by ANDRE VLTCHEK
It is ‘biasa’ – business as usual – at the ‘Mall Of Indonesia’ in North Jakarta. As if there has been no tragedy of a great magnitude that occurred in this city just a few short minutes drive from its pseudo-Baroque arches and security guards. Devastating floods, the worst since 2007, have taken at least 27 lives, whilst more than one hundred thousand men, women and children had been made homeless. Countless lives were ravaged in a hasty succession of events.
Most of the citizens were not even able to insure their dwellings against floods ahead of time, unless their houses were constructed on the premises of some posh and elevated gated community. In Jakarta, the flood-related calamities are re-occurring with alarming regularity. Risks are too high and private insurers prefer not to get involved.
The corrupt and inept state, which is stubbornly trying to build as little as possible of anything ‘public’ and non-profit in this feudalistic and market-driven archipelago, had failed to construct sound drainage and flood-preventive groundwork, and then took absolutely no responsibility for the consequences – for the lost lives and destroyed property.
The infrastructure of Jakarta, one of the worst in the world for a city of its size, has once again collapsed, despite the fanfare with which the previous city administration opened the East Flood Channel last year. Even before completion, the channel began deteriorating and got clogged with garbage. It is not surprising, as there isn’t a modern waste management facility in the entire city.
It only took a few days of heavy rains to defeat the channel and the other half-hearted measures protecting the city. Entire neighborhoods disappeared under the brown filthy water, or at least the ground floors of the houses, where the great majority of people live, or did. Now there is rat urine in the water and the justified fear of leptospirosis, according to Doctor Rachmat Mulyana.
The President of Indonesia announced that he is putting aside $2.1 million to improve the situation, it’s a pittance. And even this amount of money, or at least most of it, will certainly disappear into the deep pockets of corrupt officials and go-betweens. But who really cares? Most of the victims belong to the poor majority and therefore, to borrow from Orwell’s lexicon, are just a bunch of ‘un-people’.
The night before, at Kampung Melayu neighborhood, I spotted a girl. She was about 5 years old. She was seated inside a scavenger cart. Her mother – the owner of the cart and a scavenger herself – was picking some wet rugs at the side of the road.
The girl was called Luna. The cart she had been occupying was surrounded by stinky garbage, but the girl was happy; proudly hugging three wet, stuffed bears that her mom had managed to rescue for her from rushing water. Luna seemed to be content, even in the middle of the devastation and rot, simply because she was still too young to understand her condition, and because the three wet bears she was hugging, were more than she had ever owned in her entire short life.
We approached Luna’s mother and she began a conversation: “We live in Kebon Nanas and we are also flood victims. We haven’t got any help whatsoever. Nothing from the government; nothing! Right next to her was the so-called posko – the post that is supposed to help victims of the flood. Why doesn’t she ask for help there?
“We are not from this neighborhood. They only help some local people. They are very selective… And in our neighborhood, where people are really affected, there is no posko at all.” Luna was getting tired. It is almost ten at night, too late for a small girl like her. But her mother has to work almost until midnight. In Indonesia, poor people get no help; which means that most of the victims of disasters get nothing or extremely little. This single mother and her daughter have just lost their home, but they are left on their own.
It is all brutal and compassionless, but that is how the system works. And there are no cameras to bring their plight to the world. The only images that are broadcasted are those of some handpicked operations, from the places where at least ‘something is being done’. Most of such transmissions are for publicity purposes, promoting companies, individuals – ‘good Samaritans’, the government, or the military; some are aired for a fee.
The rich individuals, the foreign companies, the military, and the police: they are all cleaning the country of its natural resources, and they do it systematically. This is where the origin of the economic growth really is; the growth that is so celebrated in Western business circles and the media.
The result of the growth, the money, is distributed amongst an extremely small circle of the upper class. Very little reaches the majority of the people, and almost nothing gets constructed for them. The government collects some taxes from the middle class. A big chunk of the cash disappears in frauds. Incompetence eats another lump. Since the 1965 Suharto coup, the words ‘social’ or ‘public’ were made synonymous with ‘dirty’. The taxes are also rarely used for improving the country.
