Transito: The Permanent Temporary Solution
Posted in: Words
Their days at the precinct were entering its third week. People had lost track of time, lost all sense of personal wellbeing.
On the sixteenth day, when everyone was fast asleep, the Ahmadiyya men were awaken and told to head down the police compound’s mosque. The Ahmadis were all feeling drowsy from the few hours of sleep they had. One by one they picked up their sandals and headed to the mosque where they were told to sit down.
An official was waiting. He must have been high in rank. Other officers saluted him. He had many ribbons and badges on his light brown uniform. A cap sat on his thinly shaven head, hiding his eyes in the shadows. He gave a good look of everyone in the room. He pressed his baton between his left arm and his body, holding its handle by the tip with his closed palm.
‘Can I have everyone’s attention?’
He waited for everyone to quiet down. With a loud, piercing voice he didn’t had to wait for long.
‘This police headquarter is no place for Ahmadiyya refugees. We have more important duties than to feed and house you people. Now we ask for your cooperation. For those of you who choose to stay in Ahmadiyya we will escort them out of this island, Lombok. If you choose to leave Ahmadiyya we will compensate your losses. We will even multiply them.‘
‘If you want to go west, I will take you to Lembar port. If you want to head east I will take you to Kayangan port. Board a ferry and you will no longer be my responsibility.‘
Everyone looked at each other.
‘Now I ask you, who here wishes to stay in Ahmadiyya please rise and stand up!‘
People were confused, looking at each other without saying a word. They had just woken up but they were asked to make such tough decision.
Amid the confusion, one suddenly stood up. It was a blind Ahmadiyya man. Seeing this, the rest of the congregation: men, women and children followed suit. The high ranking officer was stunned. He couldn’t believe what was happening.
The crowd came alive, whispering to each other with a sigh of relief.
‘You’re a very brave man,‘ one person said to the blind man.
‘Why? What happened?‘
‘Well… you were the first to stand up?‘
‘I was the first to stand up? Were you following me? I couldn’t see. I’m blind. I thought you all have stood up. I thought I was following you guys‘
There were three people who remained seated.
‘Is it true you will compensate everything?‘
‘Yes we will compensate everything,‘ the officer said.
Later he broke that promise. There would be no such money. Instead, they were paraded across the village by a jubilant crowd. They waited days and weeks for people to rebuild their vandalized homes, staying from one relative to the next. Over time they felt humiliated and rejoined Ahmadiyya.
The next morning, dozens of minivans were waiting, parked in front of the police headquarters’ main building. The Ahmadis were told to pack up their things and sit in the vans. No one was sure where they were taken. The family cried, thinking they would never see their friends and families ever again. They were leaving the homes of their ancestor, their birthplace, the town that they loved, the fields and market where they worked.
Nasipudin told the family to gather one last time before they got into the waiting van.
‘Wherever we shall end up we will stick together. Wherever we are taken, there God has prepared for us His blessings. Wherever we will head to, we shall rebuild our lives.‘
With the minivans packed with people and their belongings, they began to move, slowly moving its way out of the police compound. The vans began to pick up speed as they drove along the open road. Some children began to cheer.
‘Mom… Mom… This is the way to our mosque isn’t it? Will we pass our mosque?‘
The mood of the children changed when they did pass their mosque. For the first time they learned that it had been destroyed, reduced to rubbles. Looters had stolen everything inside. Scavengers had stripped the fallen structure out of its tile roof, iron rods and wooden beams. They cried, unable to comprehend the atrocity, the maliciousness of men.
The passed a sign telling them that they had left Pancor. The minivans moved past big two story homes encircled by rustic, small dwellings. Past a grand mosque with towering minarets. Past small patches of rice fields. They continued their journey west, past rows of stores colorfully painted in bright yellow, green and orange, selling electronics and household goods, the things they used to have. They passed hundreds of motorcycle taxis offering service to thousands of shoppers.
At an intersection was an even bigger mosque with taller minarets. The minivans made a left turn, past women sweeping their porches, dirtied by the blinding dust swooped up by passing motorists. They drove past curious onlookers, past children returning home from soccer match, past a decaying mushalla, roof covered in dry leaves. Past a chicken slaughter house, past a small market, this time rustic and colorless. Past giant banners bearing the face of some politicians, past a well-preserved colonial building which had been converted into the headquarter of a government agency.
Minutes into their drive, the passed endless stretch of tobacco fields, dotted by tobacco collecting houses and processing plants. A small hill where the dead are buried, under the shade of frangipani trees greeted them as they approached a dam. The drove past empty brick structures used to cultivate bird’s nest. Minutes away was a big gate saying that they were leaving East Lombok.
There were more big mosques, more markets, more rows of colorful houses and rustic homes. They drove past another sign, this time welcoming them to West Lombok. At a statue of two women holding water jugs they made a right, past a small back road shaded by tall trees. They passed countless of unmanned intersections, Hindu temples, mosques and homes which littered the snaking narrow road.
The vehicles slowed, making a right turn to a complex with four decaying buildings. It was their destination, their home for then after. It was a place called Transito.
Transito was a complex owned by the Ministry of Manpower and Transmigration used to temporarily host transmigrants on their way to less populated Borneo or Sulawesi. Lombok was a major producer of transmigrants.
The island was small, just a two hour drive will get you from end to end. It was barren with farms slowly encroached by housing areas and hotels as the island shifted its economy from agriculture to tourism. It was dangerously overpopulated and friction was rife. In 2000, Lombok was the scene of a religious conflict between Muslims and Christians, then came the persecution against Ahmadiyya, there would be occasional riots and clashes between Muslims and Hindus.
