Tuesday, January 14, 2003



One grey Friday afternoon in mid October, Min’s family invited me to the new house they had found for themselves in Teluk Gong in North Jakarta. It was not as primitive as their original Teluk Gong house, the one built on stilts, but it was in the same slum area which was largely devoid of trees and flowers. The front door looked onto a narrow, potholed, flooded street, along which travelled everything from diesel spewing trucks to trash consuming goats. To the right of the house was a yard storing battered oil drums. Across the street was a shack outside which bits of cars were being hammered and banged by mechanics.

I was greeted by Min and family at their front door.

"Nice, isn’t it?" said Wardi, as he showed me into the low-ceilinged front room, which was lit by one dim light bulb and one small window. The house was built of brick, had a toilet and a well, and upstairs there was a bedroom area.

"Yes," I said, thinking that these things are relative. I had visited the house previously but now it was looking more lived-in, as the family’s furniture had arrived. "Can you drink the water?" I asked.

"It’s too salty," said Min’s big brother, as we briefly inspected the windowless kitchen area. "We’re near the sea. But we can use the well water for washing."

"For drinking, you buy water and boil it?" I asked.

"That’s right. And we’re near our relations." Wardi was referring to the family members who still lived in the houses on stilts near the bottom end of the street.

"Min’s dad has got a job as a coolie," said a relaxed looked Wati, as we returned to the front room, "and Wardi can work with the fishing boats."

"Sounds ideal," I said. The house was as good as could be got for the price I had been prepared to pay. Wati had earlier insisted on looking at a brand new house on a nearby middle class estate but I had had to tell her that, at over ten thousand pounds sterling, it was much too expensive.

"The former owners of this place have given us the documents," said Wardi. "The house is in Min’s father’s name."

"Same as before," I said. "You’re a three house family. The house on stilts, the one in Cipete and now this one."

"Yes," said Wardi, who was looking at the concrete floor.

"Are you going to rent out the house in Cipete?" I asked, "or can Iwan, the leper kid, move in, when he comes out of hospital?"

"It’s up to you Mr Kent."

"It’s not my house. You decide," I said.

"Iwan can live there, if Mr Kent wants that," said Wati.

"OK," I said. "Iwan can move in. Min must be missing Iwan. He’s his only friend." I was always worried at Min’s lack of friends. Who but a leper child would want to befriend a mentally backward boy?

"Min’s got lots of relations here," said Wati.

I supposed he had, but would any of them take him for a walk through the kampung? I had noticed that it was mostly Gani, Min’s brother-in-law, who was delegated to come with me on walks with Min. "Shall we take Min for a walk now?" I asked.

I was pleased that on this occasion it was older brother Wardi who came with us on our saunter down the street to the area where wooden shacks and toxic mud predominated. Min, who was in a sober mood, took Wardi’s hand. We took a side lane and eventually reached the wooden home of the little twins with TB, Sani and Indra. They were still match stick children but their mum was able to show us a half empty plastic medicine container, to prove they were receiving their pills.

We continued our travels along wooden gangways and bumped into the little boy called Joko, the one with the wrinkled skin who lived with his mother in what looked like a flooded dog kennel. Joko looked worn out, like a decrepit old soldier.

"Joko’s mother died," whispered Wardi. "He’s staying with friends."

My stomach tightened. "Hello," I said to the little soul.
"Hello," he whispered.

"Where are you living?"

He pointed across the black waters of the canal to where some scavengers had built their wood and cardboard shelters.

"The authorities want to knock these shelters down," said Wardi.

"Why?" I asked.

"Maybe to widen the canal. You know they’re planning to build thousands of luxury houses around here. They might knock down our old house. The one on stilts."

It occurred to me that almost everywhere you looked in the world there was a feudal society, with the corrupt elite backed by military might; and the military might was usually backed by the Americans and the British.

As I handed Joko a small sum of money, he gave me an almost tearful smile.

I made a Saturday morning visit to the mental hospital at Babakan in Bogor. It had been praying on my conscience that, while dealing with John’s problems, I had been neglecting Daud and the other children still in the hospital. Last time I had been to Babakan, John’s friend Daud had been looking poorly. I wondered if Daud had the same diarrhoea infection that John had had.

"How’s Daud?" I asked Diana, the nurse on duty in the office within the children’s ward. She was the one who had told me she was a regular church attender.

