Friday, December 20, 2002



Near Bogor’s Empang Market, I came upon a shopping street that looked as if it had not altered much in appearance since the time of Dutch colonial rule; the buildings were relatively small and seemed to be a mixture of neo-classical Dutch, with squat shapes and cheap Doric columns, and Art-Deco, with cool classy rectangles and curves; the paintwork on most of the buildings looked tired and grey with dust. As I meandered along this street I spotted a fragile old woman sitting on the pavement. She had a fist-sized lump on her neck and yet she managed to give me a sweet smile.

We made conversation. She said she had difficulty talking, eating and breathing. She had no family and lived on the street. My invitation to take her to the nearby Labar Hospital was accepted. A young doctor agreed to admit her as a patient, in spite of the fact that she was a street-person and had no family to guard over her in hospital.

While I was in the accident and emergency ward, a dark and gloomy place, I listened to the hysterical wails of the mother of a girl aged about four. The girl had what looked like a hole in her torso, just below her stomach. When I asked what the problem was, the young doctor explained that the child had been born without an anus; she had to use a tube attached to a bag; the family were desperate for a permanent solution to the girl’s problems; the Labar hospital was too small to provide the sort of operation required by the girl. The mother was plainly dressed and obviously not rich. I offered to take the mother and daughter to a hospital in Jakarta. The mother consulted her husband who had been waiting in a corridor and my offer was greeted with enthusiasm.

Jakarta’s Kota Hospital, which had been recommended by the Bogor doctor, is a big sky-scraping concrete shoe-box, like a giant council block in Sheffield. We were introduced to a surgeon, a big man in his fifties, who seemed to have more of the appearance of a plumber than a doctor. The surgeon agreed to have the child admitted to the hospital. I agreed to return the following evening with some money.

"You don’t have to pay," said the surgeon.

"I thought everyone had to pay for treatment," I said.

"Not everyone has to pay," said the surgeon. "Poor people don’t have to pay. And some people who work for the government have insurance."

"But I’ve never before come across a hospital where payment is not required."

"I assure you, there is nothing to pay."

After school next day, I hurried to the Kota Hospital and found the surgeon in a corridor.

"Your friends have gone," he said.

"Without an operation?" I said.

"Without an operation. They decided to return to their home."

I wanted to find out more, but the surgeon shook my hand, praised me for my kindness, and hurried off.

So, what was I to make of it? Had the parents changed their minds? Had the hospital decided it did not have the money or the expertise for the operation? And if the girl had stayed longer, and had had the operation, would it have been a success? I will never know. I never saw the family again.

At the weekend I motored to Bogor and called in at the ward of the Labar Hospital where the old lady with lump on her neck was staying. She was nowhere to be seen. A nurse claimed not to know of the lady with the neck lump. I left the ward and wandered along a corridor. There was a door on my left. I opened it and entered a small room with one bed. On the bed was my patient, eyes closed and looking grey. I touched her arm. It was cold and hard. The lady was dead.

At the reception desk I insisted that I must see the director of the hospital.

"The director is not here," said the receptionist, looking slightly shaken by my obvious anger. "But I’ll make an appointment for you to see him tomorrow."

Next evening I met the director, a small, grey haired, former army doctor, who had a reassuringly worried manner.

"We are sorry about what has happened," said the director. "The old lady had cancer. It had affected her ability to breathe."

From the director there appeared to be none of the arrogance or deceit that one sometimes encounters among members of the elite. I felt disarmed. I shook the man’s hand and left.

Would the lady have lived longer if she had remained sleeping on the street? There was no way of answering that question. What I did know was that both the Labar Hospital and the Kota Hospital were run by the government. Government hospitals were cheap but, according to my driver, they were best avoided.

I needed some fresh air and cheering up. When Saturday came, I agreed to the request by Min’s family to take them to visit their relatives in the market town of Dengklok, a journey of forty miles. The toll road took us eastwards from Jakarta through flat and unremarkable countryside. This could have been Western European, except that, alongside the occasional industrial estate, I could see the sort of impoverished hamlet you might find in parts of Eastern Europe. Near the town of Karawang, we turned north, taking a series of minor roads into an older world of spacious rice fields. There were long straight villages heavily shaded by massive trees and prettified by hibiscus and bougainvillea.