Then some terrible disaster strikes. The army and police are too spoiled, not really used to hard work, not in the habit of serving. Since 1965 they actually controlled the country and even now, the Generals are all at the top of the pyramid of the power structure. Even the President of Indonesia is a former Suharto General, and one of the commanders in the formerly occupied territory of East Timor.
Not used to tough labor, the armed forces still demand good publicity. And so the soldiers and police just show their faces on camera, rescue a few elderly people, and then return to their barracks. In Indonesia, nothing moves without money. And almost no funds are available: no cash, and therefore, no emergency housing.
Look at the sky above the affected areas: no helicopters fly. Look down: no heavy pumps, no provisory hospitals. Cuban doctors would come, certainly, but even to invite them would be too much to ask from an endemically lazy and indifferent Indonesian ‘public service’. And then, the Communism is still banned here…
The poor are not allowed to demand anything in Indonesia. In this feudal society, they are actually not supposed to be too visible and to complain too loudly. Their laments stay behind closed doors. And who would really dare to challenge the government that persistently consists of the military and civilian elites? Who would have the guts to accuse it of pocketing tax money, and then making sure that almost nothing is actually built for the nation, not even the most essential things?
This military and these elites have murdered 2-3 million people in the 1965 US-sponsored coup, and then 30% of the people of East Timor. They are responsible for well over 100,000 lost lives in occupied Papua, just to plunder and corrupt the natural resources; all this without blinking. Not one of the military top brass is standing trial for crimes against humanity. On the contrary thanks to the servile media, the generals are treated as heroes. So why should any of them be afraid to do nothing, or close to nothing, when the nation really needs them?
As we walk away from Luna and her bears, we literally stumble over an enormous concentration of human misery. There are hundreds of people living under a concrete flyover. People are lying around, aimlessly; some are giving massages to each other. Mothers are breastfeeding their babies, the sick are moaning, children are crying or running around. Food is cooked from boiled flood-water. The sight is absolutely terrible. There is no government presence here, no police and no medical post, no coordinating body.
And there are no cameras, of course. This is how life is for the majority of those more than 100,000 victims. This is the reality. And it is exactly what you are not supposed to see with your own eyes, or ever believe, that things like that are happening.
Ngatini, a flood victim whose house used to be under the Ciliwung bridge in Kampung Melayu, confides in us: “We have been here since Tuesday, already for six days now. This is where we take refuge from the floods. We got no help from the government. There were several volunteer groups that came to give us some food, but that’s all. As you see, my daughter Siti, right here, has a baby and she has to live in the open like this. I hope our Governor – Jokowi – and his administration will come and help us to rebuild our houses, soon.”
But I know that this time “their Governor” Jokowi will not come. I know it, because I have covered dozens of conflicts and disasters in this country, and their aftermaths. Nobody will bother and nothing will happen. Eventually, there will be some foreign aid. Part of it will be eaten, almost immediately, by corruption, exactly as it happened in Aceh, Central Java, and elsewhere. From the local sources will come close to nothing, unless someone wants to advertise his or her ‘good deeds’; a few boxes of dry noodles in exchange for free publicity. So maybe it will not be exactly zero; just very close to nothing.
* * *
But all that was yesterday. Now let’s go back to the mall, as the mall is the true symbol of Jakarta, after a local breed of savage capitalism cannibalized almost everything else in this horrid and segregated mega polis, where almost all the parks, sidewalks and other public spaces were grabbed by developers, privatized or ‘miraculously’ ceased to exist.
The malls are all there really is – the only ‘cultural and social institutions’ of the city, and the only places where one can still take a stroll and at least to some extent, enjoy life. Malls are sanitary places to escape from the filthy streets with no sidewalks, from decay and hopelessness, from the majority of fellow citizens living in misery of the overcrowded and unsanitary kampungs, or from the excessive heat and torrential rains. Malls are places to escape from reality, because reality looks like an enormous, decaying ghost ship in some horror film – too scary to look at.
So how does the mall react to the disaster? Surely all that moneyed Facebook milieu – the Western media keeps describing Indonesia, admiringly, as one of the social media hubs – is now mobilizing, trying to feed the hungry, opening their houses to the victims, trashing the government for idleness?
