Flash back – Jakarta, Indonesia. May 13, 1998. (written May 13 2007)

I gazed at the living room one more time, trying to hold back my tears. The Balinese painting on the wall, which depicted the Mahabharata war – the battle between “good” and “evil” – seemed to laugh at me.

I dearly loved that painting my late father gave me. When I was a little girl, I used to read the story of Mahabharata over and over again, days and nights. The epic was written between 400 BC and 400 AD, and has the honor of being the longest epic in the world literature. It is a story of a bloody feud between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, two branches of the ruling family of an Indian kingdom. The conflict culminates in a real bloody battle that annihilates nearly
all those involved in the war. The little-girl-in-me always loved the victors, The Pandavas, or the “good” brothers I thought then. But in real life today, I was not sure that “good” is always “good”, and “bad” is always “bad”.

Beneath that colorful painting I saw the flowery red sofa on which I happily shared most of my leisure time – reading or napping. It now looked so sad and deserted. The TV on the corner of the room was still on and noisy, but I didn’t dare to glance at the screen. The TV’s sound was still able to reach me though,
like a sharp flying dagger thrown into my heart.

“The riot has been spreading to most parts of Jakarta and other cities!”

“The rioters are burning the buildings and passing-by cars! They are running amok, looting the stores and residential houses!”

“People are rushing to the airports, abandoning their houses and cars!”

“Fire is everywhere! Hundreds of people were being trapped in the fire!”

“The situation in Jakarta is out-of-control!”

I tightened the straps of my backpack one more time, ran through the hallway, and entered the study room.

This country is collapsing. Where the hell is the military?

I lunged for one of diplomas that were framed nicely, hung on the wall. Sighing helplessly, I grabbed its wooden frame and tore it from the wall. I did the same for another one that was hung next to it. In that second I was still able to see a flash of some printed letters – New York.

Our diplomas. These were Har’s and mine. A couple years back, we spent every penny of our savings, struggling and juggling through a very difficult life – just to get these.

At least, these are ours to be kept. We might have to leave our home. We might have to leave our bright careers and our dreams. We might have to leave everything behind. But the wonderful memory printed on these papers, are ours.

I rolled the papers, trying to push them into the pocket of my backpack. Suddenly I felt a strong hand gripping my left wrist.

“Where are you going?”

My husband, Har, was standing beside me. His breath was short and shallow from running up and down the stairs. He went up to the roof, from where he could see the black, thick smoke that was enveloping the heated Jakarta sky.

Where are we going? That’s a good question.

“Don’t you see?” I stammered. “They’re coming! They’ve been burning the nearby buildings! We need to leave the house!”

“To where? People are blocking the roads. We can’t go anywhere. We are staying.”

I could not breathe. It cannot be! We’re trapped here.

I tried to yank my hand off his grip. Har stared at me hopelessly, not knowing what to say. I opened the front door and walked silently to the outside entrance gate. He followed me. Our iron entrance gate was huge and tall, strongly guarding our vast property. It was about seven feet in height and eight feet in width. Next to the gate, was my sparkling black BMW parked in the shadow of a big rambutan tree.

Oh, no. Our home and garden look enormous. Those rioters will think we are rich.

But we were indeed fortunately not poor. Har and I were both lucky to have been able to climb significant ladders of success in different, leading multinational companies at that time. We enjoyed an upper-middle class life-style that was full of abundance.

I glanced up, and halted. There, outside the gate, I saw a crowd of people. I recognized some of the faces. They were the nearby village people who mingled around with some neighbors.

“You can’t go,” a voice spoke out of the crowd.

An old man, whose hair was gray and faded, was smiling at me. His eyes shot deeply. I recognized him as Pak Ahmad, the nice old man who regularly picked our garbage out to the collection center and guarded the neighborhood.

“We have barricaded this street with trucks and local people,” Pak Ahmad explained. “We are defending this neighborhood.”

“But… but… they’ve been very close. They’ve been burning the nearby stores!”

“Yes, they’re burning the buildings on the main roads, but they are not coming in here. We are in the safest neighborhood. Almost all of us are inlanders, dark brown-skin people. We only have few Chinese here.”

Few Chinese. What?

Pak Ahmad turned to me and said slowly, “The rioters are ransacking the Chinese residential complexes. They are gang-raping the Chinese women.”

I almost shouted exasperatedly. Chinese?! They just happen to have fair, ivory skin color and narrow eye-lids! They were all born in this country, live here, and speak Indonesian! They are Indonesians!

But I felt a chill that forced me to keep my mouth shut.

Pak Ahmad tapped my shoulder lightly. “Don’t go. It’s very dangerous out there. You just stay with your family here, and we will defend this neighborhood together. We’ll talk to those crazy people.”

Crazy people.

I saw some of those rioters on TV. They are almost non-humans, behaving like wild animals, burning buildings, gang-raping women, and killing people. I am not sure at all of our neighborhood “little barricade”.

Pak Ahmad spoke something to Har. It turned out that he consolidated all the men in the neighborhood to patrol and stay awake in shifts around-the-clock, protecting the neighborhood from that terrible bloody, mass-riot, until it subsided.