"He’s OK. How’s John?" she said, with a look that puzzled me. Was it sympathy or sourness?

"John is cured, has put on weight, and is safely at home," I announced, triumphantly. "Can I see Daud?"

"He’s round the back," she said. She was watching TV and apparently trusted me to explore the place on my own.

In the back yard I found Daud was tied to a metal bed and he had lost a lot of weight. His eyes looked misty. His naked body was lying in a pool of diarrhoea.

"What do Daud’s parents do?" I asked Diana when I returned to the office. I had decided to avoid conflict, and be practical.

"Mother’s a nurse at the children’s clinic at the Laja Hospital," said Diana. "Father works for the government."

I wondered how a nurse could let her son get into the state that Daud was in and decided to take a trip to Bogor’s Laja Hospital to find out.

The Laja Hospital was an old government hospital, a smaller version of Jakarta’s Dipo. After making a few enquiries, I found Daud’s mother in a grubby room where she was sorting out patients’ files, prior to ending her shift. She was small, had greying hair and had the sort of serious, caring face you would expect of a good nurse. I introduced myself and explained why I was there.

"I haven’t seen Daud for some time," she admitted. "I’m grateful you’ve come."

"Has he always been backward?" I asked.

"He was normal until the age of nine. A good student at school. Then he got a fever and his brain got damaged. Meningitis. We had to put him in the Babakan Hospital because both my husband and I go out to work."

"How much do you get paid at the Laja Hospital?" I asked.

"About eighty thousand rupiahs a month. That’s about forty US dollars a month. My husband doesn’t get much more."

"If I paid you that amount, would you look after Daud at home?" I asked.

"Perhaps I could find a relative to look after him while I’m at work. We’ve been thinking about bringing him home some day. My husband’s building a room upstairs where Daud could live. Do you want to see it?"

Daud’s mum and I motored to the nearby government housing estate where Daud’s family lived. It was a place of pleasant villas, large and small, with gardens of bougainvillea and hibiscus. The largest houses were luxurious six bedroom affairs occupied by people like judges. Daud’s home was of a more modest three bedrooms. I noted it had a large TV, a music centre, two posh bicycles, a smart settee, photos of a girl still at school and a boy at university, and a big framed photo of the cute little eight-year-old schoolboy who was now in the mental hospital. Upstairs there was indeed a sunny room that had been prepared for Daud. Daud’s mum and dad were evidently doing quite well in their government jobs. I assumed there were all sorts of perks and that that was why mum did not want to give up her work as a nurse.

"I think you should take him out of the Babakan Hospital as soon as possible," I said. "When can you see him?"

"My husband will take me there this evening."

"What does your husband do for a living?"

"He works in the prison service," she said.

One November evening, I was invited by a teaching colleague called Ian to a night club in East Jakarta. Ian's thinning hair, pale face and tired-looking eyes suggested that either he was very conscientious about lesson preparation or that he spent many hours chatting to people in all-night bars. Or possibly both. Ian and I were accompanied by Ian’s silver-haired, straight backed friend called Richard. The latter, who had a touch of Bogart about him, was a former North-of-England police officer who was helping to train Jakarta’s police. I wondered if it was possible that he was working for the British secret service. Ian was single; Richard was married.

The night club was a long dark room with a small wooden stage at one end. On this stage, six shapely girls in skimpy black skirts and tight white T-shirts were dancing to Sundanese music. Brown was the colour of the walls, the soft furnishings and the paintwork around the neon-lit bar. The main clientele at that hour of the evening seemed to be small, middle-aged, male Indonesians, with enough money to buy decent shoes and suits. These gentlemen might well have been civil servants. The air carried an aroma of clove cigarette smoke and damp cellars.

"How did you find this place, Richard?" Ian asked, after we had found a table and ordered big wet Bintang beers. Ian’s lack of a smile suggested that he might have been happier in a more elegant bar at a four star hotel.

"An Indonesian police officer brought me here," said Richard. His twinkling eyes gave me the impression that he rather liked this den.

"Must be safe then," I commented. I usually enjoyed new places like this, at least for the first half hour.

"Let’s say," said Richard, "that certain army and police officers protect these clubs, for a fee. The only fighting is when different regiments fall out over territory. There was a fight around here a few months ago."

"I heard the protection doesn’t always work," said Ian, stifling a yawn.

