Like family: how Australia and Indonesia united in recovery

Aisyiyah volunteer Ema Qojjimah and Kuningan bomb survivor Asep Wahyudin.
Aisyiyah volunteer Ema Qojjimah and Kuningan bomb survivor Asep Wahyudin

Like family: how Australia and Indonesia united in recovery

By Laura Jean McKay

In September 2004, a terrorist attack struck the Australian embassy in Jakarta, killing nine people and leaving 150 injured, some very seriously. In the aftermath, Aisyiyah worked in partnership with the embassy to provide support for the survivors, many of whom needed ongoing medical treatment and support, and the families of those who did not make it home that day.

Asep Wahyudin, before the bombing.
Asep Wahyudin, before the bombing.

On the morning of his 20th birthday on 9 September 2004, Asep Wahyudin left the house to go to work and turned back three times. His mum told him: ‘If you don’t have a good feeling, don’t go,’ but Asep went anyway. The year before he’d started working as a police officer in Vital Object Protection – a special unit of the force’s Mobile Brigade in charge of protecting embassies. His assignment was with the Australian embassy, in Jakarta’s Kuningan district. In his time there, he’d changed. As a kid, Asep had always been happy – since becoming a policeman he also felt strong, like he could do anything. At 20, Asep was tall and lean, with a sudden teasing smile and always surrounded by friends. He cut a striking figure in his uniform: dark pants and a grey shirt with police badge insignia and a gold embroidered peaked cap. Guarding the embassy was more than just a job to Asep. It was a duty.

‘I am proud to be Indonesian… It was in my job description from head office that I must stay at the front of the Australian embassy – so I did it. I felt I had a patriotic responsibility. I stayed at my post.’

Asep was working with one of the embassy’s contracted security guards that day, Anton Sujarwo, a man Asep describes as his soul mate. They stood at the embassy gate – made up of thick green metal pipes – and observed the cars and passers-by. By 10.15am, H.R. Rasuna Said Street was bustling with traffic and people. The surrounding office buildings were full of staff; other police and security guards worked alongside Asep and Anton; the embassy gardener Suryadi was at his job inside the fence with another gardener; a mother and her daughter joined a queue of applicants applying for visas at the entrance; and a bus full of people drove past. A white Daihatsu delivery van approached, seemingly heading for the embassy gate. Asep stepped forward and raised his hand to stop it.

‘Then the bomb went off,’ remembers Asep.

‘It made me go deaf in one ear. The right side of my body stopped functioning, like I’d had a stroke. I needed help and tried to call for help. I don’t remember anything [after that].’

Video footage shows people lying in front of the mangled embassy fence, fragments of cars and shattered glass. A young man in a police uniform is covered in blood. He stands in a concrete gutter, swaying. Somehow he crawls out of the gutter on his hands and knees. He is badly hurt on the right side of his head. He crawls clumsily, then falls back onto the grass and collapses on his back, arms loose. The man in the footage is Asep, and after his first round of surgery at a local hospital, he would remain in a coma for the next nine months.

Inside the embassy, Piter Edward was at his desk. Like Asep, Piter was relatively new to the embassy, where he worked for AusAID (the Australian Agency for International Development). He was one of the many Indonesians who worked alongside AusAID’s Australian staff, who came and went every few years. He’d been with AusAID for just seven months when the bomb went off.

‘I was on the second floor. We heard a loud boom. I couldn’t imagine what it looked like outside. I went under my desk. Everybody was under their desks and there was a lot of dust and people whispered, “what’s going on?”’

Piter crawled out and found one of his colleagues – who had an office by the windows – also sheltering under his desk, his computer smashed in half by the heavy bullet-proof windows. These had come out of their frames, becoming huge projectiles but also absorbing much of the force of the blast. One of the metal posts from the fence had also gone through a window on the top floor, narrowly missing then-Ambassador David Ritchie.

Indonesia and Australia had already experienced shared trauma and recovery in the years before the Kuningan bomb. In 2002, bombs devastated a Bali nightclub and bar killing 202 people, including 88 Australians and 38 Indonesians. 2004 was a significant year for Piter to join AusAID. Just three months after the Kuningan bomb, the Boxing Day earthquake and tsunami would kill hundreds of thousands of people and devastate the Indonesian provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra. Australia’s aid relationship with Indonesia would change after this, owing to the Australian government’s billion dollar commitment for reconstruction and development.

