It was 10 years ago this month that people’s perceptions of the island of Bali changed forever. The idyllic island of the Gods, the artists of the 1930s, the hippies of the 1970s, the backpackers of the 1980s, was destroyed forever as a bomb ripped through Paddy’s and Sari Club in Kuta.
For many Indonesians it was just the latest in a series of disasters to rock their country since the financial crisis of the late 1990s had crippled their country, sparking unrest and calls for separatism along the length and breadth of the archipelago.
No matter what rocked Indonesia, and plenty did as the centuries changed, Bali seemed a constant. In the wake of 9/11, some expat staff were told that should anything of that magnitude hit Jakarta they would be sent to Bali while things calmed down.
Then came that fateful October night and it was Bali’s turn to count the cost. Foreign visitors headed to the airport, shocked and dazed that their tropical torpor could be so violently, and suddenly, dashed. The Balinese were left counting their cost as the peak Christmas season implicitly got cancelled.
Left behind in the smouldering rubble of Kuta and Bali’s tourist industry were 202 dead and 240 injured. And for what? A few fanatics and their dream of a sharia superstate?
In the wake of the bombing, while the dead were still being mourned, Bali’s theatre played itself out in front of ever decreasing audiences. Forensics picked their way through the debris while Bali wondered what would happen next. Families mourned their loved ones while a whole economy wondered how it could recovery against a backdrop of smoke, fire and queues at the airport.
Through the dark days following the explosions there was a realization the Balinese were as much victims as those who had their lives cruelly extinguished. Expressions of sympathy for grieving families were extended almost by default to include the Balinese people who were left behind to pick up the pieces.
Numbers of foreign visitors plummeted almost as if it was too soon, too unseemly, to return to a scene of such carnage. Rolling TV coverage surely played its part with the flames of Bali rarely far from the news in the days and weeks following the tragedy until they were seared in our subconscious. Thirteen months after 9/11 and we were all feeling vulnerable.
Western governments rushed to release travel advisories warning their nationals to stay away from Indonesia as if the country itself was teetering on the edge of implosion and many, with those images never far way, heeded the call. For several years Indonesia was a persona non grata as further atrocities kept the headline writers busy with stories about Indonesia, terrorism and disaster. Jakarta was hit and Bali one more time, each attack seeing a few more people put off their trip to heaven on earth.
But between the first and second bombing some three years later, there came a subtle change in the mindset. In 2002 shoulders were shrugged as people’s body language showed the impact of krismon, the failure of reformasi to force any real change and instability in places like Central Sulawesi, Aceh and Ambon which had dulled people’s senses. ‘What can we do?’ was the unspoken message. In boxing parlance Indonesia was on the ropes, just waiting for the ref to put an end to its misery.
By 2005 and the second Bali bombing, a resilience was breaking through. In between much had happened. A new government under Susilo Bambang Yudhyono promised much; Aceh had been battered by a tsunami that had cost almost 250,000 lives yet the talk was of reconstruction; in the wake of the tsunami peace was reached in Aceh ending an insurgency that went back decades; the government had also gone after the men behind the various terrorist atrocities with varying degrees of success.
The government was being seen as responding positively to the disasters and while there were still many cynics, the superstitious blamed SBY as being an unlucky leader, the mood started to rub off on the country as the economy picked up in spite of the serial disasters.
This sea change was little reported overseas but Indonesians were starting to feel good about themselves for the first time in nearly a decade.
Maybe time was the great healer after all or maybe the feel-good factor was being picked up overseas, but foreign visitors started returning. Megans and Shanes were skipping down Poppies Gang again, stubbies in hand as Kuta and Bali again became Australia’s favourite overseas playground of choice.
It has been a long, slow, painful road back for the island of Bali, but today the island is more popular than ever. People are flocking to buy the same beer branded singlets mom and pop stalls have been selling for a quarter of a century, while touts in ever greater numbers deem it their duty to annoy tourists as they see fit with their inane bellowing.
As Bali recovers, the events of 10 years ago have not been forgotten as this year’s anniversary memorial has proven, nor can they be. The ugly randomness of the slaughter means that anyone out wining and dining on that busy street late at night could have been a victim.
Looking back through a prism of 10 years one thing is clear. The bombers failed. They were hunted down and removed ruthlessly. Their poisonous credo is dying a slow, painful death by the sheer goodness of humanity the vast majority of their countrymen possess.
They tried to destroy an island and everything that island stood for but they destroyed themselves, ending their pitiful lives with a bullet on another island. Bali on the other hand lives on and as the memorial commemorating the 10th anniversary of the bombings proved, so does the memory of the 202 victims. Their names are recalled every time a tourist stands in front of the white memorial and takes a picture, themselves pausing to reflect momentarily on what happened that night.
Ten years on the victims’ families have fought back, Indonesia has fought back and Bali has fought back. And they have won.