‘I Found My Brother, His Face Had Turned Blue’: Inside Indonesia’s Deadly Stadium Crush

At least 125 people have died, 32 of them children, with the youngest victim said to be only five years old.

The love for football runs deep in the city of Malang, home to Arema FC, one of Indonesia’s most successful football teams. But when 19-year-old supporter Khoridyah Maulidah Annabilah attended a highly anticipated game on Saturday night with her older brother, she was not anticipating the deadly chaos that would descend upon them—one which would cost her brother’s life. 

With the final whistle marking a 3-2 loss for the home side against their bitter rivals, thousands of agitated fans ran onto the pitch to confront players from both sides. As police moved to disperse the crowd, they fired tear gas that reached even those seated in the tribune who were not intending to invade the field, according to Nabila.

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“It irritated our eyes and we could barely breathe. Supporters were panicking and wanted to escape the scene, but the exit gates were still closed. Some supporters got beaten by the police when we were crowding the gates,” she told VICE World News. 

“My brother lost consciousness from inhaling tear gas, so he was stomped by others trying to escape. I found him lying near Gate 11—his face had turned blue.” 

With help from strangers, Nabila carried her brother’s limp body out of the crowded stadium, where people were suffocating in clouds of tear gas, struggling to escape. But when she tried to get the attention of officers to save her brother, her desperate pleas were ignored, she said. 

“When I finally found someone, also a supporter, who was willing to take us to the hospital, it was already too late.”

Some 42,000 spectators bore witness to one of the deadliest sporting disasters in history on Saturday night, as the stampede at a football stadium in Malang, Indonesia, claimed the lives of at least 125 people. Thirty-two of those were children—with one as young as five years old, hospital staff told local reporters. A further 180 people were hospitalized in critical condition, said authorities.

Chaos erupted at Kanjuruhan Stadium following the end of the match between Persebaya Surabaya, the away team, and Arema Malang, who had just lost to their rivals on home turf for the first time in 23 years. When riot police fired tear gas to disperse the throngs of pitch invaders—violating FIFA safety regulations prohibiting the use of crowd control gas at games—they forced hundreds of people to swarm to a closed exit gate in a stampede that saw 34 people trampled or suffocated to death. Many more deaths followed due to injuries sustained in the crush.

In the wake of the disaster, Indonesian authorities have borne the brunt of criticism from lawyers, rights groups, and the Indonesian public for their heavy-handed approach to managing the crowds. Many have condemned the seemingly unwarranted use of tear gas, while some eyewitnesses reported seeing police officers kick people to the ground. Many more are calling for justice.

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Agustian Siagian, head of the Regional Indonesian Advocates Organization (Peradi) for the City of Malang, announced in the immediate aftermath of the stampede the formation of a team offering representation to any victims wanting to pursue legal action against authorities. He believes they are “absolutely responsible” for the disaster.

“One of the main reasons there was violence is the police responded to the supporters violently,” Agustian Siagian told VICE World News, via a translator. “They brutally kicked them. They brutally used tear gas. So [we] want to investigate, and want the chief of police [of Malang], and the committee of the football league, to be held responsible for this.”

“It's common in Indonesia to see police brutality,” he added, “but in Kanjuruhan it was a whole other level.”

Shoes and belongings found inside the Kanjuruhan Stadium after the pitch invasion and stampede. Photo: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

At least 15 families and victims have already taken Siagian up on his offer, and he expects there’ll be more to come. For the next five days he will compile the names of every victim who reaches out seeking justice, collecting evidence to strengthen their case while allowing time for Indonesia to grieve. He and his team are still trying to clarify what laws the police violated, but Siagian said that “because of the way the brute force happened, [we] want everyone who was involved in the tragedies to be taken into custody and to be [held] responsible for what they've done.”

“[We] want to pursue legal action because it's the committee and the police's incompetence that caused death,” he said, claiming that the committee sold 42,000 tickets to an event with a stadium capacity of just 38,000. 

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Usman Hamid, Amnesty International Indonesia's Executive Director, said in a public statement that, “No one should lose their lives at a football match.”

"We call on authorities to conduct a swift, thorough, and independent investigation into the use of tear gas at the stadium," he said.

But the police have defended their use of tear gas, which suffocated fans and led to the stampede, saying the situation had "gotten anarchic.” 

“They started attacking officers, they damaged cars," East Java police chief Nico Afinta told reporters, adding that two officers died because of the chaos on Saturday night. “We have already done a preventive action before finally firing the tear gas as [fans] began to attack the police.”