Dengklok itself was a sprawling settlement on a wide flat plain that stretched away to the horizon. The town had probably not changed that much in the previous hundred years. The tropical sun shone down on our air-conditioned vehicle as we drove through town. Hordes of happy and rumbustious schoolchildren, dressed in immaculate white uniforms, were heading home from morning school; goats grazed on patches of rough grassland; elderly residents sat outside dog-eared bungalows which were in need of some repair; women were washing clothes beside a wide brown river; shoppers in the market place seemed neither affluent nor in a hurry; I spotted a Buddhist temple, a number of small mosques, a rather large church and the usual army barracks.

Min’s uncle and aunt lived on the edge of town, in a homespun house, sheltering under palm trees, and with a view of rice fields stretching to a far distant area of woodland. Uncle and aunt had warm smiles, thin bodies and the sort of hands and muscles I associated with people who did farm work; aunt’s dress was simple and well worn, in contrast with the magnificent green blouse and long brown Javanese skirt worn by Min’s mum. The greetings were formal, involving kissing of hands; the language spoken was Sundanese, not a word of which I could understand.

The inside of the house seemed to be one large, sunless room divided up by interwoven split bamboo partitions. At the front was the living room and at the back were three small sleeping areas, very dark due to the absence of window light. The kitchen was in a kind of outhouse at the back. The floor was spotlessly clean, but there were cobwebs in the high roof, and the stained walls both internal and external could have done with a coat of paint.

I felt it was best to let Min’s family have their get-together in private, and so took a walk with a chirpy Min and with Gani, Min’s impassive-faced brother-in-law from Jakarta. We followed a path sided by coconut palms and fruit trees, and passed a variety of types of habitation.

"Why do people live under the trees?" I asked Gani.

"The sun and the heavy rain," he said. "The trees give protection. The trees also give firewood."

"And is the wood from the trees used to make the houses?"

"The coconut wood makes the frame of the house. But bamboo is used for some walls."

I could see that the poorer houses had walls entirely of bamboo, while the slightly wealthier houses used brick or a combination of brick and bamboo.

"What are the houses built on?"

"Sometimes concrete. Sometimes the floors are just earth. It’s not like in some other parts of Indonesia where the houses are on stilts."

We came to a weather-beaten bamboo house and I imagined it was of the same design that had been used back in the Middle Ages, when Java was Hindu-Buddhist. At the back of the house was a bamboo structure housing goats and another one full of chickens. There was a definite farm smell in the air.

"Do these people build their own houses?" I asked.

"They get help. All the local men will help."

We came to a group of tired-looking bungalows which were typical of certain lower-middle-income sections of Javanese towns. These homes appeared to be held up by pillars of concrete rather than wood. And they had the usual mass-produced and slightly tacky neo-classical pillars and the usual mildewed ceramic roof-tiles.

On our return to Min’s uncle’s house I sat outside on a wooden bench, alongside Gani, Min and a couple of teenage boys, and watched the world go by. In the distance a man on a bicycle was transporting great bundles of what looked like animal-fodder. Closer to hand, a youth was high up in a coconut palm, hacking away with a machete. The small children who came to stare at us looked slightly ragged, but they had gorgeous sparkling eyes, wide mischievous grins and sensuous curving noses and lips.

This seemed like the sort of place where I might be happy to live. The sky was a dense and warming blue; ruffling the palm fronds was a gentle breeze; and the air was sweetly scented by pink hibiscus and solandra of a yellow hue. And yet, we were many miles from a modern supermarket or a modern hospital. And there was the problem of overpopulation.

On my next visit to Parung, I found that the lady with the breast cancer had wasted away almost to a skeleton. She still refused to go to hospital, but she was happy to take some money.

"Money, money," she said, with a dark grin. "I love money."

The lady’s husband had made an appearance. He was surprisingly young, reasonably good-looking, perhaps in his early thirties; he worked at some kind of market stall in Jakarta. The small son’s eyes seemed to have got bigger and more worried-looking.

A few weeks later, the Parung lady was dead. One of the woman’s neighbours told me that the little boy and his older brothers had gone to live with a grandmother.

Out to explore one of Bogor’s hilly kampungs one Saturday morning, I walked past the Labar Hospital and came to a rubbish tip, a sizeable pile of discarded waste right next to the pavement. Lying on top of this rubbish tip was a young woman who looked like a victim of a concentration camp. I stopped a passer-by, a stylishly dressed lady in her thirties, and asked her if she thought the malnourished woman should be taken to the Labar Hospital.

