by Andreas Harsono
American Reporter Correspondent
December 25, 2000
A BLOODY CHRISTMAS EVE UNITES DIVIDED INDONESIA
JAKARTA, Dec. 25, 2000 -- Hendra Putra said a final prayer at a Christmas vigil Mass on Sunday evening and offered a friend a ride home. Talking quietly, the two men headed to Putra's small Honda motorbike in a little parking area fenced with chicken wire, part of a Catholic school compound next to Jakarta's Church of St. Joseph.
In the heavily crowded compound, the second wave of churchgoers began to enter as those from an earlier Mass were leaving, their mood serene as they celebrated Christmas Eve. The 37-year-old Putra and his friend had to walk slowly to get his bike, going out the front gate and passing beside a blue bus shelter in front of the church. It was almost 9 p.m.
Suddenly a bomb exploded amid some dark green bushes behind the bus stop, about 10 yards from where Putra was walking his motorbike.
He probably never knew what happened. In the bomb's fury, an old, dark-green Toyota van had its back door ripped open like a cheap plastic toy. A tree trunk was severed and blown away. The windshields of 24 cars were broken in the blast. Blood was splattered everywhere, in the parking lot, on a nearby cigarette stall. In a lightning-fast blizzard of broken glass dozens of people were injured indiscriminately.
An old man waiting inside the bus stop was thrown several yards away, his head bleeding from deep cuts. A sound system operator sipping his evening coffee near the cigarette seller was instantly killed.
Panic, panic and panic. Children and women ran for safety. People cried. Sixty-six security officers, both private guards and policemen deployed around St. Joseph in the event of trouble, tried to call taxis for the wounded, calm down the angry and frightened crowd, and get backup. As the minutes passed, they sent more than 50 victims to two hospitals in the neighborhood.
Good Samaritans in a passing car apparently took Putra to a hospital. His forehead and right cheek were ripped open. He was bleeding and unconscious. It is not clear what happened in the hospital's overcrowded emergency rooms but three-and-a-half hours later, at about 12:30 a.m. on December 26, Putra's brother found his body in the hospital. Dead.
Hendra Putra, an entrepreneur who had just established an Internet café, died on Christmas morning in one of the biggest of the serial terror bombings that have shocked Indonesia over the past few years. The old man who was thrown aside by the blast happened to be Putra's neighbor, Ronny Hariadi; the sound operator was Abdul Karim.
Bombs exploded Sunday outside more than two dozen churches in Jakarta, Pekanbaru in Sumatra, Batam Island south of Singapore, Bekasi, Sukabumi and Bandung in West Java, Mojokerto in East Java and Mataram in West Nusa Tenggara. The police also found 18 bomb devices in those cities, which include Medan in northern Sumatra, but were able to prevent their lethal explosions. The bombings were so extensive that they span an area from southern Thailand to the easternmost tip of Sabah, in Malaysia.
Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid said on Monday that the church bombings are an attempt to destabilize his already troubled government.
"Their steps are to destabilize the government and create fear and panic," he told reporters, adding that the explosions were a blatant attack on the country's minority Christian community.
"Clearly this is an attempt to destroy Christians by using Islam," he said.
The close timing of the blasts, mostly between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m., outside churches that were organizing Christmas masses, points to a coordinated campaign of terror, but there was no word on who was responsible and Wahid did not specifically accuse anyone.
Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim country, with an estimated 90 percent of its 210 million people followers of Islam. About nine percent of Indonesians are Christians.
Chief of Police S. Bimantoro said 14 people were killed in the bombings, including two police officers and one private security guard, who found a suspicious Christmas gift in a Mojokerto church and tried to dump it into a river. The bomb exploded only seconds before he would have thrown it away.
"It's impossible for people in Mojokerto to produce this sophisticated bomb," said a police officer in Mojokerto, as if trying to say that the bombs were related to the others throughout Indonesia. Only organizations with military skills, a national network and strong financial muscle are able to produce these kinds of bombs, he indicated.
Witnesses and family members said Hendra Putra was seen taking his motorbike a few minutes before the explosion. But Fredrik Atara, St. Joseph's chief security guard, said he himself had checked the dark bushes about 30 minutes prior to the explosion and found nothing suspicious there.
The bombing, however, created a feeling of solidarity among Muslims and Christians in Jakarta. Taxi drivers, radio hosts, Internet chatterers, pedestrians, street vendors, and politicians both Christian and Muslim talked about an attempt to pit Christians against Muslims in Indonesia.
In a morgue where Putra and Hariadi's bodies were placed, many Muslim neighbors attended a Mass to honor both men, led by Jakarta's Roman Catholic Bishop Julius Darmaatmadja.
"Although I am not of the same faith (with Putra), I deplore this bombing. This is a sadistic, inhumane, barbarian act. He is a good boy. What is his wrongdoing? Why he was targeted?" asked neighbor Yeni Safriyati, who helped the Putra family organize the service.
Safriati, who wore an Islamic headscarf, said she had known Putra since he was a small boy. "We're neighbors, we live for years to respect one to each other," she sobbed. Putra is of a Catholic and Chinese-descent Indonesian family.
For many. the sympathy showered on the family demonstrated that, in this pluralistic Indonesia, bombings can't stop people from feeling a sense of common identity. "We're friends since we were both kids. He is a kind person who never hurts others," said Wiwik Satoro.
Putra's mother, Maria Sodistiawati, kept on sobbing as each friend or neighbor gave her a hug. "He's a good boy, he is a good boy," she kept crying.
Andreas Harsono was a 1999-2000 Nieman Fellow in International Journalism at Harvard before returning to Indonesia six months ago.