March 25, 2001
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43 Hours of Hell
By: Robert W. Coshland













Jakarta & Jalan Thamrin, one of Jakarta, Indonesia's main business thoroughfares, at dusk. © www.corbis.com/Sergio Dorantes


I arrived in Jakarta at 9:30 PM on the 13th of May.

The Cathay Pacific plane from Hong Kong stopped in Singapore prior
to going to Jakarta. In the waiting lounge at the Singapore airport the Television was showing some of the demonstrations that were going on
after the police or army had shot and killed 6 student demonstrators the day before. There was some violence but it was minor. When I returned to the airplane we were told that there would be a delay since some passengers
had changed their minds and didnít want to go on to Jakarta. The delay
was to get their bags off the plane, maybe I should taken that as a hint as to what was to come.

After arrival at the airport and the normal hassles of going through Indonesia customs and immigration I was out in the arrival area looking for my friend who was suppose to pick me up.

After looking around for 15 or 20 minutes and also since the plane was late I assumed he had not made it, or something had keep him from the airport. I went to the hired car desk and for 80,000 Rupiah (approx. $8.00) I had hired a private car to drive me to the Millennium Hotel in Jakarta. This hotel which I had never stayed in before was where we were scheduled to put on some seminars on Saturday the 16th. It was located in the south central area of the city near the financial district.

Driving from the airport was quick, we did pass an area where there was some fires but traffic was light and with no problems or signs of problems.

The hotel was nice, the staff was friendly and I settled in to my room on the
6th floor, with a window view to the outside street and a view looking to the northwest. A few minutes after settling in the room the telephone rang. It was my friend who said the road to the airport was closed for most of the day and that his neighborhood had been blocked off due to demonstrations, and that he was not able to get to the airport. He had sent me an e-mail to tell me to stay at the airport hotel but I was not able to retrieve it prior to arriving.

He told me he would pick me up in the morning but would call first, probably around 9:00 AM.

Arrival +10 hours

A good breakfast in the coffee shop and the answering of a few arriving faxes seemed to indicate that everything was OK.

A+11 hours

Looking out the window from the room there was some smoke in a few locations around the city. Also outside on the intersection there seemed to be some individuals trying to set up a roadblock to stop cars from going down one of the streets. I couldnít see what might be the reason for this but took a curious interest in glancing out to see what this was all about.

A+12 hours

A phone call told me that my associate would try be at the hotel around 11:00 AM since there were some new demonstrations and violence close to his home and he couldnít go out.

Looking out the window I see more smoke and fires around the city in all directions in fact not far from the hotel there appears to be a major one starting up. A bus that was turning at the intersection was stopping and trying to back up and I assume go a different way, but I couldnĎt see why! A quick check of the TV indicates on the foreign news that there are new major demonstrations and violence breaking out in the city.

A+13 hours (10:30 AM)

Plugging in my computer to try to check my e-mail I here some noise outside. Outside there are no cars on the otherwise busy street. There are no taxis in the hotel driveway or parking area, which was not normal. At the intersection coming down the street was mass of 300 to 500 mostly young people. They were not carrying any signs just sticks, knives, machetes and rocks! As they turned the corner to the Hotel Street they went straight for a Christian Church directly across the street from the hotel. Hundreds of rocks rained down on the church, breaking all the windows, a van parked outside on the street was pushed into the parking area in front of the church and gasoline thrown on the van and set a blaze. The burning truck threatened to start the church on fire. A grand piano was dragged out of the church on to the street and smashed and set on fire. These were not demonstrators but looters and criminals! They then turned their attention to our hotel! Hundreds throwing rocks at the glass exterior and lobby. They streamed into the lobby smashing, and breaking everything in their path. The hotel staff ran out the back of the building into the back offices and barricaded themselves in. Luckily that morning the hotel had held a meeting to discuss action in case of riots, an hour later they were putting the plan into effect.

I locked the room and started to get the important items in my pocket, passport, ticket, and money. I also packed everything and tried to figure out what do to next. Looking out the window I can see a lot of the rioters running out of the hotel with computers, food, beer, anything they can get there hands on. I went out of the room and went down to the 2nd floor, which would allow me to see into the lobby from a balcony. Thinking back it was probably not a good idea since the looters could be coming up the elevators!

