The single adornment on the wall is a picture of Rencini’s daughters, aged 21, 16 and 13. They are beautiful in the Balinese way, smiling shyly. Life and a bomb, however, have vaporised any shadow of Rencini’s own youth, replacing it with a weary anxiety.
We reach her tiny home by dodging traffic on a road clogged with motorcycles, trucks, cars and petrol fumes in the Sanur area of Bali’s sprawling capital, Denpasar. We squeeze between makeshift eating houses and trail down a lane far from postcard Bali, dust and stray dogs ghosting at our heels. Babies squeal, bare-foot children drift by.
Rencini’s kitchen is also her dining room and sitting room. There is no table; no chair. At night it is the bedroom of Rencini and her daughters. They drag a mattress out of the only other room because the roof trusses have sagged, the tiles have shifted and tropical rain sluices in. Rencini is fearful the roof will fall so she won’t allow her girls to sleep beneath it. She is wise. Two days later, part of the roof collapses. She has no idea how to pay for repairs.
Here is the other side of paradise.
In a parallel Bali, surfers carve the waves at Kuta and tourists enjoy massages among the beach boys kicking footballs across the crowded sand, waiting for a tangerine sunset when the ocean glows gold. In the villas of Seminyak Westerners loll cloistered from the hustling traffic behind high walls, slipping in and out of their pools.
At Nusa Dua the wealthy pad between luxury hotel rooms and the beach, there to sip long, cool drinks decorated with exotic fruits. At Sanur and Jimbaran Bay and settlements all along the coast new hotels and villas rise above the ocean, and within the rice-terraced and jungled inland the markets do brisk business in Balinese craft and artworks and travellers thrill to the intricate dances of feather-footed spirit people.
It is as if nothing happened on this tropical island 10 years ago.
It did, of course. The shock waves still ripple through the lives of many Balinese, all but invisible to the millions who come each year chasing the sun and the vague knowledge of an exotic spirituality behind the ambiguously smiling eyes of those who serve them cool drinks and sell them cheap leather and DVDs.
The terrorist bombings of Paddy’s Bar and the Sari Club, on crowded Legian Street in Kuta shortly after 11pm on Saturday, October 12, 2002, were a catastrophe for the families and friends of the 88 Australians who perished and the scores more burned and injured.
The bombings also blasted away any conception that Australians were immune from terrorist attack. This was Australia’s backyard playground, the cliche went, and subsequent statements by the terrorists and a message purportedly from Osama bin Laden made it clear Australians were among the primary targets. Balinese, after all, were banned from entering the Sari Club unless they worked there or were escorted as guests by Westerners.
Yet among the 202 dead were 38 Indonesians, most of them Balinese, and many more were disabled and disfigured. This was their catastrophe, too. And as the reality of the carnage set in and mingled with the fear that this might be the beginning of more horror, the tourists who held together Bali’s economy melted away. Businesses went bankrupt and closed; investors fled, restaurants and luxury hotels sat all but empty and tens of thousands of Balinese workers lost their jobs.
Rencini lost her husband to the Sari Club bomb, though working on the rice harvest in a far-away village; she didn’t know it for weeks.
Her husband had gone to Kuta to earn money driving for a restaurant, but had crashed his vehicle into the police chief’s car and been ordered to pay the impossible sum of 15 million rupiah (about $1500) in compensation. Rencini hadn’t heard from him or received any money for seven months. She thought he might be in jail. Much later, she learned he had walked straight into the blast outside the Sari Club. He was decapitated and his body burned beyond recognition, identified eventually through DNA. Without his body, Rencini had to arrange a ritual cremation and rely on neighbours to pay for it.
The loss of her husband is why, 10 years later, though the tourists have returned in greater numbers and the construction industry has resumed at a frantic pace, she and her daughters share a single mattress, and why Rencini spends most of the dark hours trying to eke out a living peddling food on the street.
As evening approaches, she hauls out a little motorcycle, fixes a plastic container to the back, visits a cheap market and buys her wares: nasi bungkus (rice, shredded meat, tempe, noodles and sambal wrapped in banana leaves), a few packets of peanuts and crisps, a Thermos of hot water, sachets of coffee, bottled water. She weaves her way to the docks of the port town of Benoa and seeks out her customers: seamen, dock and warehouse workers, drivers, port authority night staff, police.
“I feel bad,” says water policeman Agoes Hari Sanjaya. “She has kids.” He spends 16,500 rupiah (about $1.60) for a rice dish, chips and coffee.
“Yes, the government should really pay attention [to bomb victims],” says fellow officer Nyoman Tinggal, handing over 18,000 rupiah for his meal.
“They all know I am a widow of a Bali bomb victim,” Rencini says. “I’ve been coming here for more than two years. They don’t treat me special because of that, but they do treat me kindly. We are all here struggling. This is a man’s world; I am a woman. They protect me.”