It was hard to break away from poverty in Lombok, particularly if you were not a landowner and get your hands at growing tobacco. With its specific need for special care, tobacco too proved to be a gamble. Half of Lombok’s transmigrants lost their money to tobacco. Transmigration provided an escape, a fresh start, a hiding place from the debt collectors pounding their doors.
Transito, as the name suggest, provides the transmigrants a place of transit, a temporary shelter before the government find them a new place. They come from Central, East and West Lombok and Sumbawa Island with their dreams to Transito, located in the northern part of the provincial capital Mataram, With the transmigrants coming just once or twice a year, it too became the ideal place as a temporary stop for the displaced Ahmadis.
The complex was at least sixty meters long and fifty meters wide. There were four main buildings in Transito, each ten by thirty meters and each in various stages of decay. The buildings were separated by narrow passage ways made from concrete blocks covered in sands with a gutter running on each side. Its front yard was made of one giant concrete slab. Sitting on opposite ends of the slab were what should have been a garden, left unattended, infested with weed, augmenting the sorry state of the entire complex.
The roofs were made of asbestos, some parts cracked and leaking. Only run-down, mold infested plaster ceilings were stopping the roof from sending blinding, choking dusts to the inhabitants below. In some parts, the ceilings were missing, holed, fallen off, revealing decaying wooden beams above. The walls were dirty, cracks run in continuous lines. Some cracks were so severe, red bricks were left exposed. The paints were either chipped or washed out. The walls were dull, dirty, sorry-looking shades of grey. The fences were more rust than metal.
The building in the far left was divided into living quarters each with two bed rooms, two by two-and-a-half meter in size, a two-and-a-half by five meter living room, a one-and-a-half by five meter kitchen sat in the back. There were five quarters in that single building.
The building next to it was divided into two large rooms of equal size, each ten by fifteen meter. The third was one long hall. At the back were six lavatories and three bathrooms which everyone had to share. A kitchen sat at the back right corner.
The building in the far right was shorter just fifteen meters long to make way for two houses. The houses were government-owned and rented to low ranking public officials. The houses were small but lovely with fresh coat of paints, undamaged ceilings, complete set of tile roof and well manicured gardens.
The Ahmadis were placed at the building with one long hall. Once more they found themselves having to share a cramped out space with people they barely knew. Again they had to sleep in cold, plastic-mat-covered floor. But this time there were no gunshot waking them up in the middle of the night, no angry mob out to spill their blood. There was no guard telling them not to leave, no rumor and pressure for them to abandon their faith.
There had been more instant noodles coming their way but this time they had utensils. A place to cook whenever they felt hungry. With the exception of the second building from the right, the entire complex seemed lifeless. Not even a stray cat was roaming around. The only animals attracted to the complex were flies and mosquitoes, hovering around the refugees. But somehow the Ahmadis looked more alive. There was no joy at the police headquarters, only fear and uncertainty. By then, they only had to deal with uncertainty.
Mataram was a city, small but a city nonetheless. Everyone was too busy minding their own business. People were less fanatic about religion. In Mataram, mosques sat side by side with Hindu temples. There was no one calling them names, telling them that they were blasphemous. There was no one forcing them to leave Ahmadiyya, renounce their faith to the Messiah. The local government also didn’t care much about the Ahmadis. Transito belonged by the central government, the Ahmadis were still technically under custody of the East Lombok administration. For the Mataram government, all that was left was a simple job of feeding them and they had ample stock of instant noodles.
People around Transito also didn’t mind having Ahmadis in the neighborhood. They didn’t care. But so was no one. The newspapers in Jakarta didn’t put the Ahmadis and their plight as front cover news, burying the atrocities in the back pages. Stories about the Ahmadis went from 300 word fillers to 90 word briefs.
There was far more important news to cover. Newspapers and televisions were too busy comparing the recently impeached, controversial, reform-minded, moderate Muslim president Gus Dur and his replacement, a visionless, strong-headed lady whose rise to fame was much credited for having a very famous father, the country’s first president Soekarno. Foreign media was more interested in Ambon where a bloody sectarian conflict had killed thousands and by then slowly becoming a terrorism recruiting ground.
For the Ahmadis in Lombok, the casualty of the violence numbered just one. It was never a hot subject for the media in Jakarta. The correspondents and contributors and stringers of national media reside in Mataram. Very few bothered to document the atrocities in far away East Lombok.
The refugees had nowhere to go. The food they ate came from the mercy of their families and friends. The clothes on their back were donations from the Red Cross and other NGOs. They were farmers with no land to farm. They had no money to start their own business.
The leaders kept telling them to be patient. That was all their leaders did, aside from offering their prayers. Not seeking retribution and compensation, not voicing their concerns to the government, not telling law enforcers to do their job. The leaders kept saying that the Indonesian Ahmadiyya Congregation is a moral and spiritual organization and that helping them rebuild their lives was outside of their main function.
The leaders kept telling them that they have been writing letters to the government about their plight and that they should patiently wait for a reply. The government never replied.
Patience is an easy thing to say when you don’t live in a decrepit building with three-hundred others. Patience is an easy thing to say when you have somewhere to go. Patience is an easy thing to say when you still have a job, an income, a place to call your own. Patience is an easy thing to say when you are not the victim.
Nasipudin had no choice but be patient.
He had been patient for 11 years.
*Adapted from my upcoming book “This Home Was Never Mine” a narrative non-fiction about religious persecution in Indonesia.