9 min read

Why The Jakarta Bombings Aren’t Anything New

All my life I’ve heard of threats—of bombs, shootings, extremists groups.

When it happened, I was sitting on the floor of a meeting room with a marker in hand. I heard my coworker say the word, ‘bomb’ and ‘Sarinah’ so I stopped writing.

“What was that?” I asked.

“There’s a bomb,” he said calmly. “Well, a few.”

Suddenly my phone vibrated and my sister and mom lit up the family group chat with news and questions. There’s been 3 explosions in Thamrin, they said. Are you all okay?

Chalk it up to serendipity, but I was working from another building when the attack hit; one that stood on the outskirts of Jakarta instead of my usual office in the middle of the city. I Googled the news.

Jakarta bomb. 

For many other cities, the first results would be the tragedy that had just struck minutes before. In Jakarta, it gave me a list of terrorist attacks from a few months back to a few decades ago. 

Jakarta bomb 2016.

It felt strange having to write the year of a tragedy. It happened so often that we had to specify the year, the area, the date. 

Then, there it was. 6 explosions in an area where I used to work. I immediately texted my old colleague to ask if he was alright. His building sat across from Sarinah, the site of attack. He assured me he was alright albeit a bit shaken. The office was on lockdown and bystanders were being shot on the streets. He sent me images of the mayhem outside; bodies split in half, bleeding policemen, victims lying in a pool of their own blood. 

This was the street I drove on day in, day out for months. The same Starbucks I stopped by every morning had become a graveyard. 

Still, he was told to go back to work.

I looked up from my phone, remembering that I was still in a meeting. They were discussing how to sell some cough syrup on social media. How trivial, I thought to myself. This is happening in our backyard, show some respect. I would rather talk to my friends and my family, all of whom were still stuck in the mass hysteria of the attack.

Then one of the clients made a joke. 

“There’s always a bombing here in Jakarta,” he laughed. “Next time someone tells me I’ll just go ‘oh’ and get on with my life.”

All the while, my phone was buzzing with friends asking me where I was.

This is the reality of living in a country where it’s not quite war-torn, but not quite at peace. A city where 6 explosions made an ephemeral blimp on our radar before the day continued. Jakarta still carried on with places still running as if nothing happened. People outside of Sarinah continued to work, to live, to laugh.

When I was 4, one of the biggest tragedies in Indonesia led to the exodus of Chinese-Indonesians outside of the country. A year that would go down to become one of the most traumatizing time for parents and children today. It’s the reason why my dad built our home in the state next to Jakarta; a 2-hour long commute is a good price to pay for our safety. 

At 6 years old, Al-Qaeda bombed several churches around Indonesia during Christmastime—including my Cathedral—killing 18.

A year later, 202 people were killed and 209 were injured in the Bali bombings by members of a violent Islamist group. 

A few days before my 9th birthday, a car bomb detonated outside the Marriott Hotel, killing 12 and injuring 150 people. 

The very next year, another car bomb killed 9 people outside the Australian embassy.

At 11 years old, the injuries and deaths of over 100 people in Bali halted the tourism industry.

By 15, the news of a bomb at the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton that killed 9 and injured 53 became the reason why I couldn’t watch the Rihanna concert. Indonesia was a flight risk, and my emotions had eerily altered from compassion about the tragedy to anger because I couldn’t see my favorite artist. 

A few days later I flew to Melbourne with my mom to visit my sisters. An immigration officer took one look at our passports and stepped out of his booth. “Come with me.”

We sat behind the immigration counter, only a few steps away from baggage claim. He asked us if we were present during the explosion but before I said no, my mom answered with a confident yes. I knew then that her inarticulacy had just landed us more time with the officer. 

“You were there?” The officer asked, looking at our immigration forms. 

I stepped in. “No, we weren’t—mom let me handle this—we were at home, watching it on the news.” 

The officer pointed at my mom. “She said she was there.”

“She’s not fluent in English,” I said. 

After a few more questions, they let us go.

These events would prove to be one of the main reasons why Indonesians would often be met with rejection from US embassies. It took a friend 10 years to get her US visa, and another had struggled to get an Australian holiday visa due to his Muslim name. 

All my life I’ve heard of threats—of bombs, shootings, extremists groups. Still, I’ve never seen Indonesia as a dangerous place to live in. From time to time, we would read about an explosion in one mall or another. About a bomb found in a church. We’d hear stories about tragedies that were so close to us yet so far removed from our lives that we saw it as just another day. I never knew anyone who was ever injured or has died from these terrorist attacks, only those who were in proximity. The bombings were small enough to be contained but too sporadic to call this a war.

When Paris was hit, lights all over the world beamed blue, white, and red. Our profile pictures changed and our Facebook statuses paid respects. Paris was peaceful, and the attack was a pebble that stirred the pond. 

But what happens when the pond stirs every few years? Will people care, or will they see it as just another tragedy to happen in a relatively peaceful place? We are not first world, yet we are not fully third. We are floating in a question mark; not quite as advanced but not quite as backward. So when something like this happens, the world doesn’t know how to react. Our obscurity to the western world makes our tragedies less memorable.

In Paris and Sydney, the tragedies seemed out of place. An attack by Muslims towards non-Muslims. The case was closed and candles were burned. Unlike Syria or Afghanistan, our attacks were too far and few between to deserve much thought from the outside world. Drones aren’t striking from the skies and homes aren’t being destroyed by missiles every day.

Here, the attacks fit right in and fell in line with all the previous tragedies. It’s rare enough to shock the world, yet often enough to be buried the next day. But who do we blame? These attacks come from our own people whose motives remain mostly unknown. These aren’t immigrants with opposing values or foreign caliphates taking over. The perpetrators are our own kind whose minds have been warped by their own insularity. 

The world will report on us today and forget about us tomorrow, just like every other tragedy that has hit this chaotic metropolis. They will continue to look at Jakarta as a city where peace resides and tragedy sojourns. We’re not bad enough to care about, but not good enough to make this a shock. So what we do—as citizens of Jakarta—is to live on anyway.

Except this time there will be even more x-ray machines in malls. More bag checks in office lobbies. More dog sniffers in hotel entrances. Even though we’ve learned from the past, sometimes the city falls into a lull of tranquility. This year the changes will be small but we will notice it. Even so, we know that in a few months the security guards will merely wave their metal detectors on our bags as we walk through the beeping entryway. They will lazily look through our purses—the thousandth they’ve seen that day. In a year’s time, Jakarta will go back to its weak security guards, bored of the routine that never amount to anything. 

And when security is at its lowest, tragedy will strike again. 

Then the cycle repeats.