Once the embassy staff had gathered into groups, they moved to safer areas of the building, including the basement, where pipes had burst and water was leaking. It was only when everybody was evacuated to the tennis court outside that they started to grasp the extent of the damage. The impact of the 200 kilogram truck bomb had devastated the fence and facade of the embassy and shattered the windows of high-rise buildings around the compound up to 500 metres away. Piter and some of the other staff exited via the back door, unaware of the victims at the gate until they got home.

‘When we arrived home we turned the TV on, that’s when …’ Piter trails off. ‘In the evening there was an SMS from the embassy about support, psychological support, for those who needed it. Most of the staff took this support.’

Ema Qojjimah
Ema Qojjimah

On the other side of town, Ema Qojjimah was busy. She was working in an engineering consultancy and also volunteering with Aisyiyah – the women’s arm of the Islamic organisation Muhammadiyah, which would become integral to the recovery of the survivors.

Formed in 1917, Aisyiyah is the oldest women’s organisation in Indonesia. It was the organisation’s ethos of care that inspired Ema to work with them as a volunteer. On the 9 September, after she finished work at the consultancy, she went home and turned on the TV.

‘The news came on and I saw the story. I got a deep shock.’

Ema is just 150cm tall and has enough energy to run a small city. She has paired her home and professional life with work as a volunteer, surrounded by people who need support.

‘Since junior high school, I’ve had a social conscience,’ she says. ‘I’m sympathetic to everyone.’ After the news report, Ema immediately contacted Aisyiyah to find out how she could help.


Prior to the bomb attack, Aisyiyah had few relationships with international non-government organisations or the Australian embassy, but their work with marginalised people and communities meant that they had strong connections with organisations throughout Indonesia and could understand the needs of the survivors.

The terror attack had the potential to create grave doubts about the Australia-Indonesia relationship, and also raised an immediate question about whether Australia should accept any level of responsibility for the welfare of survivors and the families of the victims. The Australian government might have taken the view that it bore no formal duty of care toward them, as none were direct employees and some were merely passers-by. Helping the victims could have been read as accepting blame for their fate.

In the event, the Australian government settled the question decisively in favour of the Indonesian survivors and families, making an unprecedented contribution to the immediate and ongoing recovery of the people affected. And when it came to choosing a partner to work with the survivors, the embassy set another precedent by choosing Aisyiyah.

Australia’s Prime Minister, John Howard, initially allocated a million dollars from the Australian aid program, through the Australian Red Cross, to help the Indonesian survivors of the bombing and the victim’s families. $50,000 went to the Indonesian Red Cross in Jakarta for immediate medical supplies to treat victims, $30,000 to trauma counseling, and $650,000 to the Family Assistance Program for victims of the bombing, implemented through Aisyiyah and monitored by the Jakarta Office of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

Through what would later come to be known as the Victim Assistance Program, Aisyiyah conducted assessments of the immediate and longer-term economic and medical needs of the survivors and their families, which helped them to tailor assistance packages to each person’s needs. The support offered included monthly living allowances, retraining programs and help to start small businesses.

In the days after the attack, Ema took a volunteer job with Aisyiyah, working with the survivors.

‘We still didn’t know who the victims were but we were willing to help, and we went straight away,’ says Ema.

‘After two days the embassy started handling the problem, got in touch with the volunteers and met with everyone. At first the victims were scared and traumatised and didn’t want to talk because they were afraid of terrorism. After I explained about the embassy assistance, they opened up. I said to them, “Don’t worry, we’re not here to get you to be an eye witness, but to help you recover.”’

Anton, the security guard, and Suryadi, an embassy gardener, died in the blast, along with eight other people who were either applying for visas, passing the embassy or working in nearby buildings. More than 200 people were injured by the bomb debris and flying glass. In the days that followed, Piter and other embassy staff went around door-knocking to find out if businesses surrounding the embassy needed support, took supplies and cash to the survivors and victims’ families, and tracked down survivors in various hospitals. Piter was asked to join some embassy staff on a visit to the local hospital where Asep and some others were being treated in cramped, unsanitary conditions.

‘I thought it was just a visit but actually the consular officer already had the paperwork to show to the hospital authorities.’ The officer arranged for some of the survivors, including Asep, to be taken to the airport with International SOS and on to Singapore for specialist treatment, while others were taken to hospitals in Australia.

‘That was the first time I saw Asep, but really you couldn’t see anything, because of the blankets. He barely moved,’ Piter says.

Asep’s injuries were extensive – especially to the right side of his body, where he took the impact of the blast.

‘My body wasn’t functioning… After about ten minutes, it would freeze. Half of the bone in my head is gone and there’s a platinum plate there now. There was a tube to drain the fluid from my head into my urine because I had hydrocephalus [a build-up of fluid in the brain].’