By the end of the night, Rencini has earned the equivalent of $4.50 after costs – less than half the price of a cocktail at a tourist hotel bar.
She is one of many widows, fatherless children and survivors who are the hidden victims of the Bali bombs. Each has dipped into a near unimaginable well of resilience to survive, often helped by the good hearts of strangers.
In an airless room on a street in Denpasar five women – three Hindus, two Muslims; each a widow with children – labour over sewing machines producing garments to order. Adopta Co-op, their business is called.
It was established on seed money and training provided by a modest Perth couple who have retired in Bali. David and Moira don’t want their surnames published. They simply wanted to grant dignity and a future to women who had lost their husbands – Balinese taxi drivers mostly, searching for a Legian Street fare to feed their families when the bombers’ car blocked their path and blew them to pieces.
One of the women, Wayan Rustini, says she and the other widows are proud to run their own business and to organise loans when orders are slow, putting the money back when things pick up. David and Moira still hover, helping with a little marketing and advice, but Wayan and the others are self-sustaining, which David says was always the plan.
One of the widows, Endang, hobbles about on crutches. She blames depression on the loss of her ability to walk, but laughs as much as the others. Wayan keeps a photograph of her husband taped to her locker and her memories in her heart. He had taken to driving a gypsy cab just three days before he was killed.
Soon after, she says, her dead husband’s older brother claimed the available charity and ordered Wayan and her two daughters, aged seven and three, to leave the family home. A sewing machine saved her children from starving.
Balinese women have no inheritance rights, and Wayan’s story is familiar. Rencini, too, suffered the indignity of being left destitute. Her late husband’s family reclaimed her home, leaving Rencini and the girls to seek the roof of her elderly mother.
Ayu Sila Prihana Dewi wanders the elaborately carved compound that houses her extended family, nursing her four-month-old daughter, Meyra.
Ayu was 21, a cashier at one of the three bars in the Sari Club on the night of October 12, 2002. Her customers took the brunt of the blast and she awoke on the floor, lying on spilled ice. She was trapped beneath fallen furniture, voices all around screaming. She thought a riot had erupted.
A bartender named Arnold dragged her free and they ran, the grass and bamboo roof above them in flames. She found herself on the burning street, hysteria all around, but says she felt as if alone; not a sound, no feeling of pain. It was only later in hospital that she realised she had a deep cut to a wrist and third-degree burns to the arm she had used to shield her face. Her recovery was slow and painful. Shrapnel had entered her flesh beneath the burns and her arm wouldn’t heal until an operation removed the metal five months later.
“I don’t know why I survived,” she says. “Maybe God still loved me.”
Ayu couldn’t face a window, watch TV or sleep alone for a long time, but soon realised others were doing it harder. She gained work as a social worker with the International Medical Corps, consulting other victims of the bombings, overseeing their medication for psychological damage. She spent time with people so traumatised they couldn’t go to the toilet alone. The children of the dead and injured were her main concern. She persuaded them to draw pictures and was disturbed to see so many scrawling blobs of black: burned cars, stick figures lying about.
The work, however, healed Ayu’s mind. She steeled herself to testify against the terrorist Amrozi, but felt too upset to offer evidence against his co-conspirator Samudra. Both were executed. She wishes there had been a harsher penalty; she would have liked them to be tortured to death.
Ten years on, Ayu is strong enough to go with the Herald to the site of the Sari Club, now a dusty car park, to make a ceremonial offering at a small shrine there and to stand with her baby for the camera in the precise spot she occupied when a bomb changed her life.
She believes the site should become a memorial peace park rather than revert to another club. But the owner is determined to develop.
“If it becomes just another entertainment establishment, the story of what happened will just fade away,” she says.
In a family compound in the south-west village of Tabanan, the memories have not faded for Wayan Suryani and her brother, Nyoman Wirya.
Suryani was a drinks waitress and her brother a security guard at the Sari Club. Suryani, five metres from the car bomb, received third-degree burns to her body and one arm. Wirya, trapped at the back of the club, led 15 people to the second floor, helping them to jump to the safety of a neighbouring rooftop. He was astounded later to find his sister alive on the street, and carried her on his back until he found a motorcycle to take her to hospital.
Suryani believes her devotion to her gods and ancestors saved her. Before work, she always prayed and made an offering at the shrine outside the club. She remembers her prayer that night: “Dear God, please keep me safe and please may no guests complain and may I earn some money tonight.” Much later, testifying at the trial of the terrorists Samudra and Amrozi, she felt, she says, like scratching at their faces.
Suryani and Wirya pray together at a shrine in the family compound. They light incense sticks, offer money, sprinkle fresh-picked frangipani petals on the ground and place them in their hair, their movements in perfect unity.
All across the island, every day, the predominantly Hindu population prays and makes offerings to the gods, the ancestors and the many spirits of their beliefs. The devotees are praying for balance and harmony.
