What Was It Like to Be a Victim of the May 1998 Riots in Indonesia?

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Feb. 4 2014 8:47 AM

What Was It Like to Be a Victim of the May 1998 Riots in Indonesia?

The May 1998 riots in Indonesia, sparked by economic problems such food shortages, largely targted Indonesians of Chinese descent.

This question originally appeared on Quora.

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Answer by Hindra Martono:

I never told this story to anyone—not to my friends, not even discussing it with my family.

I was 8 years old when it happened. My parents run a grocery store, which is an easy target for the rioters, as the economic problems of Indonesia in 1989 caused rising price for foods, prompting them to sack shops like ours.

As a child, I didn't understand anything about the situation, but I remember the date. It was May 14, 1998, around 2 p.m., I think, after lunch. I remember I was watching the news about the riots that were happening all around Jakarta from the day before. My family was clearly terrified and discussing our options.

Then the mob came.

I remember they were banging on our doors. We couldn't get outside for the fear that they'd just kill us. My father, running out of ideas, brought us to the attic to hide. He thought that if the mob somehow got in, they would just take all our belongings, and if they couldn't find us, they'd just go away with our valuables.

I remember that my brother and sister were also there, frightened. My sister cried so much. They were discussing what if they burned us down along with the house. My mother asked me to pray to God. I was counting a tasbih, the Islamic prayer beads. (It was our maid's tasbih; our family is Christian.) I'm not sure why I was doing that, but I didn't feel scared. Maybe I was not really understanding what was happening.

Then I remember I saw one of the mob climb up, break our window, and open the door from the inside. The mob flooded in. They took everything. Food, money, electronics, furniture—all of it. Among them, I saw my father's employees, people who were happily playing with me as a kid, carrying our belongings. I do remember that I really hated them at that time. I felt like I was betrayed.

Eventually, they did find us hiding in the attic. I don't remember how we got out from the house, but I remember my mother shouted,"You can take it all! You can take it all!" Somehow, we escaped from the house, and we got to my uncle's place—I don't remember how. We should not have been able to use our car in that situation. Maybe we walked all along.

After that, we moved from one relative's house to another, too terrified to go back to our own home. I remember I was secretly happy because I didn't need to go to school. When we actually got back, I saw my father's shop and our home in devastating conditions. I can't imagine what my father's feeling was, seeing the shop that he built from scratch for almost 20 years just destroyed like that.

I remember life after that was hard. Somehow, my father was able to restart his business, but we got nothing and needed to live frugally. A lot of hostility was shown to Chinese Indonesians at that time. I identified myself as Indonesian, but my hatred to people who destroyed my father's hard work made me unsure about that. One day in PPKn (Pancasila and Civics Education) class, my teacher asked, "Who among you feel that you are an Indonesian?" I was not raising my hand. She really scolded me at that time.

Things are getting better now. The Chinese New Year is a national holiday, thanks to Gus Dur. We can display our unique culture as Chinese Indonesian. The racial discrimination that we experienced before is still there, but the situation has much improved since. I managed to get a scholarship to study abroad, and I feel this opportunity made me think a lot about my identity. I met with mainland Chinese, but I identify myself more as an Indonesian. I can't choose my birthplace and my ancestors, but I can certainly choose the country that I care for, and that is Indonesia.

Until now, I still don't really understand why Chinese Indonesians were targeted. I know that there is financial and political crises, but I don't know why and how the riot happened, who started it, and why there is a need to divide between Chinese Indonesian and Pribumi.

Oh, and some journalist came to our house after the riot and interviewed our family. He wrote an article describing how much fear the Chinese Indonesians experienced at that time.

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