Reliving The Darkest May

I spent my whole Saturday in Klender, East Jakarta. It is near Cipinang, one of the ghetto-est area in Jakarta, if not Indonesia.

Not in a mall or some relative's home, but in a crowded kampung next to a train rail and on the streets of Cipinang.

Why you ask? 


Jakarta, 14 May 1998
It was one of the darkest day in the history of Indonesia. The whole city was in a total chaos. People ran amok, Jakarta was destroyed. The metropolis was on fire. 

Factories, stores and even homes were attacked by mass of people, trying to get anything they could get their hands on. Cars and mass transportations were hijacked, malls were set on fire, leaving thousands of people dead or missing. 

Soon the riot was directed towards a particular ethnicity. It turned to be a pogrom targeting Chinese business owners and properties. Issues of rapes towards women of that particular ethnicity during the riot emerged not long after. 

Indeed, it was the darkest May. 

On that particular day, in Klender, East Jakarta, Ruminah (41), a salon owner, wife and a proud mother of 5 was doing business as usual. She is the typical housewife you see in markets, pengajian in mosques or selling daily necessities on the streets of Jakarta. She ran a small salon near the Klender train station. Every 10 minutes or so the sound of train made a unique background to her daily life. The salon with its 2x3 meter space and 2 employees was doing extremely good that year. 

That day around 11 AM, the situation around her salon turned intense in a heartbeat. Someone came to her and panicky informing to close the place immediately. He also said that somewhat of a riot had started near YOGYA mall, not far from where she worked and lived. Panicked, Ruminah closed her salon and immediately ran home, wanting to make sure that her family was safely home. They were. 

She ordered her kids to stay home. She made sure no one went out. They did, until around 4 PM her third child, a boy (13) named Gunawan managed to escape her and went along with his two friends to YOGYA Mall. Gunawan was going to mop the floor and took a bath before his friends came and asked him to come and see the riot. The moment Ruminah realized her son was missing she frantically went looking for him. She chased him down the small aisles of the village and eventually came to the main streets of Klender where she saw people running towards the mall. She also saw 2 big trucks loading young people into them. She thought Gunawan was in one of those trucks, but he was not. Or so she had thought. 

She ran to the mall hoping that Gunawan's face can soon be spotted and she could take that kid home. When she arrived, the mall was in total chaos. People were running into the mall, some were running out of it with different kinds of stuff in their hands. She tried to climb the stairs to the 2nd floor, but someone hit her hard on the face and she backed off, pushed down by people trying to escape the fire already burning in the 1st floor. 

In despair she still tried to look for Gunawan. She stood outside the mall and saw people desperately trying to escape the fire. They jumped from the 2nd floor and many broke their legs, unable to walk or even move from the spot they landed. Ruminah dragged a mattress that was already covered in blood, as a place for those people to land. Someone had locked the mall doors so people couldn't get out. People were convinced somebody had locked the doors and then burned the mall on purpose, letting no one inside get out and letting them burned to death. 

There was no police, army or fire squad. There was no authority to turn to. Ruminah said that not long after the 1st floor was caught on fire, explosions were heard from inside, creating even stronger fire. From hundreds of meters away the hot air could still be felt.

She decided to go to the nearest police station. She wanted to report the chaos and hoping to find her son there. On her way there she bumped into a young woman, one of her customers. She was looking for her older brother who also went missing. While they were running together, a car, full of men spotted them and they started to scream at Ruminah and the girl. "Girls! Girls!" screamed those men. Soon they jumped out of the car and started chasing the girl. In fright the girl went separate ways to a nearby park. Those men were said to follow her into the park. It was getting dark and Ruminah did not have the heart to imagine what had happened next to the girl. She ran faster to the police station.

Gunawan was not in the police station. No one was, except some policeman who told Ruminah to look for her son in hospitals. Later that night around 2 AM Ruminah went home tired, sad, traumatized and empty handed. From the nearby mosque then came an announcement, "Dear parents, if your children have not come home yet, do not expect them to. Let them go and open your doors. We are going to pray together for them." She was then even more heartbroken.

For days Ruminah tried looking for her son's corpse in hospitals, but found only a plastic bag with her son's belt in it. She buried what was left of him and went on with her life in trauma and fright. She is not the only one. Everybody in that area has either lost someone in the riot or was a victim themselves. 

"I have lost my son. He was a good boy and never was a source of trouble. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was not a criminal. It breaks my heart to hear people say that he was a thief. My son is dead and I don't want my grandchildren to experience what happened in 1998," told Ruminah. 

Life goes on. People move on, but the pain stays. They feel betrayed, ignored and forgotten. Those feelings kill, more than any kind of weapon could.


That is why I spent my Saturday in Klender, East Jakarta. FX Harsono, a renowned artist, was making a documentary on victims of the riot. I was his crew. I interviewed Ruminah and spent the whole day with her, listening to her stories. 

I am lucky. My memory of that day was frightening, but at least I was safe at home and no one I know was killed or raped. 

That Saturday, sitting on the pavement, looking at the railway and the densely populated areas around it, I came to realize that we have tried to forget so many things. We try to put things behind, we try to act natural, though it will never be normal again. Victims, and people that orchestrated and were involved in the riot live together, among us, side by side. He's probably the man on the street that you meet everyday on your way to work, or she's the woman that wouldn't stop talking while sitting behind you on a bus. They are the faces we meet, the faces we denied, the faces we thought we knew. 

Anyway, that Saturday was not at all a working day for me. It was a day to contemplate, to bring myself out of my comfort zone and a chance to slam myself to the reality of life. I learned a lot from Ruminah. Laughter and smile are effective shrouds. We all live with secrets, with pain, with pride of something. To judge is not something we are entitled of. We all have loved and lost someone. We are not that far apart. 

*In the memory of The Darkest May... 


  1. Din.. oh my GOD.. this is the best piece you've ever written so far.. you're so lucky.. take me with you on an assignment like this.. I'd go with you in a heartbeat, free of charge!

  2. Thank you, Mba.. Yes, I'm lucky to have that experience! Hehehe.. I'll take everyone I know if I could, Mba. Everyone should experience what I experienced. It's priceless..


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