"It’s too late for that," said the lady, who seemed keen to get away from me as swiftly as possible. "She’s already been in hospital."

I tried addressing the anorexic woman, but all I got was a sickly whine. I called on Mo, my driver, and together we managed to get the poor woman to Bogor’s privately run Menteng Hospital.

"The woman is mentally backward and has no family," said the tall doctor on duty in the emergency ward. "We can’t take her."

I wondered about trying the mental hospital. Then I remembered the disappearance of Chong and the sickness of John. Mo and I drove our patient to the Christian-run Teluk Gong Hospital in Jakarta.

On arrival, I explained as little as I could about the patient. I did not want the hospital to know that she was mentally backward. I simply said that the poor girl on the stretcher was an acquaintance from Bogor, that she had become ill and that I was hoping she would be admitted for tests.

"What’s her name?" asked the little bald-headed Chinese doctor.

I had to think quickly. "Jasmin," I said, hoping that that was an Indonesian name.

"I think Jasmin has TB," said the doctor with a sympathetic smile.

Jasmin was admitted to a third class ward.

It was Ramadan once more, the end of January 1997, and the newspapers were full of news from Dengklok, which I had so recently visited with Min’s family. There had been a riot in that peaceful little town of 200,000 people. Mobs had attacked churches, a Chinese temple, two houses and scores of businesses.

As the days went by the story slowly emerged: very early on the 30th January, some youths, possibly of school age, were having their breakfast before starting the day’s fasting; the youths started banging the big drums at the mosque; a Chinese-Indonesian woman shouted rudely at the youths, telling them to make less noise; apparently in retaliation a mob attacked the home of the Chinese-Indonesian woman; at the market, around six in the morning, the mob ransacked a shop owned by the Chinese-Indonesian woman’s family; next to be attacked were houses and shops on Berdikari Street; on Proklamasi Street there was an assault on the Indonesian Christian Church; stones were thrown at the police who escorted the family of the Chinese-Indonesian woman to the safety of Karawang; a mob of around two hundred people, described as being mostly primary and secondary school children, proceeded to the Bethel Tabernakel Church, where they were faced by a force of about twenty soldiers and police; the children and youths had no difficulty in entering the church, picking up chairs and throwing them into the street; Buddhist temples were attacked; near a Chinese owned bank four cars were set on fire; Moslems spray-painted the word ‘Moslem’ on their properties to avoid them being attacked; some Moslems painted the word ‘Moslem’ on the homes of their Christian neighbours so as to protect them also; around 11.30 in the morning the windows of a Christian school were smashed; the army and police, including three military trucks, encouraged the mob to move on; troops and riot police set up road blocks and began patrolling the streets; within a few days, the market was back to its normal busy self.

Several days after the Dengklok riots I was in my local supermarket when I bumped into Mary, the mother of one of my most polite, cheerful and conscientious students. Mary was a gentle woman, expensively but soberly dressed, Chinese-Singaporean and staunchly Christian.

"What caused the Dengklok riots?" I asked her, after we had exchanged pleasantries about the weather and the poor quality of the supermarket chicken.

"These people are very poor," she said, quietly. "They resent the Chinese. They think the Chinese-Indonesians are corrupt and disloyal to Indonesia. They see them as the Jews of Asia."

"So it was an attack on the Chinese rather than an attack on Christians?"

"It was a lot of things," said Mary, looking me straight in the eye. "The Moslems see the Chinese-Indonesians drive up to a big expensive church building in their luxury cars. Or they see them going to a wealthy Buddhist temple. The Chinese probably own most of the shops and bigger businesses in Dengklok. The Chinese are only about three percent of the population but they seem to have a lot of the money. They seem to pull all the strings."

"But why are we suddenly getting these anti-Chinese riots? There was a riot in October in Situbondo in East Java. Then one in December in West Java."

"It’s always the same before elections. We’ve elections coming up in May."

"You mean the riots are planned?"

"They could be spontaneous. They could be planned. One theory is that the people in power use the Chinese as scapegoats. A riot lets off steam. Another theory is that the opposition groups use the riots to undermine the people in power."

"How would the people in power be able to cause a riot?"

"It could be done by extremist Moslem groups secretly run by some faction of the military. They could spread rumours. They could organise a mob."

"Is there any proof?"

"None at all."



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