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Bali Bombing October 2002

I wrote this after the Bali bombing on 12 October 2002.


Dear Family and Friends                                                                                        October 2002

Thank you all for your calls and e-mail messages. I wrote this to try and give you some idea of how the dreadful tragedy of the recent bombing in Bali has affected our community.

On Saturday 12th October, my husband, our 5-year-old daughter and I were watching the 10 Aside Rugby Tournament in Sanur.  About 18 visiting teams had flown in from around the region.  We had a few beers and a really good time catching up with some “Sanur” friends we hadn’t seen for a while whilst watching the rugby.  We stayed for a few more beers after it got dark and then went on to our favourite bar in Sanur, Tom’s, where we ate supper.  Friends had invited us to the opening of their new shop, located about 6 doors' up from Paddy’s bar.  Another friend called my mobile at 8pm to see if we were going, but because we were still in Sanur and had our daughter with us, I said “No”.  Then my husband said “I can drop you there and you can get a taxi back later.”  I was tempted – but decided against it and we got home around 10pm.  We heard the explosion at 11pm and my husband said, “That sounded like a bomb!” - but we continued chatting and eventually went to bed a couple of hours later.

We got a call from a friend at about 2am telling us that bombs had gone off at the Sari Club, the American Consulate and in Ubud.  (I don’t know where the Ubud bomb information came from but quite a few people mentioned this.)  We immediately started ringing round family and friends and sending e-mails.  Next morning we made more calls to check if everyone we knew was OK and it was then that we heard that all the referees from the rugby and many of the players had been in Kuta when the bomb went off.  The missing from all the teams numbered about 27.  From what we could find out that morning, although 4 of our closest friends had been in the area during the explosion, none of them were injured. We have been so fortunate.  Although I vaguely know a couple of people who were killed, apart from some friends with minor injuries, everyone we know was spared.  The ceiling of our friends’ new shop (50 meters from the Sari Club) fell in and all the windows were blown out, but fortunately none of the 50 people there at the time was seriously injured.

We then left Bali on Sunday 13th  lunchtime... as the death toll was rising.  We felt dreadful to be flying away and extremely mindful of all our friends left behind.  But our flights had been booked for 4 weeks, and my daughter and I had to get out to get new Visas and my husband was flying back to work on the Tuesday.  We used to live in Singapore for many years, and we spent Monday night at the Singapore Cricket Club with old friends.  The mood there was subdued and sad.  At that time the Singapore Rugby Club’s tally was 3 confirmed dead and 3 unaccounted for.  The Club’s survivors were just starting to return from Bali with horror stories about the night of the bomb.

Had I known that Sunday what I know now, I would not have left Bali but stayed on here to help regardless of over-staying our Visas.

My daughter and I got back to Bali on 15 October, the Tuesday night.  I spent that night and all Wednesday morning calling friends and listening to their stories.  I also called the British Consulate to volunteer help if they still needed it.  We had a lunch date with friends already planned for that afternoon, which we kept.  I then got a call from the Consulate the next morning – they did still need help.  So from Thursday until Sunday afternoon I spent many, many hours either helping at the Consulate or attending meetings with volunteers, police who had flown in from the UK, British Consulate people and the British Foreign Minister.

I was one of the most fortunate volunteers.  Because our family left on Sunday lunchtime and we didn't get back until Tuesday night, I wasn’t in Bali to be seconded to the emotionally exhausting and devastating jobs of helping at the hospital, morgue or with families flying in trying to identify victims' bodies or remains.  The hours I put in are nothing compared to many of the others.  I helped at the Consulate by checking the 900 and more logged phone calls, 50 e-mails and 80 odd miscellaneous additional messages received there between Sunday morning and Friday evening against flight manifests.  I then checked names of people who had been called in or had called themselves in as 'safe' off the missing list, tried to get rid of the many duplicate names, and helped update the database.  The objective was to get a more accurate list of missing Brits on Bali. 

