakarta. For years people had been flocking to this capital city. Humans look for profit. Humans are fickle that way.
Massa. Siapakah dia? Bukankah dia aku, dan kamu, dan kita? Aku tidak menjarah. Aku tidak membakar. Aku tidak korupsi. Aku tidak berhutang ke luar negeri. Aku tidak menyebabkan krisis moneter. Jadi ini semua akibat kamu! Padahal siapakah kamu, bila semua orang adalah aku?
The masses – who are they? Aren’t they me, you, us? “I” am not looting. “I” am not burning buildings. “I” am not corrupt. “I” have no foreign debt. “I” didn’t cause the monetary crisis. So it’s all “your” fault! But who are “you”, if everyone calls themselves “me”.
Apa gunanya aku menulis, bila sebentar lagi rumah ini dibakar, bersama semua karyaku yang lain yang entah di mana? Yang belum jadi, yang baru separuh menongolkan kepalanya dari liang senggama ibunya. Haruskah ikut mati?
What is the use of me writing, if soon this house will be on fire, with all of my other works wherever they are? The ones that are not done, half-way through the birth canal – should they die too?
Terdengar taktik keyboard komputer diajak marathon oleh Ibu.
I could hear the clickety-clack of the computer keyboard as Mom takes it on a marathon.
My diary continues: 15 May 1998
Tanggal 15 dini hari. Tepat 3 hari setelah para mahasiswa itu diberondong dengan senapan api. Sekalipun belum 72 jam, akhir-akhir ini waktu seperti mimpi buruk yang tak sudi mendatangkan pagi. Bayang-bayang anarki terus menggembung, menggerogoti dan membakar semua benda dan manusia yang berusaha menghalanginya.
It is the dawn of the 15th. Three days after the university students were showered with gunfire. Even though it hasn’t been 72 hours, lately time is like a nightmare that refuses to welcome the morning. Anarchy casts a bigger and bigger shadow, eating and burning every object and person that gets in its way.
Sektor tiga sudah dijarah. Temanku barusan telpon. Lalu aku telpon pamanku, sesuai anjurannya. Menyebarkan panik. Seperti biasa. Adikku bilang, “Bersiap-siap untuk apa? Berdoa, bersiap-siap untuk mati?” Tanyanya. “Ya, kencinglah dulu, daripada kamu terkencing-kencing di jalan,” sahutku. Asap tampak dari depan rumah. Hitam. Lebih hitam daripada malam. Begitu dekat, aku hampir bisa menyentuhnya. Namun bukankah bintang juga begitu?
Sector three of my area has been looted. My friend just called. Then I called my uncle, as she suggested. To spread panic. Like usual. My brother asks, “What are we supposed to be ready for? Pray, to prepare to die?” He asks. “Yeah, better go to the toilet, rather than wet yourself on the way,” I answered. We can see smoke from in front of our house. Black, darker than the night. It was so close, I could almost touch it. But aren’t the stars just like that?
As I look back from today:
Little did I know.
Saat itu, aku belum tahu bahwa tidak ada tawa penonton. Yang ada isak tangis ayah ibu yang mencari anak-anak mereka, yang remaja dan yang masih ingusan, yang dijebak di dalam mal dan dibakar hidup-hidup. Masihkah terdengar jeritan mereka?
At that time, I did not know that no one was laughing. Instead, there was the wailing of parents looking for their children, teenagers and children with runny noses, trapped in the mall and burnt alive. Can people still hear their cry?
Tak jauh di seberang mal itu, temanku kehilangan semua buku, semua baju, tempat tinggal dan rumah makan sumber penghasilan baginya, ibu dan adiknya. Ayahnya sudah lama meninggalkan mereka untuk hidup bersama keluarga barunya. Temanku harus lompat ke belakang untuk menyelamatkan diri dari para laki-laki tegap klimis bermata merah yang membumihanguskan semua hal yang pemiliknya bermata sipit.
Not far across from that very mall, my friend lost all her books, clothes and belongings, along with her home and the small eatery that was once the livelihood for her, her mother, and her brother. Her father has long left them to live with his new family. My friend had to jump over her back fence to save herself from the sturdy crew cut men with red eyes who burnt everything that was owned by “slit-eyes” to the ground.
Ternyata bukan hanya bangunan dan barang yang hancur. Juga nyawa. Harga diri. Harapan. Kehidupan.
It turned out that it wasn’t just buildings and objects that were demolished. Lives were lost, along with self-worth, hope, existence.
I was a medical student at the time. There had been a series of student protests. Initially, we, medical students, were adamant to keep studying, except once in a while when some of us would help out as medical support teams for student protestors from other faculties. Then one day the dean called us and said that we need to get in on the action.
One of our lecturers shared the story of taking part in the student protests that had toppled the “Old Order” in 1966. They were in front of the presidential bodyguard unit when guns were suddenly fired. They immediately got down, except for his friend, a fourth year medical student who turned around to run away. When the others stood back up, this student remained on the ground. His death was oil to the flame. His name is memorialized as the big mosque on the side of our campus.
Four students from a private university got shot this time, in what they call the “Trisakti Tragedy”.
We were organized to protest in front of our photogenic heritage hall. I noticed a man taking notes among us. He looked too old to be a student, too intent to be a curious passerby, and too rigid to be a journalist. He disappeared among the crowd before it rained on us. We stayed there long enough to look like we wanted to be there, with our headbands and signs.
The loss mobilized more students, who then spent days “sitting upon” the parliament – literally sitting on the roof of the building. My mother basically said, “We should keep safe at home. Only one of us can go there (and that would be me),” arguing that it was safest for her to represent us. She was supporting “Suara Ibu Peduli” activists.
I can’t remember whether it was later in November that year, during Semanggi Tragedy, but I ended up bringing medical supplies to Atma Jaya, helping students wash their eyes from tear gas. I marveled at the food peddlers calmly waiting on top of the bridge throughout the ordeal. Our driver kept the red cross sign we placed on the hood of the car.
Then somehow, life continued. Changes happened, but for many, things generally became “normal” again. While for others, life will never be the same.
Right now in the midst of the pandemic, there is a similar eerie feeling. Will we be reborn?
After the 1998 tragedy, Indonesia became a new country, a real democracy, or so they say. Will the pandemic change the world to learn what it means to be healthy, to take care of life, to protect ourselves and each other? If only it doesn’t have to cost so many lives to wake humankind to themselves…