When the police started tear gassing the crowd, Tiphaine Poulon, the girlfriend of Brazilian Arema goalkeeper Adilson Maringá, who was seated in the VIP section with other family members of players, was ushered down a flight of stairs into the team’s changing room.

Some injured fans were brought into the changing room by security guards, including one girl who looked about 14 years old, Poulon said. She was crying and clutching the hand of another woman. When Poulon tried to hand the girl her phone so she could contact her family, the traumatized girl couldn’t even react. 

“She didn’t look at my phone. She just looked straight. We talked to her and she didn't look at us,” she said. “When we tried to move her a little bit she was shaking.”

“He came back and he couldn't move… I don't know what happened. Their legs couldn’t be folded. Their legs were straight and their bodies were shaking.”

Another man in the room, who recognized the girl from his village, left the room in an attempt to find the girl’s father in the stadium. But he returned just five minutes later, carried by a few people, in the same shaken state as the girl. 

“He came back and he couldn't move,” she said. “I don't know what happened. Their legs couldn’t be folded. Their legs were straight and their bodies were shaking.”

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But despite the disturbing scenes she witnessed at the game on Saturday, the gravity of the stadium unrest didn’t dawn on Poulon until after she left the changing room and learned about the hundreds of casualties that night. 

“We didn’t really realize that it was a big tragedy. We just felt that is normal [football hooliganism].”

Indonesia’s football scene is notorious for violence, with police and fans often clashing in bloody game-related incidents—resulting in 78 deaths over the past 28 years. While irate fans are known to provoke violence during these football matches, the police have also long been criticized for their heavy-handed approach to crowd control, such as using tear gas to disperse crowds

Organizers had banned the Persebaya Surabaya fans amid an intense rivalry between the teams, to avoid chances of a brawl breaking out between fans, meaning Saturday’s crowd was almost entirely made up of Arema FC supporters. But the atmosphere was still charged, as Arema fans shouted insults and threw water bottles onto the pitch every time the rival team scored a goal, according to Poulon. 

She added that Persebaya players ran straight off the field and into the changing room right after they won the game, not even stopping to celebrate. Agitated fans climbed onto the pitch, running after and remonstrating with both home and away players. 

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“Arema supporters are quite intense. So I just thought, OK, they're going to be mad,” said Poulon. “Suddenly from left, right, middle, everywhere, so many of them got down [onto the pitch] at the same time. The police couldn't run everywhere. They couldn't get everyone at the same time.”

According to local reports, about 3,000 people stormed the pitch. At one point, Poulon saw about 20 people surrounding her boyfriend Maringá. The group hurled insults at him and some attempted to punch him as he tried to run to safety. 

“Then the police [fired the tear gas],” she said. “The gas started getting up into the stadium, so the security people asked us to move.” 

When she finally made her way out of the stadium hours later, she saw hundreds of police officers and fans seated outside, many of them sporting injuries. 

Since the deadly clash, Indonesians in Malang and beyond have been mourning. On Sunday, hundreds gathered outside the stadium to hold a candlelight vigil, singing and laying flowers for the victims. Similar vigils were also held in other parts of the country, including Semarang, Bandung, and the capital Jakarta. 

“Police have to be braver to stop the match. The committee has to understand when the match cannot be continued.”

On Monday, authorities announced that an independent fact-finding team will be formed to investigate the stampede, after Indonesian President Joko Widodo ordered an investigation and a safety review of the country’s football matches. Widodo also ordered the Football Association of Indonesia to suspend all Liga 1 games until the investigation is completed.

“We ask the national police to find the perpetrators who have committed crimes in the next few days,” said chief security minister Mahfud MD.

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In May and June next year, Indonesia is set to host the Under-20 World Cup across six venues—with Surabaya Stadium, located near the site of the tragedy, set to host matches. It's unclear whether Saturday’s disaster could impact Indonesia hosting the tournament. 

FIFA, which has requested an incident report from the Football Association of Indonesia, said in a statement that it was a “dark day for all involved in football and a tragedy beyond comprehension.”

Siagian said that before professional football matches in Indonesia, there is often an uneasy sense that something can go wrong. He hopes lessons will be learned from the incident, including knowing when to call off a match for everyone’s safety.

“Police have to be braver to stop the match,” he said. “The committee has to understand when the match cannot be continued.”

Follow Gavin Butler on Twitter.

Follow Koh Ewe on Twitter and Instagram.

Tagged:

indonesia, Football, soccer, worldnews

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