The devastation the bombs caused was horrific and everybody who witnessed this terrifying experience or its aftermath will be psychologically scarred for life.  Shrapnel flew around everywhere – there was so much glass and metal that did shocking damage to human beings.  I know 2 people who saw 2 different cars with drivers sitting at the steering wheels with no heads.  Other bodies were seen peacefully sitting in cars with no visual external damage.  Body parts were draped over the telephone and power lines and were scattered on the streets and the roofs of cars.  Then there were the charred bodies of people who had been trapped inside the burning buildings – and the smell of burnt flesh.  It was just appalling.

The hospitals and clinics were inundated.  Hundreds of injured people arrived throughout the night.  Most were taken to Sanglah Hospital which in no way was equipped to treat burns, let alone the huge amount of casualties with missing limbs, dreadful shrapnel wounds and internal injuries.  Hundreds of injured, many critically, were packed into one emergency ward and a few side wards and corridors.  Astonishingly, Sanglah Hospital had no morphine, and there were not sufficient sterile dressings or even sheets to cover wounds.  At least everyone had a bed – but wards and corridors had no air-conditioning – not even fans.  Staff was hard pressed to adequately clean the wounds of the injured.

As well as Indonesians, many foreigners flocked to the hospital that night and all through Sunday and Monday to offer help.  Many gave blood.  Some helpers were assigned 2 or 3 patients to be with and assist as much as they could, whilst others were detailed to bring in supplies and to scour chemists for burns ointment and medicines. Volunteers could only give basic care.  By basic I mean sitting with the injured and holding their hands, trying to give them water, or trying to arrange emergency evacuation.  It was almost impossible to find any drugs and medicine or to get the attention of any of the desperately overworked local or volunteer medical personnel.  Many of the conscious patients asked volunteers to help them trace friends they had lost in the mayhem.  People were rushing around with photos and passports, trying to identify them against patients or bodies at the morgue.

Finally a medical team from Australia arrived late Sunday afternoon and they managed to better organize the chaos.  Burns creams also finally arrived by air on Sunday afternoon and the first medical evacuations eventually started 24 hours after the tragedy.  By this time, of course, it was already too late for many.

The scene at the morgue was even more horrific.  Well over a hundred bodies, many wrongly labeled, some bursting out of their body bags, other bags packed with body parts, were dumped one on top of the other.  The refrigeration system was not sufficient to cope with the number of dead.  On the Wednesday night after the explosion a call went out to restaurants and bars to donate and deliver as much ice as they could spare and to round up volunteers to shovel it over the dead.  The stench can only be imagined.  At the British Consulate there was a pile of brand new wellington boots for those volunteers and/or family members and friends needing to visit the morgue to start the identification process.

It has been extremely difficult for the authorities to release the number and names of the confirmed dead, as it is so difficult to match those reported missing against the bodies and remains.  Many people were vapourized, blown to pieces or burned beyond recognition in the explosion.  I assume most of the bodies that could be visually identified have been, but the rest of the bodies and remains will have to be identified by matching dental records or DNA.

Then there are the stories of the volunteers who, without any previous experience or training, met families at the airport and went through the grueling process of helping them identify their lost ones and get the bodies flown out of Bali.  Naturally the families were totally unprepared for the barbaric scene at the morgue.  But then, it gets worse.  We live in Bali, Indonesia - only those of you who have visited could have the slightest inkling as to how difficult it is to get anything done here.  One friend told me that she sourced someone to provide a coffin for the relative of the family she was assisting.  But the coffin provider had no screws to secure the lid.  After waiting for an hour for screws to arrive, he then announced that he didn’t have a drill to fix the screws in place.  My friend had to keep trying to placate the family and beg them to be patient and understanding.  There were bureaucratic problems regarding releasing the bodies – different people giving contradictory instructions.  Nightmare upon nightmare.  The families and people who helped them will need a lot of counseling to even start to get over this dreadful experience.  We expatriates perhaps do not agree with the way things happen here, but we accept it – after all, it is our choice to live in Bali and almost nothing surprises us any more.  But for visitors from developed countries in such tragic circumstances – it must have been devastating.