When I got to the 2nd floor most of the looters had gone out of the hotel. Two young women were also standing on the 2nd floor balcony frantically trying to call on a mobile phone with no luck. I asked if they were staying in the hotel, no they were driving by saw the violence and drove into the hotel underground garage. The looters had gone into the garage and smashed a lot of the cars and broke windows. They escaped up the elevator. I asked if they wanted to hide in my room but they couldnít stop shaking and just wanted to get out of the area. Last I saw they were running into the Restaurant kitchen on the 2nd floor.

I returned to my room and immediately called Cathay Pacific Airline, I made a reservation for a flight the next day and requested to pickup the ticket at the airport. Getting a confirmation number made me feel I at least had a way out!

A+14

The rioters had started a fire outside of the hotel with items from the hotel, chairs, tables, etc., they then moved down the street and started fires at some other buildings. I donít know if the same group was responsible for the large Sogo Department Store, which was totally burnt out, just up the road.

Things seemed to very quiet, the street was empty. In the hallway I ran into the hotel manager, he was staying in a room near mine and told me many hotel workers were told to go up to a room and lock themselves in. When the rioters were in the hotel the power was shut off to keep the elevators from going up and to keep the looters from the guestrooms. The fire doors didnít open from the outside so he felt that would keep the looters from the upper floors. What he was afraid of was fire, and the destruction of the building and safety of the guests. He told me if we have to evacuate, to go down the fire stairs and go down the street to the elementary school. The hotel had made arrangements to house people there in an emergency.

Just then we can see out of the hallway window the looters all running back down the street headed for the hotel, and it seems like there is twice as many as before! I quickly got to my room before shutting off the electricity would not let me open the electric card key door. Once again the rioters stormed the hotel smashing anything else they may a missed, they tried to get into the elevators, were able to open some of the doors, broke mirrors in the elevators but with no electricity they couldnít get above the lobby. They destroyed all the restaurants throwing all the food from the buffet all over the walls. Even from the 6th floor the noise down below of the destruction was extremely loud. Looking for any sign of smoke I was again getting ready to run. A truck full of police came but parked up the street, and formed a line across the street. They then started to fire up in the air from their guns and the rioters started to leave the hotel, and slowly retreated up the street they came out of.

A+15 (12:30 PM)

The hotel was a complete mess; everything in the first floor was destroyed. Anything that could be carried out was taken. Slowly the employees came from where they were hiding back to the lobby. Everyone was in a state of shock! The employees know that finding a job today is very difficult in Indonesia and if the hotel closes it will be major blow for them. While everyone I spoke to was sympathetic towards the students that have been demonstrating, this action in their mine was criminal. "Burning the church, stealing, nobody was carrying any signs of protest, nothing to do with anger with the government and Suharto!"

A+16

I called my associate and told him what was going on. He said that he could not leave fires, rioters were everywhere, and it was not safe to go out for anyone.

I called the US Embassy to register and ask for some help on getting out. After being cut off I called again and spoke to someone in the counselor section. They said they would fax over a form for me to fill out. I asked if they could help, or give me any advice on how to get to the airport, since it appeared that all normal transportation was starting to collapse, they said "no, but good luck!" So much for the US government being helpful when you need them. They did send over the fax and form to fill out, along with a warning bulletin to be careful when traveling to Indonesia. Since I was already there it didnít take a rocket science to figure out that this information was a little useless. We must be paying these people a lot of money to think these things up.

A+17

The police departed the area. We didnít get any protection before so I guess it didnít matter if they were or werenít there. I called Hong Kong and had someone arrange a hotel room for me. One way or another I was getting out the next day.

A+19 (4:30PM)

The hotel tried to make us comfortable as best they could. They showed us where the school was in case of more trouble; they feed us in the hotel canteen in the basement, and all charges after the riot was stopped.

