Feb 21, 2020 Last Updated 6:56 AM, Feb 19, 2020

The Endless Wait

Published: Jul 29, 2007

R. Waluya Jati

In 1997 political activists began noticing that some of their colleagues were mysteriously disappearing. The general suspicion was that the military had kidnapped them to terrorize the burgeoning movement against the Suharto regime. That suspicion was confirmed when some of the disappeared activists resurfaced and told stories of their abduction, detention, and torture. It soon became clear that the army's Special Forces (Kopassus) were responsible for this covert operation. After Suharto fell in May 1998, nine Kopassus officers, including Maj. Gen. Prabowo, were tried by a military court and dismissed from the army for their role in the disappearances.

The story does not end there. Among those activists abducted, fourteen never returned. The military has refused to reveal what happened them. The military court only charged the Kopassus officers for the cases of the nine activists who had survived and been released. The military court did not accuse the officers of being responsible for the 14 still missing activists, despite the fact that the survivors reported seeing some of them still alive in the secret jail. The officers were only charged with misinterpreting an order and sentenced to between 12 to 22 months in jail.

The families of these victims have organised themselves to demand accountability of the government. They began their struggle with great hopes. They hoped to find out whether their loved ones were still alive or not. Their terrible fear of approaching high officials in the military and government was overcome by their boundless hopes.

It has now been four years since they began their quest for the truth. They have been knocking on door after door in the office buildings of the labyrinthine Indonesian bureaucracy. Still, they have not gotten one inch closer to the truth. The whereabouts of their loved ones are still unknown. The perpetrators, though already identified and publicly known, remain silent and untouchable. This case, like nearly all cases of past human rights violations by the military, is being ignored and forgotten by government officials.

All of the photographs here are of relatives of those 14 disappeared persons. At the moment I am writing this (in October 2002), families from all over Indonesia are gathering in Jakarta for a congress of the Union of Families of Disappeared Persons (Ikatan Keluarga Orang Hilang). This organization includes many more families than those of the 14 disappeared persons of 1997-98. Despite the state's indifference, they are persistent and have not lost hope.


Toeti Kotto, the mother of Yani Avri, a missing activist, was given clothes by another relative of a disappeared person. She is wearing the clothes on the day of the Muslim holiday Idul Fitri. From morning, she has been waiting at the front gate of her house for a miracle: for God to return her son to her.

Nabila, 11 years old, is the daughter of Noval Alkatiri. She has written the initial 'N' on the palms of both her hands - the initial standing for Nabila and Noval. Her father had not been an activist. He was an agent sending workers to the Mideast. He disappeared in 1997 while in the company of an activist, Dedy Hamdun, who is also still missing.

Wiji Thukul, a well-known poet and activist, has been missing since April 1998. In the years prior he had become a target of military intelligence. Dyah Sujirah and Nganthi Wani, his wife and daughter, are at the launching of a book of his poems in 2000.

On 12 February 1998, Suyatno was kidnapped by military officers who wanted him to reveal the whereabouts of his brother Suyat, an activist. He was released a few hours later after having been badly beaten and tortured. Suyat was then abducted by Kopassus and is still missing. Suyatno is haunted by regret and the desire to change places with his brother, though he, of course, can not be blamed for his brother's fate.

Although feeling unwell, Ibu Palan Siahaan forced herself to join a demonstration in front of the Presidential Palace during the International Week of Forced Disappearances in May 2002. Her son, Ucok Manandar Siahaan, disappeared in May 1998. The family had received anonymous telephone calls demanding that their son stop his campus activism.

R. Waluya Jati (jatijati@hotmail.com) is a photographer with Offstream Allied Media in Jakarta. He is one of the disappeared of 1997-98 who survived. His photographs of the families of the disappeared have been published in the book, Mereka Yang Dipisahkan (Jakarta, 2001).

Inside Indonesia 73: Jan - Mar 2003

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