The treatment of the Indonesian injured has been appalling.  I heard on pretty reliable authority that the President was asked if some of the more critical local burn victims could be sent to Australia for treatment as there is no burns unit in Bali.  I was told that she asked for 24 hours to make a decision – can you believe that, 24 hours? ... and then after 24 hours her decision was ‘no’.  I know of only 3 Indonesians who were flown out, but there were many more that were offered treatment in Australia.  The local people also lost out due to cultural differences.  Most of the foreigners had, if not family or friends, then volunteers fighting for the attention of people to help them.  The Indonesians, I understand, were overlooked because they were not as aggressive in their demands.  On the other side of the coin there are stories of bodies and injured people being robbed, exorbitant prices being charged for registering deaths and conducting funerals, and family outings to the bombsite, Sanglah Hospital and the morgue.

I'm sorry – I am sure you have already heard or read a lot of this in the news and you probably don’t really want to read it again.  But this event has deeply affected every soul in Bali - even those of us who have not directly witnessed any of the gruesome scenes – and we all need to go through some cleansing process.  Telling our story is therapeutic.

The mood amongst the expatriates still here is positive.  People want to stay in Bali; some may not be able to, as their livelihoods will be badly affected by the abrupt decline in tourism.  Others, like us, will stay as long as we feel relatively safe.  I think most of us feel that it is unlikely that anything will happen here again - at least in the next few months or so.  The Balinese are feeling great sorrow for their own dead and missing, and remorse and almost responsibility for the foreigners killed and the families left behind.  Balinese friends call us to make sure we’re OK.  Even strangers approach us in shops, to say how sorry they are. The few Moslems I have spoken to say that they do not feel threatened in any way and are very comfortable to stay in Bali.  I sincerely trust that this situation doesn’t change.

Now we come to how the British have handled this disaster.  This is quite another story.  But firstly, I must explain that in Bali the British have an Honorary Consul, Mark, who employs one staff.  The Consulate is a one-room office located in Mark’s pub and restaurant called The Cat and the Fiddle.  If we Brits need to sort out any immigration problems we just pop down the pub.  Very civilized.

Mark heard of the bomb attack early Sunday morning and went straight to Sanglah Hospital.  Meanwhile a few other Brits were contacted and asked to ‘man’ the phone at the Consulate.  In a matter of hours 1 man with 1 assistant, 1 computer and 1 telephone line had recruited countless volunteers, commandeered equipment and set up a task force comprising 5 or 6 different teams to handle the administration and physical support such a crisis warranted.  Absolutely no help came from the Embassy in Jakarta or from the UK.

Finally a few people started trickling in from the UK on the Wednesday and Thursday after.  But these were police to collect intelligence from the community, families and friends of the victims.  I’m not saying that these people are not needed, of course they are ... but we needed so much more. I personally was furious about the lack of support Mark was given, and this is why I wanted to be present at the meetings with the Ambassador and Minister, to voice my outrage.  Both the Ambassador and the Minister seemed embarrassed and very apologetic.  All those present at the meetings gave good and constructive feedback as to how the whole bloody mess could have been handled better.  The crisis administration was finally handed over to London on the Friday evening and all the relevant files couriered and e-mailed either that night or the next day.  At last volunteers were able to try and get back to living their own lives.

The Minister told us that one system has already been put in place.  There is now a new “Task Force” standing by in the UK that can be mobilized and sent to any country in the world, as required, to handle any similar event in the future.  Thank goodness something positive has resulted from this dreadful occurrence.

A week after the tragedy we are trying to get on with our lives in Bali.  Trying to get back to the normal day-to-day chores of working, or running our homes, and looking after our children.  The Balinese are performing many ceremonies to attempt to readdress the balance of good and evil on the island and to cleanse the scene of the tragedy.  But only now are the economic implications starting to be realized by locals and expatriates alike.  Many in the community have very difficult times to face in the future as tourism has been killed on this island – for how long, nobody knows.  Slowly the memories will dim but the effect will be long lasting and none of us will ever be the same again.

I find it so hard to wrap my head around all this.  But one thing I do know.  Regardless of how many people were involved in planning and supporting this shocking atrocity – one positive outcome is the emergence of hundreds, yes hundreds of heroes who did not stop to think about race, colour or religion.  To all the heroes all over the world – I salute you – please never fail us. Together we can overcome this fear and evil.

Please pass this message on.  And please tell everyone to support Bali by visiting us.  We all desperately need your presence here – economically and emotionally.

With love