No? But surely the mall socialites do protest, challenge the regime, demand compensation for those who lost everything? They don’t? They really don’t? Is the mall itself at least in mourning for its former customers? Is the mall now feeding those who have lost everything, is it converting its vast spaces into temporary shelters? After all, it keeps taking all the money from the people: money they have and even more money they don’t. Does the mall give back anything when disaster strikes?
After some brief research I realized that the Mall does absolutely nothing. It does not react in any detectable way. And even if half the country sank, it probably wouldn’t take any action. As entire neighborhoods are still under water, the outrageously kitschy ‘Mall of Indonesia’ is submerged in its own gaga universe, in virtual reality. Like in all Indonesian ‘public places’, there is no noise control here. Loud pop is flying from all directions, assaulting the ears of the visitors who have no clue that their mental health is being ruined by the unrestrained noises. As they have no clue that their country is being run to the ground by unmatchable greed, idiocy and the criminal behavior of the thugs that, through murder and theft, converted themselves into so called ‘elites’.
Some third rate drummer is on his ultimate power trip, to hell with the flood! He is shooting a barrage of amplified decibels all around the main lobby, while each store seems to be competing in a noise-producing frenzy. Thousands of patrons are window shopping, or staring blankly at their over-sugared drinks, alternatively taking photos of each other on the mobile phones. It is all biasa, while people outside are dying.
This place is the last stop where one can safely park the car, before embarking on the journey to Pluit, to Kota (the historic Dutch-built neighborhood) and other heavily flooded parts of the city. We hail a taxi, we negotiate, we argue, as it seems that the drivers don’t want to go or they pretend not to know where to go.
Finally we are moving. The radio is blasting away. Elshinta Radio Station, 90.0 FM, is ecstatic, shooting to the ether near orgasmic squeaks. A hysterical female voice is screaming almost happily: Banjir lagi! ‘Floods again!’ ‘We will report on the floods!’ Floods are big entertainment. Ratings are skyrocketing. Everybody wants to hear something juicy about the floods, even those who are in the water.
Soon, the inundated streets appear: those in Pluit, Glodok, and Kota. Entire streets and alleys are converted into rivers. Scooters, now the main mode of transport in this city with no decent public transportation, are moving, slowly, half immersed, through the flood. People – men, women and children – are stoically walking through the water, their ankles submerged, their knees, and torsos submerged, their entire bodies submerged, some in the water up to their chins.
Like during so many disasters that have struck Indonesia with a terrifying regularity, one of the most shocking occurrences is the absolute lack of action taken by the authorities. Between the mall and the old town, for several kilometers, I detected not one military platoon at work, not a single pontoon boat, and no fire truck, or an ambulance.
Anyone who had witnessed the remarkable national mobilization during the disasters in countries like China, Vietnam, Cuba, Chile or Thailand, would be defeated by the thorough and cynical detachment, laziness and criminal idiocy of the Indonesian authorities, during these national emergencies.
And what is worse, the citizenry is conditioned to believe that everything is just fine. Few television images are showing the military helping the victims, (while working in and around the flooded areas I did not see one single soldier or police officer being involved in any work or activity), a few ‘posts’ at the side of the road, and a donation of old clothes or dry food, and everybody feels just great. In virtual reality, created by the subservient media, Indonesia is just another normal country, like any other normal place on earth.
To say that there is no action and ‘no help’ would be, of course, wrong. You would be accused of exaggerating, because in Indonesia, the essence or comparisons matter nothing, while form is everything. Fine, there is some help; there is something, once in a while. Particularly when the media crews, and eager journalists, are paid to cover and overstate each designated rescue operation. Sometimes the ratio could be: several reporters per box of help distributed. I saw it with my eyes, so many times: from Aceh right after tsunami, to these latest floods.
* * *
But on we go, through the inundated streets of the capital city. At the entrance to the old town, the taxi stops. It cannot drive any further, as the water is too deep. There are no emergency boats in sight, although this used to be one of the main arteries of the old city. There is no assistance; there are no public services, not even one police officer or ambulance.
Everything suddenly becomes ‘for a fee’ here. Drivers of rotten minivans, angkots – the backbone of mass transit in all Indonesian cities – are hiking the prices up from just a few cents, to 7 to 10 dollars, for crossing one long, deep puddle.
Instead of national mobilization comes ‘grab all you can!’ I recall how years ago in Lombok, churches went up in flames while locals went bananas during the religious rioting spree. Then the operators of fast boats, instead of evacuating and saving people, elevated prices to a level absolutely unaffordable to most of the scared locals and visitors. Great solidarity! Great civic awareness! Biasa.
* * *
And suddenly, my goodness, I witness a miracle! There are two red and beautiful fire engines, with all their lights on, honking, and making their way towards Kota, towards the impenetrable puddle, towards us! The roofs of the fire engines are covered with dozens of people. They are smiling, waving and shouting.
It suddenly feels so fantastic. It feels like Cuba or China or Chile or Venezuela. I am thinking: “Am I hitting too hard at Indonesia? Maybe, after all, there are new winds I failed to detect! Maybe there is a new volunteerism, and a new civic awareness. Aren’t these people actually going to a battle, ready to risk their lives to help their fellow citizens?”
I definitely want to go with them, too! I like moments like this; those of bravery and healthy patriotism; of optimism and incorruptible humanism. I wave at the trucks. One of them stops and we are allowed to climb up the ladder. The lenses of my cameras are hitting the shiny metal handles, but I could not care less: this is all for humanity, to help the victims. I feel like I am in some Eisenstein’s film: real good old socialist realism. I feel that Sukarno’s optimism has once again returned.
Our trucks, like ocean liners making huge waves, are passing through the historic town. Water is sometimes one, sometimes two meters deep. No rescue operation is taking place around here, there are again no authorities, no police and no army, but here we are; we are coming, on our red blinking monster-trucks!
And then, suddenly, I begin to notice something very strange: There are too many film cameras around. And they are not filming the flood and the victims; they are all pointed at one single person. I look closer, I ask, and I am told: the fire engines are transporting a young Indonesian pop star – Raffi Ahmad – a singer and soap opera actor! They are taking him and his entire entourage of bikers, media people, police officers and top brass from the fire department, somewhere… but where?
“Where the hell are we going?” I yell.
“Relax”, I am told. “We are going to one of the shelters.
After two minutes, we arrive. There is suddenly a solid rubber boat standing by, waiting for us, at the kerb. The road is like a mighty river. We are surrounded by helpless families; by women and children, forced to brave the aggressive streams of rushing water. But there is nothing for them on those huge trucks and inside the boat. This is just a set-up for the VIPs!
There are several dozens of groupies, journalists and paparazzi, and dozen or so men in uniforms. There are also some boxes with food, not as many as there are people, but at least some. Biasa.
The boxes are for those who are told to cheer. The victims in the shelter spot Raffi Ahmad and they begin to scream. The cameras are filming their extatic faces. Old women scream. They see some high ranking police officer and they cheer. They cheer as the fire department boss speaks. They cheer and cheer, and cameras are filming and filming this virtual reality – reality that will make those ‘big daddies’ in their pseudo-Baroque villas feel just ‘oh so good’, living in their Indonesia!
The shelter is neat, but there are hardly any people staying there. I perform a very quick count and reach a number of only around 25 adults, and a few children. There are well over 100,000 newly-made homeless people, all over Jakarta, including that heartbreaking girl with her three wet bears – the girl called Luna. Just last night I saw several hundreds of people sleeping under bridges, getting no help. But who cares?
Raffi Ahmad is talking and talking, the police commander is talking, and the fire department guys are talking. Periodically, everybody hysterically yells and claps, and laughs again. There are bear hugs, shouting, and giggling.
There are dozens of cameras. Again, there will be television, media coverage, and plenty of it, for each box of dried noodles. It is a perfect deal, a real kill, given how expensive it is, these days, to air commercials and personal advertisements in Jakarta.
