A War is a Ghost is a War

[An account of an almost-suicide bombing]

The object of an attack is to capture a territory by defeating all the opposing armies already on it. The battle is fought by a roll of the dice. Study the board for a moment. Do you want to attack?

-excerpt from the RISK instruction manual

 

When I saw the man slip past the airport security check just metres away from me, I was alerted. When airport security grabbed the man to bring him back through security and people started yelling, I was scared. When I heard a man shouting, “There’s no bomb”, I got up to run away. When I looked back and the man, surrounded by security and innocents, had his hands raised in the air, shouting religious slogans, I was preparing for the embrace of shrapnel and fire. I was preparing to be the victim of a war I didn’t know I was involved in.

 

Smack in the middle of Indonesia, the world’s largest Islamic country, is Bali. In the 16th century, when the Muslim population over-ran Indonesia, Bali remained a pillar for Hinduism in the region. Even today, despite an 86% Muslim population in all of Indonesia, 93% of Balinese consider themselves Hindu. And like any other marginalized culture, this has created a deep well of art and heritage. Dance, textiles, metalworking, food and music flutter around the island like recently-caged birds. Oh, and Bali is the closest thing in the world to paradise. The lazy breeze coming off the Indian Ocean ruffles the palm trees and cools your face from the sun, which is looking better than you’ve ever seen it. There’s a trek through the stacked rice terraces and a surge of water licking the bottom of your surfboard. All of these factors have created, today, a sanctuary for tourists from all over the world. Notably, for our purposes, Americans. And there are groups of Islamic extremists within Indonesia who happen to hate Americans. They want to erase the Western ideology, so they want to erase Americans.

 

At 11:05pm on October 12, 2002, three bombs ripped through downtown Kuta, Bali’s tourism hub. One was inside a popular tourist pub. Blood-soaked, panicked people immediately spilled out into the street only to be greeted with a second, more powerful explosion across the street 20 seconds later. 202 people died, including 88 Australians, 38 Indonesians, and 7 Americans. A third bomb, planted near the American consulate, exploded without casualties. What stands there now is a massive memorial with a list of the names of those killed.

 

Around 7:00pm on October 1, 2005, three more bombs cut up downtown Kuta again, killing 20. One bomb in a restaurant and two along the famous Kuta Beach, both locations popular among tourists. Both this attack and the one in 2002 have been strongly linked to Jemaah Islamiah, an active Islamic terrorist group, though it hasn’t been officially confirmed.

 

Needless to say, there’s tension in Bali. Especially as a Western tourist. It’s the pink elephant in the room that everyone wants to talk about. When you walk past that memorial in Kuta on your way to a bar similar to the one that was gutted like a trout, you feel the anxiety. The week I was there in 2009, there were murmurings of police checking for bombs, of another possible attack. Even my own government, the Government of Canada, suggested keeping a “high level of security awareness” while in Bali. Still, I surfed, and went to bars, and ate some of the best food I’ve ever eaten, and when I went to the airport to leave paradise, my brain was as cool and careless as that Indian Ocean breeze.

 

Waiting inside the security check at Denpasar Airport with a friend of mine for another friend to pass through, I see an Arab man slip past the security counter. A woman, his wife, and two young boys follow. The man approaches me and my friend and asks us a question in German. We don’t understand his words, but the fear brimming in his eyes is loud and clear. Yes, he did look crazy. He’s holding a small, wooden cane. He turns back to his family, and is immediately approached by security officials. They tell him to go back through security. The man yells, “What’s happening?!” Everybody starts watching. The security man grabs his arm and he rips it away. The security man grabs the older son. “Let go of my son!” There’s a tug-of-war over the boy, who is crying and yelling uncontrollably. The wife is screaming. Other people start screaming. More security arrives, dumbfounded. There’s a tangle of confusion and someone, I think the Arab man, starts shouting, “There’s no bomb, there’s no bomb!” People are really screaming. Some are running away, some are moving closer. I learned later on that at this point, my friend on the other side of the room moved behind a large support pillar, hoping it would protect him from a blast. I look at my friend, suddenly shaken from my frozen state. “Let’s get out of here”. We get up and start walk/running away. I look back and stop. Security officials and bystanders have made a large circle around the Arab man, and they’re all frozen. He has his arms stretched up towards the heavens, and he’s shouting religious phrases. “Save me Jesus! Help me Jesus!” This is when I thought I would die. I expected to die. It was everything I expected a suicide bombing to be, and it was happening 10 feet from me. I braced for the explosion. And, within seconds, a group of security officials grabbed the man and dragged him outside, and it was over.

 

I was shaking for hours afterwards. I checked the news the next morning, expecting to see a headline about a terrorist attack prevented by Indonesian officials, but there was nothing. Why Jesus? I questioned whether it actually happened or not. It did. Wars linger like ghosts. They pass through walls. You’re almost always in one, whether you know it or not.

 

 

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