Essay Series: ‘Eighteen Years Later’ by Eliza Vitri Handayani

This essay is part of a series commissioned by the Australia-Indonesia Centre, with leading writers and commentators from Indonesia and Australia each looking closely at their own society, cultures and political situations. Membaca versi Bahasa Indonesia

EVERY TIME ANYONE asks me how I came to Australia, I tell them I was adopted from China. It’s a story that doesn’t make anyone uncomfortable. It’s a story that doesn’t draw out pitying looks. It’s a story that doesn’t make me look like a freak. Or a victim.

THREE YEARS AFTER it happened. My friend and I were sitting in my room and she said, “One afternoon in middle school I was walking home from soccer practice and I passed an abandoned tunnel. Someone leaped out of it and dragged me inside…

It took me several seconds to realize that she was telling me that she had been raped. I hugged her, but couldn’t share my story in return. Not without admitting that the life story that I’d told her, the person whom she thought she could trust, was a lie.

SIX YEARS AFTER it happened. “It’s so hard to read you,” my boyfriend said at a beer garden. “I’ve told you stories about my childhood and my family—you haven’t told me anything.”

He was right. He’d told me that if he could do anything in the world, he’d like to combine human rights education with football. He’d told me his secret fear was never being able to make his parents proud. Every time he asked me anything meaningful about myself, I simply kissed him.

Two weeks after that date, he left me.

TEN YEARS AFTER it happened. I saw a flyer for a discussion with survivors of the May ‘98 Jakarta riots. Somehow I went to the event. Sat in the back, kept my head down.

The facilitator, a member of the independent fact-finding team, explained to the audience what had happened in May ’98: for thirty years Indonesia was ruled by an authoritarian regime under Soeharto. In ’98 massive student protests were pushing for him to step down. Activists were kidnapped, and on May 13-14 riots broke out in several cities, shopping centres were looted and burned, and around a hundred women were raped. The protesters pushed harder. Soeharto stepped down, and Indonesia took its first steps towards democracy.

A survivor on the panel said her boyfriend had warned her to stay home on 12-14 May. He was with the army special forces. She did, but her brother went out with a friend. The friend ran to their home later that evening, covered in sewage.

“My words crashed against the dam of my lips, my heart burst out of my chest. How I wished someone would see me, ask me what had happened to me. “

“He said my brother and he were watching the nearby mall burning when mysterious men dressed in black ordered them and the crowd to step inside a supermarket next to the mall. My brother’s friend jumped into the sewer… He watched the men lock the supermarket and torch it. When the men had gone, he ran to tell us. The next morning my father joined a team of volunteers with the police whose task it was to transport the charred bodies to a hospital. He found my brother’s remains. I recalled what my boyfriend had said and called him. He said he knew there were going to be riots, but he swore he was not involved. I wanted to break up with him at once, but I feared for my family. We decided to move to Makassar, where my father came from.”

My words crashed against the dam of my lips, my heart burst out of my chest. How I wished someone would see me, ask me what had happened to me. Please. Even as I hid myself from friends and lovers, I’d wished they could see through the persona I presented to them and pull me out of myself. The facilitator invited questions from the audience.

The urge to speak terrified me. I ran home and wrapped myself in sheets. Here I was again, after all these years, back to where it started…

AFTER IT HAPPENED I wrapped myself from head to toe in hospital sheets. I could see the world through the sheets, but the world couldn’t see me. When a doctor came by and reached for the sheets, I screamed and kicked her.

“I need to check your daughter,” she said to my parents, sitting on the foot of my bed. They hadn’t said a word since they brought me here.

“I won’t take away your sheets,” she said. “I just need to make sure you’re okay.”

That calmed me down and I let her bandage me.

An hour later I saw uniformed men pushing through the hallways. I heard the men warning hospital staff not to speak to the media about rape victims.

The doctor rushed back to my bedside. “Do you have any place to go?”

My father shook his head.

“I think you’d better come with me.”

She helped me up, still covered in sheets, and walked us to her car. She took us to a small house in a quiet neighborhood. She had the wisdom not to flip on the light switch. “I was going to rent out this house, but you can stay here until it’s safe to go home. The neighbors are good people.” She gave us the keys.

My father took them wordlessly.

“Have you had anything to eat?”

My mother just kept on sobbing.

Fifteen minutes later the doctor came back with take-out and bottled water. I watched her from the window in the master bedroom, where I had locked myself in. The doctor knocked on my door, offering food. I ignored her. The room had an ensuite bathroom so I didn’t have to open the door for anyone. I could just stay safe inside.

But whenever I close my eyes those demons were there again, gripping my wrists and ankles again, tearing me apart again. I didn’t want anyone to know we were there—for weeks after it happened, I slept with sheets stuffed to my mouth.

The doctor came back the next day bringing clothes, blankets, towels, and more food. I let her change my bandages, but I didn’t say a word. The next day she brought me a notebook and pen. She said if I wasn’t ready to speak I could write things down.

Every time I opened the door for the doctor, my parents looked on from behind her. My mother sobbing, my father looking pale and bereaved—as if I was already dead. They seemed not to know how to deal with me. They didn’t knock on my door, didn’t talk to me. They looked like helpless children, trusting their existence to the doctor. It occurred to me perhaps they thought I have brought shame to our family…

After a couple of months I heard the doctor ask my parents if they had plans for the future.

In response I heard only silence.

“Do you want to go home?”

Again, silence.

“What if you leave Indonesia?”

