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Under fire in Jakarta's black Friday

BBC - November 21, 1998

[The following is a delayed posting which was included as it provides very a graphic description of the violence by the military on November 13-14 - James Balowski.]

Jonathan Head – I squatted down as low as possible in the marble porch of the office block, acutely conscious that I presented a much larger target than the Indonesians beside me.

All about us was the crack of gunfire and the occasional boom of teargas grenades. But the man sitting next to me still managed to grin. He'd come down from his office to watch the protest. "Just look at our army", he laughed, "what a lot of fools they are chasing young students like that."

Even during the Suharto era only a few ended with serious casualties. Now that Suharto was gone, no-one expected bloodshed.

Suddenly the soldiers were trampling through the ornamental shrubs in front of the office screaming at us to come out. One of them levelled his M-16 rifle at a man running behind the building and fired. And then he pointed it at us.

It was a moment of disbelief. In my three, often turbulent years in Indonesia, no-one had ever pointed a gun at me. This was different. I heard a shot and then I heard the glass door behind me shatter. We were all pressed down as flat as we could on the cold marble.

Then the soldiers charged in, beating these innocent bystanders with batons. I still find it hard to guess what was going through the minds of those soldiers on what's now being called "Black Friday".

Deafening barrage of gunfire

There were surreal periods of calm when they chatted to the students in an almost fraternal way and then they'd launch another attack with a deafening barrage of gunfire which echoed off the glassy walls of the office blocks.

This was Jakarta's most prestigious business district – the showpiece of Indonesia's once booming economy. Now it felt more like Beirut or Sarajevo.

I watched a young woman in an Islamic headscarf moving behind the fence of the campus where the protestors were seeking shelter. Without hesitating a soldier lifted his weapon and fired at her. The bullets were mostly rubber-coated but they can kill and they did.

One man lay on the ground bleeding profusely from a bullet wound in his throat. The group of students who tried to lift him were set upon by the troops seemingly oblivious of the victim in their arms.

A student enemy

There is an official explanation of what happened – that the soldiers were exhausted and stressed after four days of policing the protests, that they felt they had to stop the students from breaking through to the parliament.

But the shooting went on for hour after hour. The soldiers coolly stepping back to reload their weapons then moving forward to start firing again. This wasn't crowd control: it had become a battle which the security forces were determined to win. The students had become the enemy.

The army we witnessed on Friday was not the one Indonesians had hoped for in the era of reform. It seemed if anything more agressive and more careless in the use of its firepower than the one which defended the Suharto regime during its dying days in May.

Painful lesson

Back then Indonesia's students imagined they were leading a revolution which would usher in a new and more just political order. The painful lesson they've learnt from last week is that not much has changed.

President Habibie's government seems equally intolerant of large scale protests and the military as ready as it always was to use lethal force against unarmed youngsters.

This has come as a shock to the nation. Fourteen people died and more than 400 were injured. Flags are flying at half-mast across Indonesia, local radio stations are reading out messages of sympathy for the families of the victims.

Maybe lessons will be learned this time to prevent a repeat of Friday's tragedy. But that's what we thought just six months ago.