Asep shows his scarring
Asep shows the scarring on his forehead.

Asep points out the scars on his stomach, neck, forehead and head. His skull is uneven and patches of his hair won’t grow back. ‘I had the tube from 2004 to 2015, and now I’m on probation without it.’

Two months after the attack, the Australian government allocated a further $2 million to support specialised medical treatment overseas and ongoing care in Indonesia for the most seriously injured victims of the bombing. While some of the guards injured in the blast were later directly employed by the embassy on lighter duties, or given jobs as office support staff, survivors like Asep needed the ongoing medical support that the Australian government would provide.

After treatment in Singapore, and to the shock and relief of his family and friends, Asep emerged from the coma after nine months and came back to Indonesia. His family describe his recovery as ‘a miracle’.

Asep, shortly after his recovery. Australian Ambassador at the time, David Ritchie, is on his right.
Asep, shortly after his recovery. Australian Ambassador at the time, David Ritchie, is on his right.

‘We picked him up from the airport,’ Piter remembers. ‘All the police officers were there. Asep and the other two officers were in wheelchairs. But when he saw the Commander of the Mobile Brigade, Asep stood up and saluted with a very slow hand. So he still remembered that he was a policeman and that here was the Commander. He saw a high ranking officer and he saluted. The Commander just hugged him.’

Fenni Rum’s first position at the embassy was managing the Victim Assistance Program. This was a unique program, one where Australians and Indonesians were working together in the wake of a frightening and politically charged situation. Fenni took a personal approach, asking herself, ‘“What if I was in their position?” Of course we also needed to manage it professionally. This is a sensitive program.’ Fenni explains that, ‘Aisyiyah did the trauma counselling, really helped and encouraged them. They acted as facilitator between the Australian embassy and the beneficiaries.’

Aisyiyah’s support work under the Victim Assistance Program was officially completed in 2007. Aisyiyah then undertook a due diligence assessment and selected Takaful Insurance to administer funds allocated for the education of dependants of the bombing victims, and continues to have a role in supervising the administration of the education funds to this day. Many women in the organisation, like Ema, also volunteer their time to working with the survivors.

In 2009, when Fenni started with the Victim Assistance Program, survivors and their families were still undergoing medical and psychological treatment. The survivors say they received excellent treatment under the direct care of the Australian embassy; however by 2007, with the initial phase of the emergency support finished, two mechanisms were established: medical support for treatment for bomb-related conditions for survivors – about 11 people – and education support for the eight children of the deceased victims. The management of the funds for this was handed over to two insurance companies: Global Assistance, who handle the medical side, and Takaful insurance, who handle the education funds.

‘When the embassy was caring for the victims, they were handled well, and treated well. It is a nice embassy. But when the insurance took over, the problems started,’ says one of the volunteers.

Volunteers were faced with angry hospitals and frightened patients because bills weren’t being paid on time. There was no point of contact with the insurance companies, so when survivors called they were put through to a call centre. One or two of the families were so poor that they wanted to use the education support meant for their children to help support their families. These and many other issues had been addressed over the years, and some were ongoing.

Piter reflects that, ‘Responding to the needs of the situation was not initially easy for Aisyiyah. They had networks, resources, and experience working with the community, with poor people and poor families. But this was not a normal situation. So a lot of consultation [was needed]. The Australian Red Cross and the IFRC were actually very supportive and worked very hard to get something up and running based on Aisyiyah’s capacity. And they were very eager to learn about proper procurement processes and the need for transparency, for example.’

In a tiny room in South Jakarta, Fenni and the Aisyiyah staff sat down with the beneficiaries to discuss what was working, and what wasn’t. Slowly, things began to turn around.

‘We met with all the beneficiaries regularly,’ says Fenni. ‘It was sort of like customer service, really. For us it’s important to know how the program is progressing, and also the feeling of the beneficiaries.’

A commemorative plaque at the embassy.
A commemorative plaque at the embassy.

Under the funding from the Australian government, Asep was offered medical treatment and a living allowance, while his family received educational funding. The Australian embassy also worked with Aisyiyah to provide ongoing support and monitor the survivors’ recovery.

‘It’s a unique program,’ says Fenni. ‘Not like a usual education program where you build a school. This assistance works directly with people affected by and dealing with the consequences of the attack, each with individual needs. We therefore cannot make generalisations in our response. With Asep, it will be a different treatment to another family where the victim passed away. We really need to listen, actually, to what they want. Sometimes they cry [and this is where] Aisyiyah can help them to understand that this feeling is natural. The Australian embassy knows that this is not a black and white situation. Aisyiyah offers a good balance.

