20 years later, survivors of the Bali bombings still struggle with trauma

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Thiolina Marpaung still panics whenever she smells smoke, instantly recalling the bomb blast that upended her life 20 years ago.

Marpaung, now 48, was in a car with her colleagues on the Indonesian tourist island of Bali in 2002 when the explosion rocked their vehicle from behind. Marpaung was temporarily blinded as shards of glass pierced her eyes. She remembers screaming for help and being brought to the pavement before an ambulance took her to hospital with other victims.

“I was traumatized by the sound of the ambulance sirens,” Marpaung said.

She is one of dozens of Indonesian survivors outside the Sari Club on the night of October 12, 2002, when a car bomb there and the near-simultaneous suicide bombing at nearby Paddy’s Pub killed 202 people, mostly foreign tourists, including 88 Australians and seven Americans.

Marpaung later had surgery in Australia to remove the glass from her eyes, but the pain still bothers her and requires treatment to this day. At the urging of her psychologist, she has thrown away and burned photos, news articles, clothes and other reminders of that day. She even dumped the shards of glass removed from her eyes on Kuta Beach in Bali, not far from the scene of the attack.

“This has made me feel better so far,” he said.

Two decades after the Bali bombings, counterterrorism efforts in the world’s most populous Muslim country remain highly active. More than 2,300 people have been arrested on terrorism charges, according to figures from the Center for the Study of Radicalization and Deradicalisation, since a national counter-terrorism unit, known as Densus 88, was set up after the attacks.

In 2020, 228 people were arrested on terrorism charges. The number rose to 370 last year, underscoring authorities’ commitment to pursuing suspects even as the number of terror attacks in Indonesia has declined.

But the aggressive police work has also raised concerns of potential overreach.

“The administration’s recent move to expand the definition of the terrorist threat to include nonviolent, ideologically conservative organizations may undermine the legitimacy of its counterterrorism efforts if the public begins to view counterterrorism as a political rather than a law enforcement effort.” , said Sana Jaffrey, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta.

The hunt for suspects linked to the Bali bombings has continued, even in recent years.

In December 2020, the police arrested Aris Sumarsono, 58, whose real name is Arif Sunarso but is better known as Zulkarnaen, in the southern city of Sumatra Island. He became the last person to be arrested for the 2002 bombing and was sentenced to 15 years by the court in prison for his role. Indonesian authorities also suspect him of masterminding several other attacks in the country.

In August this year, the Indonesian government considered early release to the bomb maker in the Bali attack, Hisyam bin Alizein, 55, better known by his alias, Umar Patek, who has also been identified as a leading member of the al-Qaeda-linked Southeast Asian Islamic radical group Jemaah Islamiyah. Indonesian authorities said Patek was an example of successful efforts to reform convicted terrorists and that they planned to use him to influence others not to commit terrorist acts.

Ni Luh Erniati, who lost her husband in the Bali bombing and has raised two sons as a single mother for the past two decades, met Patek in a prison in East Java province last month. She has also met other convicted terrorists, saying she believes the meetings can help ease her grief.

“I told him I used to work at Sari Club and I met my husband at Sari Club and then I had to lose my husband at Sari Club. It is a very, very memorable and tragic memory. And I said, because of this incident, I lost my true love, and I told him my life after that. She was crying, really crying,” Erniati said.

Patek begged for forgiveness, he said.

“Finally, I couldn’t help it. Kneel down. I held his hand, said “Yes, I forgave you.” She was crying louder,” Erniati said.

“I also told him, let’s work together to protect our beloved country so that the same tragedies don’t happen in the future. … She was still crying,” he added.

Although he pardons him, Herniati says the decision to release him now rests with the government, which decides whether to release him after serving half of his 20-year sentence.

Indonesia’s Law and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly says Patek has met all conditions for parole as recommended by Indonesia’s counter-terrorism agency.

But the Australian government has expressed its strong opposition for his possible release from prison. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese called Patek “despicable”.

Peter Hughes, another survivor of the 2002 bombing, who hails from the city of Perth on Australia’s west coast, has visited Bali more than 30 times over the past 20 years after overcoming his physical and psychological trauma.

Hughes spent a month in an induced coma after suffering burns to 55% of his body in the explosions at Paddy’s pub in Bali.

He said he plans to visit again for the 20th anniversary celebration service.

“I’m mainly coming back because I’m on vacation and while I was there I thought I’d pay my respects. That’s a given,” Hughes said.

He can understand why some survivors of the Bali bombings may never want to return.

“People have a choice. People deal with deep trauma differently. It is unpredictable how people deal with issues. I don’t really have a problem with that. I put it down to bad luck and that keeps it good in my space, if you know what I mean,” Hughes said.

Hughes was interviewed by an Australian news crew at a Bali hospital a few hours after the blasts. Blistered and swollen, he told the reporter he felt “pretty good” and that other victims were worse.

Hughes today says he was sure he would die in Bali but wanted to send a positive message to his 21-year-old son Lee, who may see the news.

“I just lied. The whole idea was to get something back to my son,” Hughes said.

Hughes said he was not worried that Patek, the bomb maker in Bali, could soon be released.

“I’m not worried. I have no problem with that. The Indonesian judicial system is a bit different from us, I guess,” Hughes said.


McGuirk reported from Canberra, Australia.

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