The doctor went to the Australian embassy many times to apply for our visas. When she asked me to join her for an interview, I wrote, “I don’t want to move to Australia. I want to die. Get me some poison or leave me alone.”

Every day the doctor offered to drive us to the embassy, every day I asked her for poison. One night she’d had enough.

“Do you know how lucky you are to be alive? Your injuries were not that grave. Many women will never be able to have children. Many women died! You survived and you have a chance at a new life… You still have your entire life ahead of you and all you want to do is die?”

She left and returned twenty minutes later, bringing a plastic bag. “Here’s your poison. If you think your life is worthless, despite everything I’ve done for you… well, maybe you deserve to die.” She threw the bag at me.

Days later the doctor told me she’d spent that night praying so I wouldn’t take the poison. Praying that she had done the right thing to make see me that I did want to live, I did want a future.

The next morning I told the doctor I was ready to go to the embassy.


EIGHTEEN YEARS AFTER it happened. According to my source—from now on I’m speaking as myself, Eliza—the girl is living in Australia with a new name and a new family.

When asked to contribute an essay on Indonesian and Australian identities, I thought of exploring the subject through personal and national tragedy. I recalled the girl’s story, which has resonated profoundly with me.

My source, a member of the independent fact-finding team, was told the girl’s story by the person who helped her from the hospital until she was settled in Australia. In my essay I made the person a doctor. The person had stopped communicating with the girl, therefore I had no way of interviewing her regarding how her trauma affected the way she told her life story. As I was writing I found myself filling those personal details with my own experiences—how my best friend had told me about her rape and I couldn’t tell her about mine, how my first love had told me everything about himself and I was afraid of telling him anything about myself. I wondered if the girl also had problems with letting people in, even if she yearned for close relationships.

For a long time, I thought of writing about my assault, but I refused to let the incident influence what others think of me. When I finally sat down to write it, I was in a strong place. I have found a partner who loves me and I had just written another essay ruthlessly interrogating myself, realising my flaws and delusions. I felt ready to confront my assault, able to define it rather than let it define me.

“I thought of how I too felt I didn’t belong… I too thought I was better off abroad.”

I imagined that was how the girl came to tell her story. After she went to the discussion—a scene that I invented, although the testimony was based on a real-life one—she talked to her best friend and then her boyfriend. She began exploring the dark trenches in the ocean of her soul.

I had qualms about mixing our stories… Could I, a Madurese-Javanese Indonesian, know how she felt, a Chinese-Indonesian—to grow up in a country that made her family give up their ancestral name, language, dances, and religion? Those laws have been revoked since ‘98. When I imagined how she might feel, I thought of how I too felt I didn’t belong—because growing up I couldn’t be the sweet obedient little girl that everyone wanted me to be. I too thought I was better off abroad. I have faith that the girl would understand what I’m trying to do by writing this essay.

That was how I rediscovered a connection to Indonesia—by seeing myself reflected in stories and friends with similar experiences. Friends from different ethnicities or faiths, some are fellow survivors who shared their stories of pain and struggle. It was that gift of trust that sealed our friendships. They’ve showed me what it means to be strong. When campaigning against gender-based violence, they taught me what it means to be smart and fair, instead of vindictive.

Indonesia still doesn’t acknowledge the ’98 rapes. Perhaps, as I did, it needs time. In the beginning my first priority was to heal. It was too confusing and disturbing for me to think about my assault. After the riots the government wanted things to return to normal fast, so it kept silent and hoped the nation would forget. Many victims found it too painful to talk about the rapes. And it wasn’t safe to. Someone threw a bomb at the fact-finding team’s office. A girl who came forward to testify was murdered.

Many people think talking about their rape would bring them nothing but shame. I imagine the girl too was unable to integrate rape into her personal history. Yet until I confronted my traumatic memories, I felt haunted, restless, not whole. It’s hard to integrate incidents of mass rapes into our nation’s history—however, building a peaceful society takes listening to all different groups. This means that rather than suppressing painful parts of our past, we must find constructive ways to acknowledge those events within the narratives of our national history.

In a well-known Indonesian folktale, self-made man Malin Kundang thought it would ruin his reputation if he admitted that he came from poverty. But he was wrong to be ashamed of his humble beginnings. How else would people measure how far he has risen? How else would the world measure how well nations learn from past tragedies and how hard they fight to ensure those tragedies will never happen again?

After enough time had passed, my body and my mind needed me to make sense of my assault. The time has come for Indonesia. We need to address the ’98 rapes, because however hard we may try, we can never forget. Now we have a much larger space to talk about it, although there are still those who wish to silence us. Many of us are strong and smart enough to safely draw attention to the matter and create channels to express people’s desire for truth and healing.

Malin Kundang denied his past and turned to stone. It’s not too late for us.

Eliza Vitri Handayani has been writing and publishing since she was in her teens. Her novel From Now On Everything Will Be Different came out in 2015 and was launched internationally. The book’s launch at Ubud Writers & Readers Festival was cancelled due to police warnings, and Eliza protested by wearing to the festival T-shirts printed with excerpts from her novel. Her short works have appeared in places including the Griffith Review, Asia Literary Review, Exchanges Journal, Magdalene, Jakarta Post, Tempo, and Inside Indonesia. In 2016 Eliza was selected as a WrICE fellow and participated in residencies in China and Australia. Eliza has appeared at Northern Territory Writers Festival, Makassar International Writers Festival, and Melbourne Writers Festival. Eliza manages InterSastra, a platform for literary exchange between Indonesia and the world.