Close Encounters of the Lombok Kind
January 23, 2000
I'm a month into my trip to Asia, and I've already experienced "evacuation". Not a great start to a trip by any means. The nature of my evacuation was not horrifying or legendary by any stretch of the imagination. I was not escorted by soldiers or rescued from imminent danger. In fact, with madness going on around me I was cluelessly waiting out the storm in my bungalow in Senggigi, Lombok.
I certainly would not have thought Lombok, Indonesia, the island just east of Bali, would become riddled with violence only days after my arrival. After all, Lombok was in line to become the next Bali, a tourist paradise. It was well on its way to providing the kind of paradise and pampering that most wealthy tourists want, with the hiking, beaches, and culture that backpackers seek.
So, happy to observe that Lombok was not yet Bali-being much quieter, less populated, and seemingly more organized-I decided that I could definitely spend some time here. I based myself in Senggigi, a town developed for travelers. I found a great, cheap place to stay at Raja's Bungalows. Where I played cards, and drank tea and beer with the owner and his friends.
One morning I boated over to a tiny nearby island, Gilli Trawangan, to see some more of the surrounding areas, and for some excellent snorkeling and a bit of nightlife. And when I returned from the "Gillis" to Senggigi the next day, I found it a virtual ghost town. Everything was shut down. No stores, restaurants, banks, Internet cafes, or tour agencies were open. Only six kilometers away in Lombok's capital of Mataram, fiery turmoil was spreading. The day before, Muslims, angered over atrocities apparently caused by Christians in the Indonesian islands of Maluku, set out to demonstrate in Mataram. Peaceful demonstration turned into violent destruction with the burning of seven Christian churches in Mataram that day. The police had been called upon, and several people had been shot and hospitalized.
During my arrival back in Senggigi, I walked by the Internet center where I had become acquainted with the owner. He was quickly loading up his van with monitors and CPU's from his business. I glanced inside the center and it was bare. He was expecting trouble. I walked by closed restaurants with their "Specials" chalkboard erased and changed to "Allah Akbar" or "God is Great". Underneath was scribbled: "Muslim Restaurant". Born in 1977, I never witnessed the "Whites Only" signs in the 1960's southern United States; or "Jewish Store" stigmata of World War II, written on the facades of businesses in Germany. This was a wholly new reality to me. In the short time I'd left for the Gilli's, Lombok had undergone a metamorphosis. It was a metamorphosis unfortunately with resounding overtones of "jihad" or "holy war".
Rumors abound as to why such violence is now spreading like wildfire all over Indonesia between Muslims and Christians. Some believe the former Indonesian President Soeherto, who still holds influence with the military, is undermining this. Several people believe a military coup might ensue. Christians are blaming Muslims, Muslims blaming Christians. Stories of violence between the two groups always seem to vary. Combinations of religious conflict and political conflict have created a cloud of uncertainty.
Despite this uncertainty, one thing was very clear to me. Problems and violence were escalating, so it was time to get out.
The night I arrived back in Senggigi I decided to eat at a hotel at the only open restaurant in town. Unknowingly I was eating ten minutes away from a nightclub I'd visited only a week before, which was in the process of being torched by a mob. That nightclub, called Marina, was one of two bars burned that night. The burnings would have continued towards my hideout at the hotel restaurant if it weren't for a very timely downpour. After the rain dispersed the mob, I returned to find the road to my bungalow barricaded by tables, planks, and men. This road led to my bungalow but it also led into these people's village. I felt a rush of adrenaline when I started to pass them, not sure of what their purpose was exactly. I was relieved when they started laughing at me getting soaked in the rain, asking if I knew how to swim through the massive puddles on the street. These were Muslim men protecting the entrance to their village from the Muslim mob. If the mob tried to burn Christian homes in their village, it could easily destroy their homes as well.
Later that night while I slept, the guys at Raja Bungalows dressed in their traditional Muslim garb to avoid any confusion about their beliefs. They stayed up almost all night, wielding spears in case the mob broke through to the village and towards the bungalows. It was a tough night for sleep, but would have been tougher if I'd known of their late-night vigil with the spears. Luckily, it kept raining that night, and Senggigi experienced no more disturbances.
The next day in Mataram, mobs of Muslims burnt Christian houses, businesses, and churches. The Chinese minority in Lombok, consisting of Christians and merchants, bore the brunt of much of the violence. A mob blocked the ferry port in Lembar, hindering Christians from escaping to Bali. Flights at the airport were completely booked with Lombok Christians and tourists trying to evacuate. I had to wait it out a day, in hopes of finding a ferry or flight to Bali. I ventured out to the main street in Senggigi to find it quiet, but flanked with many people sitting and waiting. Most likely they were guarding their village. I found the two nightclubs in ashes. I heard that one had been Chinese-owned, and the other owned by a man highly disliked by the community. I witnessed two trucks of soldiers driving past, but not stopping. Instead, standing on the street were two of Lombok's orange-clad vigilantes, known for distributing justice upon law-breakers however they deemed suitable. Every store or restaurant in town now had "Muslim" written on its facade. One fellow I passed jokingly asked, "You need transport? Tour?" These were questions I'd been asked every other minute a week ago, but not in the last couple of days. Another young man squatting on the sidewalk laughed while he said, "All tourist gone, only you here now?" Indeed, very few Westerners were left.
That night was thankfully calm. It rained again, which probably ruined any more plans for arson. The next day I shelled out the extra money for a safe way out of Lombok, on a pricey private ferry. I was relieved to be leaving, angry with what was happening, and guilty I was going this way-the easy way. The guys at Raja Bungalows had taken great care of me. They fed me even though the food was running low. I ached to think that they had to sit there in Lombok and face what was happening to their home. Lombok's economy, and Indonesia's for that matter, will suffer greatly from a tourism slump if unrest continues. I fear a tourism slump may be the least of Lombok's worries, as Indonesia seems to be teetering on the brink of civil upheaval. I can only hope that I'm very wrong.