JAKARTA, Indonesia — Thiolina Marpaung still panics anytime she smells smoke, immediately recalling the bomb explosion that upended her life 20 years ago.
Marpaung, now 48, was in a car with her colleagues on the Indonesian resort island of Bali in 2002 when the blast shook their vehicle from behind. Marpaung was temporarily blinded as shards of glass pierced her eyes. She remembers calling out for help and someone bringing her to the sidewalk, before an ambulance raced her to a hospital with other victims.
“I was traumatized by the sound of ambulance sirens,” Marpaung said.
She is one of dozens of Indonesian survivors who were outside of Sari Club on the night of October 12, 2002, when a car bombing there and the nearly 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 photographs, news articles, clothing and other reminders of that day. She even tossed the shards of glass that were removed from her eyes onto Kuta Beach in Bali, not far from the attack site.
“That’s made me feel better until now,” she 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 data from the Center for Radicalism and Deradicalization Studies, since a national counterterrorism unit, known as Densus 88, was established in the wake of the attacks.
In 2020, 228 people were arrested on terrorism charges. The number rose to 370 last year, underscoring authorities’ commitment to pursue suspects even as the number of terrorist attacks in Indonesia has fallen.
But the aggressive police work has also prompted concerns about potential overreach.
“The government’s recent move towards expanding the definition of the threat of terrorism by going after non-violent, ideologically conservative organizations can undermine the legitimacy of its counterterrorism efforts if the public begins to see anti-terrorism as something of a political thing rather than a law enforcement effort,” said Sana Jaffrey, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta.
The pursuit of suspects related to the Bali bombings has also continued, even in recent years.
In December 2020, police arrested Aris Sumarsono, 58, whose real name is Arif Sunarso but is better known as Zulkarnaen, in the southern town on Sumatra island. He became the latest person arrested over the 2002 bombing, and the court sentenced him to 15 years in prison for his role. Indonesian authorities also suspect him to be the mastermind of several other attacks in the country.
In August this year, Indonesia’s government considered granting an early prison release to the bombmaker 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 Qaida-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 the past two decades, met Patek at a prison in East Java province last month. She’s met other convicted terrorists too, saying she believes the meetings can help relieve her grief.
“I told him that I worked 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 memory that is very, very unforgettable and tragic. And I said, because of that incident, I lost my true love, and I told him my life after that. He was crying, really crying,” Erniati said.
Patek begged for her forgiveness, she said.
“Finally, I couldn’t help but take it. He knelt down. I held his hand, I said, ‘Yes, I have forgiven you.’ He 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. … He was still crying,” she added.
Although she forgives him, Erniati says the decision over his release is now up to the government, which is deciding whether to free him after he served half of his 20-year sentence.
Indonesia’s Minister of Law and Human Rights Yasonna Laoly says Patek has fulfilled all requirements for parole as recommended by Indonesia’s counterterrorism agency.
But the Australian government has expressed its strong opposition to his possible release. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has described Patek as “abhorrent.”
Peter Hughes, another survivor of the 2002 bombing who hails from the Australian west coast city of Perth, has visited Bali more than 30 times in 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 Paddy’s Pub explosions in Bali.
He said he plans to visit again for the 20th anniversary commemoration service.
“I’m mainly going back because I’m on holiday and while I was there I just thought I’d pay my respects. That’s a given,” Hughes said.
He can understand why some survivors of the Bali bombings might never want to return.
“People have a choice. People deal with deep trauma differently. It’s unpredictable how people deal with issues. I don’t really have an issue with it. I put it down to a bit of bad luck and that just 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 hours after the blasts. Blistered and swollen, he told the reporter he was feeling “really good” and other victims were worse off.
Hughes today says he was certain he would die in Bali but wanted to send a positive message to his 21-year-old son Lee, who might see the news.
“I just lied. The whole idea was to get something back to my son,” Hughes said.
Hughes said he was not concerned that Patek, the Bali bombmaker, could soon be released from prison.
“It doesn’t worry me. I have no issue with it. The Indonesian judicial system is a little bit different to us, I guess,” Hughes said.
McGuirk reported from Canberra, Australia.
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