Stay put and stay low
Shortly after Suharto abdicated, stories appeared in the British press about the so-called 'incompetence' of the British Embassy staff. This is totally unfair. What was unfolding in Jakarta could not be planned for; it was organised anarchy.
The source of the story, a lass then living in Bandung who panicked and fled to Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta airport, should have stayed where she was. There was no way that embassy staff could have protected her from the mobs on her route or organised her individual itinerary.
During the Siege of Jakartass Towers, I relied a great deal on the disembodied voices at the end of a telephone connection in the Embassy to reinforce my perceptions. Stay put and stay low was, I felt, the best thing to do, and whoever I spoke to seemed to agree. This was a comforting thought.
Since then, I have got to know one of those voices quite well and, at my request, M., who had volunteered his services, has penned a few of his thoughts about the ten days or so spent in the Embassy compound.I stared out of my hotel window watching the troop dispositions around the British Embassy. It was a surreal site; the road surface had been chewed up into curved and corrugated ruts by the passage of heavy tracked vehicles, there were barbed wire barriers everywhere, and an ominous lack of traffic on what is usually one of Jakarta's busiest thoroughfares. Troop carriers and armoured cars were parked at crazy angles at the road junctions. Kids were clambering onto and into the military vehicles, while soldiers lounged in the shade under the trees at the side of the pavement, sleeping or smoking their kretek cigarettes.
The Mandarin Hotel, just across the road from the Embassy, was general HQ for the hordes of journalists and camera crews who had descended on Jakarta. I called in there every morning for breakfast, picking my way over battered aluminium cases and coils of slithery black cables to snatch what food was left at the buffet. Journalists, I reflected, have exceedingly healthy appetites. Sadly, their appetite for getting in close to the street action didn't seem quite so keen. My impression, from the conversations going on around me, was that a lot of them were more concerned to find some local bigwig to posture in front of a camera and pontificate on what was happening, rather than get into the thick of the action and see it first hand.
I was based in the Embassy during those critical days, updating their web site information and helping to man the emergency phone service that had been set up to provide advice for British nationals throughout the country. Phones rang non-stop, anxious Embassy officials darted hither and thither with slips of paper and notepads, and you could smell the tension in the air. But in spite of the apparent chaos it was a well-organized and very efficiently run operation - which needs to be said, as there were completely unfounded criticisms levelled at the Embassy after the crisis.
The highlight of the second week was my escape from the Embassy. We'd been told it was still unsafe to venture outside the cordon around the place, and on no account were we to return to our homes. Sneaking out of the gate with a colleague, we drove through the barriers unchallenged and sped to our respective homes in south Jakarta. I had two aims: check that my cat was safe, then head for the local bars to get the gossip from my friends. The traffic was jammed solid as usual, shops and offices were open, life had returned to the streets. It was only later, chatting with friends over a few drinks, that the darker horrors of the previous couple of weeks came vividly to life from their eye-witness accounts.