“What if they got in?”
My sister looked at me with terror written all over her face. We could hear people shouting from afar. Although we didn’t catch a word, we knew something was really, really wrong.
She was helping me picking a new pair of sandals in a mall that has direct access to the apartment where we were staying, when one of her friends sent a video showing a large group of protesters passing North Jakarta’s main streets. It’s impossible, I said to myself. The rally has just ended. Maghrib (prayer time) is here. Medias have announced that the protest against Jakarta’s Chinese-Indonesian governor ended in peace. My friends tweeted about it literally a few minutes ago.
We rushed home anyway. Shortly after we locked the door, another news came in: the protesters had destroyed a restaurant not far from our apartment. I put everything on hold and tried to find more information. A journalist friend quickly confirmed our biggest fear: religious hardliners had made their way to North Jakarta where the majority of Chinese-Indonesian family lives. There were not enough military force, police officers, or security guards to protect us because most of them were trying to tackle the riot took place in front of the presidential palace. The information was followed by a picture of protesters in front of a mall and a simple message: “Stay safe. Stay inside.” That was the mall where my sister and I bought my new sandals an hour ago; the mall with direct access to our apartment.
The next 5-6 hours was pure terror. Speakers blasted announcement over and over again, “DO NOT GO OUT. STAY INSIDE. DO NOT PANIC. STAY CALM.” Way to reduce our anxiety! We stepped out of our little space. I immediately saw tense faces. Our neighbors were probably just as nervous and scared.
By the time we’re back inside, the blurry sounds had dissipated. The protesters had left. My sister turned on the TV. We ate dinner with our eyes glued to the screen. Riot was taking place 10 minutes from our doorstep. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that 18 years ago protesters barged into an apartment nearby, raped Chinese-Indonesian women and threw their bodies out of the windows.
“I’d jump off the balcony if they get in,” she looked at me as if she could read my mind. “We could hide,” I mumbled. My sister stared at me like I just said the most ridiculous thing in the world. “You know what they’d do to us,” she continued, this time more calmly, “I wouldn’t let it happen to ME.”
We spent the next several hours watching the news, following updates on social medias and talking with our friends. We watched videos of protesters raided two minimarkets and burned police vehicles. We watched journalists ran away as police started launching tear gas. We heard shots. It felt surreal to know that everything was happening literally 10-15 minutes away from us. It felt surreal to know that there are people who won’t hesitate to ‘eliminate’ us had they given the chance. It felt surreal that we were THIS close to a riot that caused the death of hundreds—some say more than a thousand—Chinese-Indonesian people 18 years ago.
Then military forces won. Riot stopped. The president stepped up and gave his speech. We could finally breathe and had much needed hot shower. I fell asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow. I spent the next morning processing and observing my own feelings. My heart beats faster out of nowhere. Sadness and pain surfaced when I was sitting in a cab. Then anger. Then frustration.
Then I met my best friends and hang out at their place. I spent more than an hour lying on their bed absentmindedly playing with my phone and just let myself think and feel whatever I wanted to think and feel. I started to feel better. My friend wanted to watch a comedy and we went to the theatre. Two hours later I felt much, much better. I still had a restless night, tense muscles and this morning I woke feeling a little weak.
The struggle is far from over. Chinese-Indonesian communities will still face lots of challenges, regardless Ahok’s next winning. Regardless he’s proven not guilty. Peace, to most of us, is an illusion. We know it’s not going to be over soon. I told my sister not to unpack her suitcase. I’ll fly her to Bali at the first sign of chaos and who knows what is going to happen in the next 6, 12 months. After 18 years, 1998 has never felt more real.
And still, here I am, putting so much hope in our beloved president Joko Widodo. Thinking that I am so lucky to be able to have a beautiful life in Bali. That Indonesia and its wonderful beaches are one of the most amazing places on Earth, even as I watched video of a group of protesters in white robes announcing they wouldn’t hesitate to turn Indonesia into “a war zone”. That no matter what happens, my love for this country and its people remain unscathed although we might have to leave someday. I hope not.
Because it’s my dream to be able to tell my kids someday, “It was decades of struggle and suffering, followed by long years of peace and concord.”