Where the hell is the military?


We could not forget that day ever since – the day when we were being cheated by the military that was supposed to protect us, the day when hundreds or thousands of us were being killed – either trapped in the fire, fell down from the high rise buildings, or being knocked out in the waves of thousands of crazy rioters on the streets. All the military personnel and the police officers seemed to disappear into thin air that day. No protection, no law, no regulation, no country. Nothing.

What had really happened that day?

Until today, the whole tragedy was still in a big question, a big blur for most of us. On the previous year, the Asian crisis had knocked the country down and left millions of people without jobs. Poverty was spawning everywhere. Thousands and thousands of students were protesting on the streets for political and economic reforms. At that time they were miserably facing the cold wall of the strong, powerful dictatorship.

Then, a day before “The May Tragedy” – as all of us remembered and called that day – some students were shot to death while protesting, by the military. People were angry. Then out of nowhere, came those provocateurs after provocateurs trying to stir people up, followed by trucks after trucks that were fully loaded by strange, “crumpled” people. Led by the provocateurs, these strange people marched into the streets, behaving wildly and destructively burning buildings and rioting. Later, they purposely targeted the rich people and Chinese enclaves. Some people even swore to have seen them red-eyed and drugged, as if seeing non-humanly monsters in devilish actions.

Har and I didn’t go anywhere that day. For days we kept watching news on TV and listening to the radio almost around-the-clock. We were occasionally terrorized by the sound of thundering guns and the sound of people screaming. We kept praying and helping shelter some frightened, “fugitive” friends in our home. We helped Pak Ahmad and the neighbors barricade the neighborhood. Luckily, our neighborhood was so remotely “hidden” and “localized” and “unimportant” that it didn’t catch the attention of the rioters, even though most of the big stores on the main street were badly burned. Most of the places that had been destroyed were usually Chinese enclaves, or those considered rich-people residential complexes.

Sure, we then heard about the political conspiracy theory among some of the military generals to overthrow the dictator. Indeed, several days later the military took control of the country – only after hundreds or thousands of us were bloodily killed. The dictatorship regime that had been on power for over 30 years was overthrown almost overnight. But the nation’s wound was so deep and painful. The cost was unimaginable.

Since the “Tragedy of May” happened, many people fled from this sunny, beautiful archipelago country. The foreign investment, mostly those of Chinese ethnic groups or those of other foreign countries, were quickly dwindling. There had been a huge brain-drain of intellectual individuals who did not see any hope in this country anymore. They fled.

And suddenly, I lost a vast number of beloved friends.


One morning, not too long after “The Tragedy of May”, a raspy voice made me freeze at my office desk.

“I’m going, Laksmi.”

Without even glancing up, I knew it was Fer’s. He was the head of IT department in our company, one of my closest friends.

I took a deep breath. “Don’t tell me you are resigning.”

The similar news like this had bombarded our company almost every day. An executive resigned to move to Canada. Another executive flew over to New Zealand. Another one already ran away to Australia, and so on, and so on. The list was never ending.

Sighing, Fer tried to shoot me a supposedly warm smile. He then gazed out of the window, looking at the Jakarta’s business district landscape.

“I don’t want to. But I am going to the States.”

I stood up. I was not able to think of a word to say.

He hesitated a moment, but seemed to try to at least make an explanation.

“My whole life – I’d always thought I would live and die in this country as a truly Indonesian. My family and I – we all love Indonesia deeply. We are Indonesians. But we have fair skin colors and narrow eye-lids, the Oriental looks. For the first time in my life, my little girls had asked me the question
I couldn’t answer – ‘Daddy, why other people called us Chinese and hated us?’ I cannot tell them we are the second-class citizens in here.”

“No,” I gasped.

I held his hands tightly, but I knew I was losing him.

The whole picture told him that he needed to go. The Chinese business complex in Glodok area was burned to the ground. The Chinese residential enclaves in the western part of Jakarta were badly destroyed. My rather high-class figure friend, Karlina, was now working together with various religious leaders in
Indonesia, building a temporary shelter to protect the gang-rape victims who were practically half-dead, half-alive. Most of the victims were so terribly hurt and terrorized that they couldn’t be able to face the new day forwards. The team was trying to mentally help, and “secretly” transporting the victims for
asylums in various Western countries.

It is all real. The wound is deeply real.

Yet, because of various conflicted interests, there have been denials of this “Tragedy of May” from various stakeholders of this beloved country. There have been attempts to blur and burry the history right in front of our own eyes, one more time.

But look, the wound is so real. We have not even fully recovered until today.

How we could really heal someday, we might never ever have the answer. The people of this shiny archipelago that has over 17,000 islands are now still facing the battle in their deepest hearts and minds. With hundreds of different ethnic groups, different languages, different skin-colors, different physical
appearances, different religions, these people are truly the representatives of the multi-diverse nations on planet earth – the unwilling participants of the battle between “good” and “evil” of which has been blurred.

We are all struggling through our differences. We are struggling to grow up, to learn to understand – that beyond religions, beyond races, beyond nations, beyond all those differences, is HUMANISM.

– Laksmi
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