I ask other people who have arrived on the engines, who are they? They readily reply: “We are members of a big organization of bikers, based in Jakarta. We donated some funds for the victims of the floods. Today is our third day of going around. We can use these fire trucks, and even get a police escort, because we have many acquaintances in the fire department and also in police force.”
Really? So those mighty fire trucks are actually for hire, available for some personal promo action? The Eisenstein and socialist realism images are suddenly all shattered. I felt as if I was myself submerging into some filthy water full of excrement, and of extreme nihilism. Here, in Indonesia, nothing matters, anymore; nothing has anything other than financial value.
The most outrageous thing is to see the spite of the Indonesian ‘elites’ towards the common individuals. Imagine all those top officers, pop stars and bikers (a hobby only for the richest in this country) – all filming each other, laughing, and basically embezzling all the heavy equipment –boats and trucks – from the rescue missions. Imagine dozens of firefighters standing in circles, idle, smoking and chuckling.
And then imagine this: right behind this circus, only a few feet away, there are those common people from the neighborhood: dozens, hundreds of them, braving the floods, with no help from those who are paid from taxpayer’s money to take decisive action during emergencies.
Such behavior would not be considered a crime, but high treason, in so many parts of the world. Behavior like this could easily bring down entire governments, ministries, police and fire departments. Images much less inflammatory than these have triggered uprisings and revolutions.
But not in Indonesia!
The area where I stood was full of media people, their cameras rolling, but all in the wrong direction! They were filming what they were paid to film, not the reality. The flood victims were just a decoration, some wallpaper; something that is used to promote the kindness and benevolence of the rich.
Not one person present appeared to be scared. Nobody was giving a damn! It was all big time pop and biasa.
I was wondering whether after 47 years of massive brainwashing, anybody in Indonesia was actually still capable of detecting reality. Everything seemed to belong to some neon-flash-pop-florescent-virtual gaga land. Only the suffering was real. The majority of people of Indonesia were really suffering. But most of them did not even know it, as they were repeatedly told that they are not.
I separated myself from the group, and once again climbed onto the roof of the truck. From there, the view was ‘magnificent’ and the perspective clear: the street turned into a river, a bunch of firefighters howling with laughter, the pop star and dozens of cameramen, paparazzi, the Indonesian police. And the un-people right behind; abandoned, helpless, not even realizing that something terrible and tremendously symbolic was just unveiling in front of their eyes.
I began working, slowly and steadily, snapping all this with my stills cameras. In my life I have seen a lot: in Congo and India, in Haiti, Palestine and so many other devastated places. But I could not think of too many other nations on earth, where the rulers have lost all their decency, all their limitations, and all their compassion towards their subjects, like they have in Indonesia! I don’t know how it happened and when, but it has. And the results are thoroughly repulsive.
* * *
Then someone from the group below spotted me and began waving. To them I was a foreigner with two expensive cameras; I was one of them. They have counted on people looking like me since the horrid US-sponsored coup of 1965.
And then, with absolute horror, I noticed that those dispossessed people in the middle of the street turned river, began waving as well. First they were waving at me, and than at the entire group of Indonesian elites. They were smiling. Originally their smiles were shy, then they became brighter and brighter. They spotted the actor; then they spotted the cameras. They were standing in the middle of the filthy water, robbed of everything, fucked and destitute, but they were smiling, because they had spotted those ‘above’. They were waving from their filth at the elites, who were too busy filming each other and had no time to even look at the water and the poor folks behind them.
Without even looking, without waving, the elites were getting what they came for. A filmmaker myself, I perfectly imagined the frame: majestic police, fire fighter bosses, and an actor – all smiles. And behind them, deep in the water, people laughing and waving, trying to look happy in their misery. With their smiles they were thanking for coming all those who had just managed to kidnap and corrupt two precious trucks and a boat produced and purchased to help them in their misfortune.
With their smiles they were thanking them for ‘privatizing’ public property paid for by the people. I suddenly wanted to run from this madhouse, from this nightmare called Indonesia. But instead I kept pressing the shutter as if it was a trigger, working on behalf of the girl called Luna and her three bears.
All photos by Andre Vltchek.
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific – Oceania – is published by Lulu. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear” (Pluto). After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website.