about books journalism links contact2 home2
Bali Carnage

The Bali bombings of October 2002 were the deadliest act of terrorism in the history of Indonesia, killing 202 people, 152 of whom were foreign nationals (including 88 Australians), and 38 Indonesian citizens. A further 240 people were injured. Here Nick Ryan recalls his time on the island.


I know the tiny Indonesian island of Bali well. Or at least, I once did. It provided me with a haven, somewhere to recharge body and spirit, after I left the Middle East.

I was about to lose my future livelihood, and home, during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Bali was my buffer to that world, to events which shook a naive 22-year-old to his core.

Bali then, as now, was a magnet for young Australians (and other rootless travellers, such as myself). A self-contained world in many ways, cut-off from much of the rest of Indonesia; a mainly Hindu, peaceful isle which served the hedonistic tastes of its young visitors well. But away from Kuta and Legian, the beaches and the bars, the KFCs and occasional strip joints springing up even then, it was possible to glimpse something else. Something of the ancient, timeless past, locked away from the gaze of its dollar invaders.

Drinking rice wine with fishermen, watching women on their way to a temple with offerings, swimming in jungle pools, clambering over paddi fields to find tiny, silent shrines bedecked with animal skulls. Or to meet people like the reclusive academic, who let me stay at his lodge inside a volcano and with whom I debated world events for several days. But on the surface it remained the kind of place characters from Alex Garland's 'The Beach' may have passed through on their way to a more hidden paradise. Once home to just a few peaceful fishing villages, now a Costa del Sol for the Aussies, and a stop-off for an eternal chain of backpackers. One small verdant isle among thousands.

Now the bombs have reached even here. I feel resignation more than surprise, although whether my reaction matters is a moot point. My relatives in Australia have visited Bali every year for over 30 years now. They can't understand the significance of these new events, a bomb that rips apart a bar and kills nearly 200 of their countrymen. This 'new' kind of war is beyond their experience. Even though my uncle was a medic at one stage in Vietnam with the Australian army. We've had elements of this in mainland Britain, during the IRA's campaign. But that was on a different scale. It seemed less...random somehow. This bomb opens up with it the possibility that (western) tourists everywhere are now targets. For who? That's a good question. A motley alliance of Taleban-inspired fundamentalists? If so, they seem to be multiplying in "western" friends: Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Pakistan, etc. And this all brings with it a huge number of ramifications - economic, political, social - for these countries, as well as ours.

Sadly, extremism of any kind seeks to turn us back to the stone age ways: to reduce the world to fundamentalist blocks and choices. Something that seems almost supported, in my opinion, by the reaction of right-wing governments, and sometimes the confused moral majority, here, "back home" in the introverted West. A place so many of the right-wingers I met on my journeys yearned to reshape in a mythical image. Ethnically/religiously distinct, and isolated, states. Something they have in common with Al-Qaeda fundamentalists and its assorted zealots.

The rise of extremism in a fractured country such as Indonesia - the world's most populous Muslim nation - speaks as much of the instability of its institutions, democracy, poverty, the very nature of its existence as a "state", as anything else. As with many other countries I've visited, a powerful military holds - or has held - this chaotic whirl of islands, peoples and religions together. As well as brutally repressed them, and plundered resources for the private benefit of generals and a tiny ruling elite. Until now, we've been more used to hearing of this repression, and the killing of Muslims and Christians first by one side, then another, than the new war. Now the westerner is a target, and I'm more worried about our reaction to these events - will we withdraw into an armed camp, the kind of society followers of Pat Buchanan told me they were so keen to emulate? - than theirs.

I would be interested to hear from Indonesians themselves, and experienced travellers such as my friend and editor Ethan Casey, whom I believe once interviewed the country's current President. Sitting in a cold, wet and indifferent London, their experiences would probably be worth hearing more than mine.

This story first appeared on the BlueEar.com online community © 2002


You can buy this article, and seek new commissions, either by contacting me direct or my syndication agency, www.featurewell.com


Blog: Ryan's Rants
Twitter: @ryanscribe