There is, however, a dark antithesis: the Balinese also fear the disharmony and lack of balance that has cursed them.
The truth is, Bali has been saturated in blood and terrorised by fire for centuries. The fire comes from its volcanoes; the blood from its people. For each prayer to Vishnu the Preserver there is a fearful exhortation for mercy to Shiva the Destroyer.
As recently as 1965 and 1966 at least 80,000 Balinese were slaughtered in a free-for-all against communists, the most vicious outbreak of killings in all the islands of the Indonesian archipelago. Many of those murdered were not communists, but victims of get-square neighbourhood disputes that bubble barely below the surface of the complex village, clan, religious and social systems.
Long before that, the ancient kingdoms of the island waged war on each other and sold their own people as slaves. The keris – the wickedly serpentine traditional knife, handy for beheading and stabbing the heart – has a leading role in Bali’s history.
The island is also home to a significant Muslim population. Muslims came centuries ago as mercenaries to Balinese kings, their lives and those of their descendants interweaving with the animist, Hindu and Buddhist Balinese culture; in recent decades, Muslims, attracted by the tourist-based economy, have moved in from other areas of Indonesia. About 14 per cent of Bali’s population is now Muslim.
George Quinn, former head of the south-east Asia centre at the Australian National University, points out the majority of tourists to Bali are Muslims from other areas of Indonesia – about 4 million a year.
Many of them are on a pilgrimage to what are said to be seven graves of ancient Muslim saints “discovered” after a Javanese Muslim living in Bali received a supernatural revelation of their existence in 1992. The Muslim travellers far outstrip the number of tourists from the rest of the world. About 2.8 million non-Indonesian visitors are expected to visit Bali this year, some 900,000 of them from Australia.
The terrorists responsible for the bombs were, of course, Islamic militants hoping to start a holy war. This time, however, the Balinese did not reach for the keris.
“The Balinese chose not to become vigilantes waging war on Muslims, but I can tell you it was in their hearts at the start,” says Rucini Ballinger, an American skilled in Balinese dance that has been married to a Balinese man for 26 years and is deeply involved in charity work on the island. Rucina is a director of YKIP, an Indonesian acronym for the Humanitarian Foundation for Mother Earth, which helps educate the children of bombing victims, including Rencini’s and the sewing widows’ daughters. She is also ambassador for the Inspirasia Foundation, established by a British businessman, Mark Weingard, in memory of his fiancee, Annika Linden, who was killed in the 2002 bombings.
The foundation is about to open an impressive new centre in East Denpasar designed as a “one-stop shop” for the non-government organisations offering health, prosthetic and educational help for the disadvantaged.
But how did Bali’s better heart find equilibrium in the face of flames and blood?
There was, for a start, the figure of Haji Agus Bambang Priyanto, a Muslim who was a civil servant in charge of parking in central Kuta when the bombs shattered the night. He was, he says, at home reading and felt the concussion and saw the ball of fire rising above rooftops.
He leapt on a bicycle and pedalled to the Sari Club. Cars were on fire, their fuel tanks exploding. People were running from the club, their hair and clothes aflame, screaming for help. Bambang remembers the horror of their skin melting in his hands. He held a woman, a shard of glass protruding from her chest, knowing that it must have pierced her heart.
He spent three hours helping evacuate the living and another eight hours helping remove the dead. And when there was no more lifesaving to be done, he came back every day for a month to ensure not a shred of any body was left on the site.
The pictures and stories spun across the world. The terrorists may have been Muslim, but here was a devout Balinese Muslim who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca four times refusing to leave a victim, alive or dead, unattended. A man with a gift for communication, he became the lightning rod that took much of the charge from the superheated air.
The terrorists, he told everyone he met, were members of a criminal group, and did not represent Islam. Bambang became the symbol of the message, and travelled around villages speaking peace. He would, eventually, be honoured by the United Nations and was invited to New York as the guest of the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon.
He remains astounded when strangers tell him he saved the reputation of Islam.
“What I did was very simple,” he says. “When we see someone in front of us needing help and we can help, why won’t we help?” He adds that the death penalty carried out on three of the bombers was “fair – something deserving; just imagine, 202 died, 325 [were] injured”.
Within a month of the bombing, Bali’s Hindu temple priests called on the entire population to undertake cleansing rituals to restore balance and appease the gods.
In homes and temples incense burned and offerings were made, and thousands attended a ceremony at Kuta.
Rucina Ballinger, who took a traditional puppeteer into villages to try to de-mystify the bombings and bring relief to those suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, says that after the ceremonies, “there seemed a collective relief, as if the air had gone out” of the built-up tension.
Ten years on, Rencini sits on her floor, waiting for night, reliant on the kindness of strangers and the pittance she earns at the docks.
How does she feel about the way her life has turned out?
“I never had much, anyway,” she says.
Article by Tony Wright