"True," said Richard. "Last year police raided a gambling place down the road. Upstairs from the snooker. They arrested a civilian and a soldier. They found some shabu-shabu and some heroin."

"Shabu-shabu?" I asked.

"Crystal methamphetamine. A drug."

"What happened?" I said.

"The civilian got what I’d call a short sentence," explained Richard, "In court the police only produced a small part of the shabu-shabu. They said the original weighing of the drug had been inaccurate, due to faulty equipment. The soldiers were handed over to the military police but have never been prosecuted, as far as I know."

"Are you helping to improve the police?" I asked Richard.

"The traffic police are becoming more professional all the time," he said, while looking in the direction of the stage.

"I was stopped by a traffic cop last week," said Ian, in a tired voice. "I had to hand over thirty thousand rupiahs. The cop said I hadn’t seen this traffic sign, but nobody could have seen it. The money went straight into his pocket."

"That policeman probably gets paid not much more than five dollars a week," said Richard. "He can’t survive on that. His family would starve without the payoffs."

"One of our neighbours had his house burgled," said Ian. "It turned out that it was soldiers who did the robbery. They caught them but I don’t think they were punished."

"Detectives can make quite a bit of money," explained Richard. "When an arrested criminal is allowed to escape, he pays quite a lot to the detective."

"What I don’t like," said Ian, "is when soldiers are used to turf poor people off their land. Some big guy wants to build luxury houses, so he employs soldiers to demolish shacks and evict the occupants. Some poor family that’s worked hard to send its children to school loses its home."

"It’s rumoured that about half the crime in Jakarta is committed by the armed forces," said Richard, looking very slightly amused.

"Are the Americans still training Indonesian officers?" I asked.

"That stopped, didn’t it, after the massacre in East Timor, 1991?" said Ian.

"Most of the top generals and about half the other officers are American-trained," said Richard.

"But the American Congress banned funds for further training?" said Ian.

"The Pentagon has found ways to get round that," said Richard.

"Is the training improving the army?" I asked, naively.

"Who teaches torture, kidnapping and other dirty tricks to armies all around the world?" said Ian.

"The Yanks," said Richard.

"Not the Americans as such," said Ian, looking deadly serious, "but the fascist element within the Pentagon and CIA. These are the people who trained the Shah of Iran’s secret police and the people who think nothing of killing children and then putting the blame on some group of left-wingers or Moslems."

"It’s called demonisation," said Richard, "Blame everything on the Americans."

"Who should get the blame?" asked Ian. "Don’t the Americans cause most of the problems of the world?"

"There’s a bit of Henry Kissinger in all of us," said Richard. "And I think Mau was responsible for more deaths than most people."

A slim little girl, with a sweet but serious face, suddenly sat herself down at our table.

"Like to dance?" she said to Richard. Was he chosen because of his expensive suit?

"I’m married," said Richard, blushing happily, "but I need some exercise."

He got up, led the girl to a distant corner of the room, and began to dance. His body looked clumsy and convulsive. By comparison, the movements of the girl’s wrists, ankles and neck were refined, delicate and fluid.

"How are things at school?" I asked Ian, who did not seem to want to turn round to look at the dancers.

"Most of the students are wonderful, especially the Asians," said Ian. "But I had two little problems this term. A French student called Michel was behaving less than perfectly. He’s very cute-looking and thinks he can away with anything. I had a word with his mother. It seems that Michel’s dad has got himself an Indonesian girlfriend and he’s been parading her all around town. This may account for Michel’s attention seeking behaviour. The latest development is that Michel has been in hospital in Singapore recovering from meningitis. His mother says he’s better now and he promises to behave. Then there’s Nan and Maryati. They allegedly had a fight in a corridor. I phoned up Maryati’s mother and she explained that both girls are under stress. Nan’s parents, who’re Belgian, are getting divorced. Maryati’s father, who’s Dutch, has got himself an Indonesian boyfriend."

"It sounds like Britain," I commented. "Except that it’s worse in Britain. I got a letter from an old friend who’s a teacher back in England. He writes about how the majority of the children have been through divorce. His school seems to be full of disruptive schoolboys and pregnant schoolgirls."

When Richard returned from the dance floor, the girl joined us briefly at our table.

"This is Melati," said Richard. "Great dancer."

Ian surreptitiously took a card from his pocket and passed it to the girl.



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