‘We will never forget’: 20 years after the Bali Bombings

Medan, Indonesia – Hayati Eka Laksmi first realised something was wrong when her husband did not come home after working the night shift on October 12, 2002.

Her husband, Imawan Sardjono, was a 33-year-old firefighter at Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport. He had spent the day showing his brother-in-law and two friends the sights of Indonesia’s most popular tourist island.

Sardjono had hired a car for the group’s visit, and after enjoying dinner together, he planned to drop them back at their hotel before heading to work. But the plan left them all in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Laksmi discovered what had happened when a representative from the car rental company came to the home she shared with her husband and their two sons, then aged two and three.

“I was so sad,” she told Al Jazeera as she recalled that morning. “It was extraordinary sadness. He was the most responsible husband, and it was such a great loss. I still feel it now.”

The wreckage of Sardjono’s vehicle had been found outside the Sari Club in Kuta, a busy tourist town packed with bars and restaurants that was the target of the coordinated attack by members of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), an Indonesian hardline group.

Sardjono’s car (left) was destroyed in the bombings in Kuta in 2002 [Courtesy of Hayati Eka Laksmi]

The car had been completely destroyed, and the rental firm suspected that Sardjono, his brother, and their two friends had all been killed.

“My sons just said, ‘What’s wrong Ma? What’s wrong?’” Laksmi, who is now 52, told Al Jazeera. “I didn’t know what to say.”

Laksmi rushed to the local hospitals in Denpasar, which were overrun with victims and survivors from the attacks, the worst in Indonesian history. More than 200 people had been killed and a similar number wounded.

The dead included citizens from more than 20 countries, including 88 Australians and 38 Indonesians.

Unable to find Sardjono’s body at any of the hospitals, Laksmi went to the Sari Club, hoping to find something that would show her husband had been there. On the ground, among the debris, she discovered one of his shoes.

“I took it home with me as proof,” she said. “I showed it to the children, to show them that he wasn’t coming home. They still hadn’t accepted it,” she said.

It was not until seven days after the bombings, that Laksmi found her husband’s body at a local hospital and was able to formally identify him by his uniform. He was the only staff member from the airport who was missing.

“We were then able to bring his body home, but it wasn’t the end for us, it was just the beginning,” she said. “When my sons saw his coffin, they said, ‘That’s not my father, my father is still at work.’ It floored me. I just said, ‘I’m so sorry. This is your father.’”

Following the bombing, Laksmi said, her children would cry and scream, and were filled with rage.

Her eldest son pledged to become a member of Densus 88, Indonesia’s counterterrorism agency.

A portrait of Imawan Sardjono in his uniform with a red beret and blue shirt
Imawan Sardjono was dropping off friends at their hotel when they were killed [Courtesy of Hayati Eka Laksmi]

Her youngest son found therapy through drawing.

“When he first started, I would ask him why everything he drew was black,” Laksmi said. “‘Because everything burned’, he would reply.”

Sardjono’s car had been travelling behind a van driven by a JI bomber who had detonated the device outside the Sari Club by setting off the suicide vest he was wearing.

The van was packed with TNT stuffed into filing cabinets, and chemicals to accelerate the explosion.

 

The blast left a crater more than 1 metre (3.3 feet) deep in the road.

‘Bodies everywhere’

JI also targeted Paddy’s Bar, a nightspot next door that was popular with tourists, while a third bomb was remotely detonated outside the US consulate. That one failed to activate properly and did not cause any injuries.

Arnold, who did not want to give his full name, had been working at the Sari Club as a bartender for about three years when he heard what he thought was a car or motorbike backfiring.

It was approaching midnight, and the music had been turned up and was pumping through the venue, partially muffling the sound of the first bomb exploding at Paddy’s Bar.

The bombers planned their attack to kill as many people as they could – the bomb at Paddy’s was supposed to cause a commotion and draw people out of the Sari Club at the same time as the suicide bomber in his explosive-packed van arrived outside.

Arnold does not remember hearing the explosion.

His first memory was waking up to find himself on the floor behind the bar at the back of the club where he had been serving drinks. Injured, and covered in burns, he crawled to the front door to escape, only to find carnage on the street outside.

“There were bodies everywhere,” he told Al Jazeera.

The van had been driven to the bar by a man named Ali Imron, who had then disappeared into the night.

His two brothers, Amrozi and Mukhlas, were executed in 2008 for their part in the attacks, along with a fourth member of JI, named Imam Samudra. Imron was handed a life sentence, rather than the death penalty, after he apologised for his actions and expressed remorse at his trial.

The fountain and stone monument inscribed with the names of the 202 people who died
A memorial to those who were killed in the bombings now stands where the Sari Club used to be [Sonny Tumbelaka/AFP]

Arnold met Imron a few months ago in the police station, Polda Metro Jaya, in Jakarta where he has been held for almost 20 years, as part of a programme organised by Densus 88 that empowers survivors to meet the perpetrators of atrocities in an effort to help them find closure.

“As soon as I met him, he whispered in my ear that he was sorry,” Arnold told Al Jazeera. “As a Christian, it was my duty to forgive him. In the beginning, when this first happened, I was full of emotion. I lost my job, I lost my friends. Bali almost died.”

“Slowly, I learned to let it go. What was the point in thinking about it all the time? So I was calm when I met Imron. I told him that I hoped his apology was not just words, and that he meant it in his heart.”

Arnold met Imron with Laksmi, who is a devout Muslim, and who has also chosen to forgive him for the part he played in her husband’s murder.

“None of us is without sin, but it is important that we acknowledge what we have done,” she told Al Jazeera. “And he will get his punishment, not just on this earth, but in the life hereafter. What they did was not in the name of any religion, but just about their own twisted ideology.”

Laksmi and Arnold will meet each other on the morning of October 12, as they have done every year since the bombing. Together with other families and victims, they will travel to the memorial, which now stands where the Sari Club once stood, and pray together.

“Then we will have a kind of family gathering where we can all be together and support each other,” Arnold said. “We do it every year. We will never forget.”

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