EDITOR: Ten years ago today (July 17) suicide bombers posing as guests struck two western-owned hotels in South Jakarta, killing nine people - including three Australian businessmen.
More than 50 people were injured in the twin attacks. They'd been planned by Noordin Mohammad Top, who was Indonesia's most wanted Islamic militant until his death in a police shoot-out two months later.
Among the guests in the Marriott Hotel that morning, was the now Head of International Studies and Education at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Professor Lesley Harbon. She reflects on the events of that deadly day.
At the end of the talk, two young students sitting in the front row were in tears. There had been two parts to the talk but it appeared to be the first, unplanned part, that brought on the tears. It was about our very early flight that morning on July 18th from Jakarta to Solo (Surakarta) in Central Java.
It was a flight we actually hadn’t expected to take after the events in Jakarta the day before.
Ten years ago on July 17 2009, my husband and I were in Jakarta’s JW Marriott Hotel when at 7:45am a bomb exploded, shattering the glass atrium breakfast area where guests milled, amongst them my husband.
In Jakarta to complete a project for the Australian Government’s Australian Leadership Awards program, I had been working with my Indonesian counterpart all week, assessing applications and shortlisting candidates - a long list of early career scholars from across the Indonesian archipelago who would be chosen to undertake postgraduate study in Australian universities. I had only minutes earlier returned to our room.
The following day we were to fly to Solo to deliver a paper to postgraduate students at Muhammadiyah University, followed by a long weekend with Indonesian friends in Kudus, a smaller town further north.
We did manage to catch that early morning flight from Jakarta to Solo on the 18th, but things had been ‘touch and go’ due to the Friday terrorist bombing of the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels.
My husband escaped injury in the ground-floor blast, calmly assisted to an exit through to a laneway at the back of the hotel, which apparently was well-practised by restaurant staff drilled in such events after the 2003 bombing of this same hotel. He witnessed things he would prefer not to mention here, and his exit took only ten minutes. All week there had been security checks of all vehicles entering the hotel precinct, including mirrors checking underneath.
It seems now that we were given a false sense of security.
Back in our room on the 11th floor, my exit was more involved. After realising that the plume of smoke rising outside my window was not earthmoving but a bomb, and a pause to text and grab our passports from the safe, I used the fire escape, now pitch black. I lost track of the floors and found myself in a burning and flooding basement, then climbed again until ground floor kitchen staff found me screaming and lost, and ushered me out.
My escape took probably 25 minutes.
We reunited in a laneway at the back of the hotel. It was a surreal scene. Hotel guests, some still wearing pyjamas, and many restaurant staff, were huddled in small groups, clearly distraught and bewildered. No alarms activated during or after the explosion. Other people, unaware of what had happened, tried to negotiate their bikes and cars through the laneway on their way to work, now crowded with people fleeing the hotel. TV camera crews arrived on the scene at the same time as police, probably around 10 minutes later.
Leaving the scene, we spoke by phone with an Australian government staffer and managed to find a taxi to take us to another hotel. With no luggage, nothing to see us through the next few days, we encountered only sadness and some anger: our taxi driver apologised for what had happened. We heard that same sentiment over and over in the coming days.
Neither of us knew what each had experienced, but our stories unfolded over the next hours and days.
The Australian Government knew risk well, and their care of us was enveloping. Little did we know that they were at that very time grieving the loss of an Australian colleague, one of the three Australians, of a total of nine killed in the bombings that day.
We did continue on our planned travel to Central Java, as we thought getting away from the capital to a regional city would be safer. We didn’t know that Solo was the centre of the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist cell, a base used by the suspected bomb mastermind, Noordin Muhammad Top.
We will never know whether Top was on our flight. Our friends and family had urged us to come home immediately. We thought long and hard about it, but felt we needed to send a strong message about the importance of the Australia-Indonesia relationship. The talk to the Graduate School in Solo was one way we could do that.
The second part of my talk became an impassioned plea for young Indonesians to pursue their postgraduate research because lifelong education can and does make a difference (and Australia Scholarships can assist) in so many ways. Question time, however, focused on the first part, the part recounting how we had been in the hotel bombing in Jakarta the day before.
A few days later, we returned to Australia to our family and friends. Our decision to stay and fulfil our commitments in Indonesia was important to us, and hopefully sent a message that we stood strong against terrorism. Back in Sydney, we grieved for the nine who had died, with our minds turning to what it might have been like for our family and friends had we been two more of the Australian toll.
As the 10-year anniversary of that weekend approached, my husband and I pulled out the scrapbook we made at the time.
We have talked about why ten years matters, why the human tendency to memorialise events.
The well-being blog (DeNoon) helped to understand whether memorialising has the potential to re-traumatise or heal us, helping us further understand events, to understand whether we are still grieving, or whether ten years has taught us more about ourselves and the random events which buffet our lives. We assume that if we are indeed still grieving, it must be healthy grieving: we have continued to take annual trips for work and leisure to Indonesia.
We continue, personally and professionally, to invest in the Australia-Indonesia relationship in various ways. We have worked on our messaging with our family and friends, and whilst emotional, these feelings do not include anger or hate.
It’s true that I am still anxious hearing loud ‘bang’ noises when staying in multi-storey hotels. Other than that, it is possibly only our ‘driven’ interest that others might notice, when we hear stories of those who have experienced similar events - the few survivors of 9/11 or the Sari Nightclub bombing in Bali in 2002.
Yet our story did not have the tragedy that the nine other stories did. We cannot imagine how the families and friends of the lost lives that day are faring at this time.
- Professor Lesley Harbon