Dec 02, 2022 Last Updated 6:29 AM, Nov 29, 2022

Bravo the cat

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Jacob Rumbiak, with Louise Byrne

For quite some time I lived in Block E in Kalisosok Prison in Surabaya, and Block A in Cipinang Prison in Jakarta. These blocks were reserved for political prisoners from East Timor and West Papua. There were other blocks in the prison, just as big as ours, and always one distinguished by the presence of a number of cats, mostly rather fat, who hung around the inmates.

These particular inmates were 'koruptors'. For years in Indonesia the smartest businessmen have been koruptors. You won a government contract, stashed the money, got caught, and went to jail for two or three years. Thus, with minimal effort, your family accumulated a huge amount of money (with bank interest added) and only one member took the rap.

Life in prison for the koruptors was fairly easy. Family and friends visited with meat, fruit, fish, cigarettes, rice, knives and money. There was a special room for sex if you wanted it, or you could always go home for a couple of days if you paid off two or three guards.

None of the above applies to political prisoners. Jakarta is two thousand kilometres from East Timor and more than three from West Papua, so unless the Red Cross manages to keep track of where the army takes you, the military can hide its tortures behind the walls of its institutions that are situated all over the archipelago. One little lady from an Indonesian Christian church followed me to eleven different prisons, and I'll never forget the humbling experience of discovering, eventually, that she wasn't a soldier dressed in civilian clothes. As a political prisoner you assume your sentence will be shortened in one way or another. Forced to eat prison-prepared food, many die poisoned. Others hang themselves after hearing that their wives are raped or have run off with Indonesian soldiers.

Jesus loves me, and my life is part of his design. Of that I'm sure. But two men from West Papua inspired me to use my time in prison constructively. The first was Drs. Albert Sefnat Kaliele, a very spiritual man, jailed in 1989 for subversion. We were in Kalisosok together. When Abdurrahman Wahid was elected president of Indonesia, he relieved Kaliele of his eighteen-year sentence (although he is now back in prison in Jayapura, this time on a charge of corruption for the misuse of AU$7).

The other was Dr Thomas Wainggai, one of West Papua's most powerful intellectuals. In 1988 Dr Thomas was sentenced to life in prison for proclaiming the independence of 'West Melanesia'. His wife, who is Japanese, was jailed for eight years because she sewed the newly designed flag. Dr Thomas died in Cipinang Prison in 1996. At the moment I'm a refugee in Melbourne, and when I see Cathy Freeman on television, carrying the beautifully coloured flag of indigenous Australia, I often think about Dr Thomas. The world will also recognise these men one day, for Dr Thomas started our nonviolence campaign for independence and Kaliele is now leading it.


Unlike most political prisoners I had a cat. A unique and clever cat called Bravo, who was my security and my very best friend. I found him, a lonely lost and hungry kitten, who soon befriended my family of baby birds who had fallen out of a tree. I taught the pigeons to carry messages to other prisoners, and Bravo learned to safeguard a key to my cell that I'd acquired by means of a small (but korupt-like) manoeuvre. With the key I was able to go to meetings at night - I would lock the empty cell, then Bravo would drag the key back through the grill by its pink soccer bootlace, and hide it in a special spot. Later, I'd whisper a code, and he'd bring me the key so I could let myself back in. His intelligence enabled discussions of issues like democracy and justice. It was, of course, our defence of these principles that condemned us to torture and prison, but they served equally to inspire our internment with a particular hue - a hue which the koruptors in the other block were unable to imbibe.

Bravo stayed lean and clean leaping in and out of a drain catching little fish. He usually gave me these morsels of protein, or otherwise laid them, unmarked, at the feet of some of my colleagues. Joao Freitas, a Falintil commander from East Timor, was a regular recipient, perhaps because he spent so much time treating my injuries. By the time I got to Cipinang, my heart was weak from electric torture, and I thought my eyes would never recover from the years of confinement in the dark. Joao's love and dedication, and his skill with traditional medicine and acupuncture enabled my remarkable recovery.

When President Habibie had me transferred to a military institution, Bravo adopted the patronage of Xanana Gusmao. Six months later Xanana was also put to house arrest, and Bravo, now called 'Rumbiak', accompanied him to a decrepit but well-guarded house in central Jakarta. Here, apparently, he occupied himself entertaining the numerous diplomats and dignitaries who visited East Timor's imprisoned chief. During the violence that attended East Timor's referendum, Xanana was moved again, this time in secret, to the safety of the British Embassy. But in the rush, everyone forgot about Bravo.

President's Cat

Vicki Tchong is one of the unsung heroines of the Timorese freedom movement. In 1975, after the brutal invasion of her homeland, the Tchong family escaped to Melbourne where Vicki spent years creating a relationship between her wealthier Chinese-Timorese community and other more politically motivated Timorese - who never had any money but nevertheless ran a successful independence campaign. In 1999, just before the historic referendum, Vicki moved to Jakarta to arrange for East Timorese students to return home. Living in one dingy rent-a-room after another, and with nothing except a cheap mobile phone, she managed to find the students, organise visas, buy air tickets, and arrange safe exits. Eventually she had fifty frightened Timorese sitting in the airport, ready to fly to Dili. And Bravo was with them; as usual, in the middle of the mob.

The Garuda officer said he couldn't fly, not without a cat box, so money was paid to find one. Then it was deemed he needed insurance, so money was paid to get some. Then, a separate compartment was required, so money was paid for that too. Then, and finally, the officer simply said it was impossible for the cat to fly to Dili. Since the students' escape was paramount, Vicki quickly re-christened Bravo 'Kay Rala Jose Alexandre Gusmao, the President's Cat' and left him behind with some Chinese friends in Jakarta.

Less than a month later the world gave birth to a new nation. But democracy, as they say, is easier said than done. The East Timorese are facing the challenges with the courage for which they are renowned. Indonesians are trying too, but struggling with the concept - primarily because there are still a few fat cats skulking about. Me, and all the other West Papuans, are still waiting for some. But when my country does manage to discard the thin layer of politics that binds us to a Southeast Asian empire, and becomes instead a new nation on the western rim of Melanesia Pacific, I want Bravo to be there, pulling the rope that raises the flag. It's the sort of prize that's absolutely appropriate for a lean, clean and personable cat who always got left behind.

Story by Jacob Rumbiak (; edited by Louise Byrne.

Inside Indonesia 67: Jul - Sep 2001

Latest Articles

Acehnese fishermen and Rohingya rescue at sea

Nov 16, 2022 - BILAL DEWANSYAH

The criminalisation of people smuggling has created complex moral and legal difficulties for those who assist refugees in peril

Review: Bali, 50 years of changes

Sep 25, 2022 - MARY ZURBUCHEN

Chasing a cure for beriberi

Sep 15, 2022 - NIA DELIANA

A long search for a cure for beriberi in Southeast Asia in the late nineteenth century was led by trial and a lot of error

Review: The candidate’s dilemma


Review: 25 years of music activism


For two decades Bali-based rock band Navicula’s mission has been to tackle some of the country’s biggest social and environmental ills

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.


Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar