It’s not often – unless you’re a news reporter or something – that you get to witness major historical events unfold firsthand.
The smashing down of the Berlin Wall. Tiananmen Square. The Rwanda massacres. These are all events still vivid in my mind. But seen from a distance – and in the comfort of my own armchair – they will always be impersonal news stories compressed into the rectangular shape of a TV screen.
But what would it actually be like to experience something like that yourself?
Well, I was to find out for myself on 13 May 1998.
Here’s the story of my day:
I’m in one of Jakarta’s huge office buildings, not far from the Semanggi cloverleaf intersection. The office is on one of the upper floors, and sometimes it's nice just to put your feet up and enjoy the views. But not today.
It’s about 11.00 in the morning. Someone shouts out something in Indonesian that I don’t understand, but I join everyone else by the huge window with views to the north of the city anyway.
Huge plumes of smoke are drifting upward. But these are not just normal fires that can often be seen in Jakarta. These fires are taking place in Mangga Dua, Glodok, Gadjah Madah. Chinatown.
The rioting has finally started.
But it doesn’t come as a surprise. It was inevitable really. The economy’s going the drain; the rupiah’s crumbling; inflation’s soaring. And a dictator at the helm who's been in power since Hendrix was in the charts. This is it. This is when the pressure cooker is finally gonna blow its bloody top off.
Welcome to the suck. Well what a ****.
And I’m smack bang in the center of the damn city!
Everyone is on edge but noone shows it. That’s the Indonesian way. The boss receives a call. You can all go home now (as if there were a choice!).
I don’t even bother to call home. I’m getting out fast, and I’m getting home as quickly as I possibly can.
Down to the parking lot and onto the bike. It ain’t far to my house. 15-20 minutes max.
A few windy backroads, and I come out onto the main thoroughfare that leads to Slipi, right in front of Jakarta’s police headquarters, Komdak.
Thankfully there ain’t much traffic, and with the adrenalin pumping through my veins I throttle my bike as fast as it will go. I’ll be home in 5 minutes. No worries.
But hold on a sec – there’s a roadblock ahead.
And they aren't letting us pass the Parliament building either. So like everyone else, I have to turn left and go past the Senayan football stadium. Heck, I didn't expect this. But nevermind. Past one set of traffic lights, and a right turn. Past Hotel Mulia. Hell: the traffic’s really building up here. And one guy’s got out of his car and is shouting his head off like a crazy. But I certainly ain't intent on finding out why.
Thank God I’m on the bike, and I tear past the now stationary traffic on the WRONG side of the road, driving like a maniac, with my eyes peeled for any oncoming vehicles that could take me out.
Over the railway track, and toward Slipi. It’s getting really frantic now. At the junction I notice the words “makin bikin brutal” (let’s make it brutal) chalked onto the road. Groups of people milling around. Some with sticks. Lot of crewcuts. Rocks in hands...
Gotta keep moving. Gotta keep moving. It's up on the curb, and then slowly down again, before opening the gas and tearing through the red lights.
Five minutes later, I’m home.
But what to do? There’s a bottle of wine that I was saving for a special occasion; but **** that: this is a special occasion. I chuck it in the freezer to get it cold. And so half an hour later and I’m up on the roof garden (more like the place where the maids hang the washing), wine glass in one hand and a Henry Wintermans in the other. I even take off my shirt to get in spot of sunbathing. Am I in Bali? I wish I was...
OMG! What the hell is that?
Huge plumes of smoke are rising from an area no more than one or two kilometers in front of me. The mobs have set fire to Slipi Jaya Shopping Mall! Then looking behind me, I notice more smoke: the local vegetable market must be burning down too.
Totally surreal. But nevermind the fires. I finish off the wine.
Later in the afternoon, I’m in the front garden, when I notice people walking past my house carrying all sorts of stuff: mainly clothes, but also other stuff. Looters, of course. They must have cleared out the Slipi Jaya Shopping Mall before they set fire to it.
Thinking the drink’s gone to my head, I have to blink twice when I see three teenagers, all smiles, pushing one of those huge jumbo fridge freezers past my house. The huge bloody thing towers over the three of them. They see me watching and call out the obligatory “hello mister!” I shout back “kulkas besar!’ (big fridge!) and give them the thumbs up. They laugh, as they continue on their way.
But what would they want with that damn thing I think to myself? They could barely get it into their tiny house I imagine, and they’d never be able to afford the electricity to run it anyway.
A city gone crazy. The looting for looting’s sake. People who would never think of stealing something ordinarily, joining in this collective madness as if time had suddenly stopped and the real world had been replaced by this insane world in which everything becomes free…
9.00pm and I’m in the bedroom. I’ve had a few Bintangs, phoned a few people, sent a few emails, and I’m now listening to the melancholy drones of Kurt Cobain. Nirvana Unplugged. What an incredible record that is - whatever the occasion.
My wife wants the radio on. Fair enough. We sit back and listen to Radio Senora. Every 15 minutes or so, in between the music, the female DJ says stuff like "situasi di Green Garden sudah mulai ramai..". (the situation in Green Garden is already getting “busy”…). Amazing. Even in chaos, the DJ keeps to the formality. What she really meant was the mobs were ransacking houses, burning down the shophouses, and even I presume assaulting some of the women in the most horrific ways (un)imaginable. But only of people belonging to a certain group.
I don’t want to listen to this rubbish anymore and pace nervously around the house. I check outside, but it’s comfortingly quiet. Some people are patrolling our road. We give them drinks and snacks. It’s gonna be alright. But then I probably knew that all along. I live in the “right” area and I ain’t from the “wrong” background.
Finally I go to bed. It’s eerily quiet. I think of places like Green Garden and can only imagine the horror. Their nightmares can only be beginning as I drift off into sleep…