In a short time we became close friends with them as they shared their frustrations with the government, country and what is going on. Another American at the hotel, John and I became friendly. John lived in Hong Kong and it wasnít clear what he was doing to make money, but I didnít ask, since it sounded suspicious. But John was big and tall like me, and had a threatening look about him, perfect traveling partner. He was on some kind holiday that went bad, even before the riots. It wasnít hard to convince him that it was best to leave as soon as possible. Now I had to find transportation. I decided the best time to go would be around 3 to 4 AM, most people would be asleep, and the chances would be better. We were able to get a taxi company to agree to come at 3:30 AM.

A+22

The hotel was gearing up for more possible trouble. All the lights on the first floor were off; employees carried hatchets, swords, Knives, or clubs. A few had the big police blackjacks. They had taken out the fire hoses and had them ready for rioters and or fire. They had gotten a threat from someone on the street that the rioters would come back and burn down the building. A police official came to the hotel and according to the translation by one of the employees he (the policeman) explained how to try to talk to the looters and convince them not to do any damage. Something about look into their eyes and try to tell them we are all part of the same family, and we shouldnít hurt each other. No body gave much weight to what the police had to say; in fact they laughed about it after they departed.

A+23 to A+29 (8:30 PM to 2:30 AM)

Unusually quiet on the streets. No signs of people, or vehicles. Hotel employees sitting in the dark all over the hotel waiting and watching. At 3:00 AM Iím down in the lobby and calling the Taxi Company to see when they are coming. A few hours earlier sitting in the canteen with John and an Australian man, his Thai wife and 2 year old daughter, we are talking about our plan going to the airport. We take some knives from the kitchen in case we run into trouble. I will sit behind the driver, and will have a piece of heavy wire. If we seem to be heading some place we donít want to go, or the driver is leading us into a trap. I will choke him from behind, John will jump to the front from the other side and push him out the door, and take over the car. We also carry everything important on our body in case we have to leave all the bags and suitcases.

A+30 (3:30AM)

The Taxi Company says they cannot send out a car, "too dangerous on the streets".

Now what do we do!! We get a hotel employee to go down the street to see if any taxi or car is traveling in the area. Nothing moving or coming.

A+30 Ĺ (4:00AM)

A small 4-wheel drive vehicle with the words "Mandala Airlines" on the side is coming down the road. We stop it. Iím sure the driver was surprised to see two Americans waving him down. We had the hotel interpret that we wanted a ride to the airport and that we would pay what ever he wanted! He agreed and asked for 150,000 Rupiah (about $15.00). We loaded up the van, I jumped into the seat behind him, (our contingency plan) and off we went.

We went up some small roads and dead ahead in the street was a group of about 20 or 30 young guys playing soccer in the road. The driver started to slow up; I started to reach for the knives and the wire. The driver said "no problem" we were concerned, as we got closer the game stopped and they started to stand blocking the street. The driver rolled down the window with a hand full of 500 Rupiah notes (5 Ę each)

He handed them to the men and they waved and smiled at us, and we quickly moved away. We passed many more people on the street and he slowed and tried to appear like we werenít trying to run. Mandala Airlines is a local airline and the windows in the back were dark and maybe most people didnít see us.

We finally got to the ramp of the expressway and we would be high above the street. The ramp had a barrier closing the tollgate, with nobody working they closed the road. We got out one was chained shut. The other with a little help we twisted it out of the way and went up the ramp. As we traveled on the expressway a group of police motioned us to stop up ahead. This time the driver speeded up and zoomed right by the police, they didnít seem to react and we continued. Then something happened that I was praying for happened, it started to rain, and rain hard. We had to go around burned out cars and trucks but by 4:30 AM we were at the airport. Now our driver in our mind was our hero. We gave more than he asked. He was grateful and drove off.

A+31 to A+43 (4:30 AM to 4:30 PM)

The 12 hours at the airport was unbelievable chaos, but I felt safe and was not going back to the city. People sleeping everywhere, fighting for tickets, reservations, and a way out of the country. Most of the people in the airport were ethnic Chinese and foreigners.

A+43 (4:30PM) Cathay Pacific CX-776 lifted off the runway and everyone sighed a sigh of relief. In a few minutes I was sound asleep.

Robert W. Coshland
rocosh@aol.com
Ventura, CA
16 May, 1998

For other information and fun stories about Indonesia check:


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