‘They have a good approach in terms of giving counselling, and a good approach to the families of the victims and also the survivors. They give a humanitarian side of things, [and] support our program even though they’re not paid. The communication is like: we’re a family.’

A firm friendship

Asep and Ema could not be more different in their physicality, but they share a gregarious nature and a love of people. When Ema met Asep and saw his condition, she knew she had to focus her volunteer work with Aisyiyah on him.

‘I saw Asep’s wife pushing him in his wheelchair,’ Ema recalls. ‘His condition was bad. He had a pipe running through his body and there was no one to help him.’

‘I felt so sad and I chose to look after Asep until he got healthy. I took Asep to medical check-ups at hospitals, doctors and specialists, every day for about half a day from 2005 to 2015. Mr. Asep feels that I am like his mother, he said that to me. He is like my son, absolutely.’

‘My first impression of Ema was that we didn’t know each other,’ Asep says, ‘but after a while I felt like I had known her for a long time – from a long time ago.’

Aisyiyah volunteers are carers, advocates, friends and cheer squads for the survivors. Ema’s family have also become Asep’s family, supporting Ema as she supports Asep. Her husband is a lawyer and has advocated for Asep at hospitals and her children know him too.

‘If the patients called me at 1am, I would go straight away to look after the them,’ says Ema. ‘I felt more for them than my own children, we were that close. If they went to the doctor, we waited and talked with the doctor about the patient’s condition. That’s why the patients were very happy with us. We didn’t receive pay, we were volunteers.

Recently Ema travelled from Jakarta, up into the winding mountainous district of West Java to visit Asep and his family. Asep’s home is carefully decorated in bright colours and fronted by a busy road, backed by jungle. He was recently married again and he and his wife, Caswati, live with Asep’s parents, his sister, Teti, and her children. The atmosphere is alive with people calling to one another, laughter, cooking and plenty of conversation. Ema is clearly at home here with Asep’s family, and she and Teti sit together, working out medical and insurance issues.

Asep says he feels like he has two mums: his mother, Epong (right), and Ema (left), who has supported him through his recovery.
Asep says he feels like he has two mums: his mother, Epong (right), and Ema (left), who has supported him through his recovery.

One of their major concerns is that the medical support will stop, and they will be left with the bills. They are too nervous to ask the embassy how long the support will last. The insurance companies are also a cause of constant stress – the family is waiting for a new insurance card to replace the one that expired in March 2016. The relationship that Asep has with Ema, Aisyiyah and the embassy, however, isn’t in question.

‘Ema has sympathy for other people,’ Asep says, sitting on a brocade couch below framed photographs from his days as a policeman. ‘She always calls me, picks me up to take me to the doctor or the embassy or to meetings. The Australian embassy has provided medical support since the tragedy until now. I also talk to Piter from the embassy about my condition and my progress. I felt very blessed to go to those meetings.’

Asep has gone back to the police force – with a job in the staff office of the local police station only 100 meters down the road. He recently applied for a promotion, but although his written test was good, he failed the physical. His miraculous recovery is still marred by physical and emotional problems. Along with his medical condition, he experiences ongoing trauma.

‘When a tyre on a truck blows, I get a shock,’ Asep says, with a glance out to the busy street. ‘It reminds me of the bomb, just for a second. This is the trauma. I see the event all over again, even though the sound is different. The bomb was so close. Sometimes I have unstable emotions [where] I feel I can’t do anything so I get depressed. When I was young I was a very happy person, friendly, amiable. Before the bomb I had so many friends, but now my friends are far away. I get emotional so my friends get sensitive. We aren’t close anymore. I feel like a little person now, because of my condition. Before the tragedy I was more like a leader, now I don’t feel like a leader.’

Around the lounge room, his family becomes serious, discussing the fact that Asep doesn’t get invited to gatherings or events held by the bomb survivors anymore. Despite the trauma, Asep says that if he had the chance, he would go back to his post at the embassy gate.

‘If it was a normal life, I would want to work in the embassy again. I would want to be a security guard in front of the gate again. I absolutely should be there.’ He looks around at the faces of his family. They watch him intently, observing his mood and smiling their encouragement. Ema leans forward and nods at him to go on.

‘Now I stay with my family. My family always talks to me, they are very warm. I stay together with my sister and parents here in my home, where we’re all together.’

Return to Part 1: Aisyiyah and women’s empowerment