By Susan Brand* from the Netherlands
August 2, 2015

After the fall of Suharto, Indonesia went through a period of transition, known as Reformasi (reform). During the years of Reformasi, electoral democracy, freedom of expression and human rights all advanced. But the price for more democracy and freedom was high. Because of the Asian currency crisis of 1997 Indonesia’s economy was savaged. Millions of Indonesians lost their jobs and prices were rising. At  the time of the economic crisis the anti-government riots started. During the riots 1200 people were killed.

With the summer school we did a ‘Napak Reformasi’ (Remembering Reformasi) tour of visit several sites of notorious human right violations committed during the riots which triggered Indonesia’s Reformasi in May 1998. During our trip we visited the neighborhood of the Klender Mall in East Jakarta, where a fire killed many hundreds of urban poor. It is still unclear what really happened at the day of the fire. During the riots many teenagers from a poor neighborhood were lured to the mall in the hope to get free toys and stuff out of the shops. The police was there but it is still unclear what their role was during the conflict. Some people told us that the police closed the doors of the mall and that the people inside could not escape from the fire. When family members of the victims tried to enter the mall, the burned bodies were already unrecognizable. When we visited the relatives of the victims, one of the mothers told us that she went into the mall and desperately took one of the burned bodies with her to have the feeling that she could bring ‘her son’ back home. Many of the burned and unidentified bodies ended up in a mass grave.


A memorial statue at the cemetery honors the victims. Many years later the pain and memories are still there. The other summer school participants and I met the mothers who lost their sons in the fire in a local mosque. Every month they still come together to speak about what happened 17 years ago. They told us their stories and explained to us how sharing their stories helps them in their mourning process. They see themselves as victims, but also as women who try to get recognition from the government about what happened to their relatives. Our discussion in the mosque made clear that it is not easy to get heard if you are a citizen of a poorer neighborhood of Jakarta. Without financial support of the government the women make and sell dolls to have a bit income for their organization.

Also in a case like this where the enemy is unclear, I learnt how important it is that people are heard by their government. The last four presidents of Indonesia promised recognition for the riots in May 1997 but until so far nobody gave it.

When you do a summer school with participants from five different countries (Indonesia, India, South-Africa, Kenya and the Netherlands), you go beyond theoretical knowledge of conflicts. I  learn that people can start working on the future from the moment that they recognize what happened the past. That was the case after Apartheid in South Africa, that was also the case in the Ambon conflict in Indonesia and as well the case with Reformasi. Reconciliation is a process that takes time and involves effort and recognition from the government. Learning about pluralism and conflicts worldwide, I am touched by the personal stories from the other participants and teachers of the summer school. When you hear the personal stories of people here, you realize how complex conflicts are and how sensitive conflicts stay many years later. I now realize that solving a conflict starts with the recognition of the past and the confrontation with the pain of that past. From that point people can start with the future.


*Susan Brand is a master student Humanistic Studies and Ethics of Care at the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht (Netherlands). She is intern at the research department of the municipality of Rotterdam. The focus of her research is the question how we can give mental handicapped people a voice in policy. In September Susan will start with her internship on a school in Rotterdam where she will teach religious and worldview studies