Meet the People Fighting Back Against Jakarta's Nail Traps


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Meet the People Fighting Back Against Jakarta's Nail Traps

Nail traps, patches of road covered with rusty nails that puncture motorists' tires, are a constant threat in Jakarta. The volunteers of SABER are trying to do something about it.

Abdul Rohim is one of the most-hated men in Grogol, West Jakarta. He's also one of the most loved. It all depends who you ask.

Abdul is the founder of SABER (Sapu Bersih Ranjau)—a volunteer group of Jakarta residents who work nights and weekends clearing nails and metal debris from the capital's roads. SABER are a diverse crew—office workers, ojek drivers, students, and young professionals—who are waging a war of attrition on Jakarta's unscrupulous roadside tire-repair stalls. The stall owners throw nails and jagged pieces of metal in the road, creating nail traps that puncture motorists' tires and keep business moving at a brisk pace.


"When we sweep an area, for example in Cideng; we'd sweep the area clean and move to sweep near the [presidential] palace," said Abdul. "In [Cideng], they would lay nail traps again. In ten minutes, if we don't immediately clear it again, there will definitely be new victims."

Siswanto removes nails from his magnet bar. All photos by author.

It's work that leaves Abdul and his crew of yellow-vested volunteers loved by the neighborhood's motorists, but hated by those who depend on nail traps for business. The point of the nail traps isn't to convince drivers to patch their tires, it's to sell low-quality inner tubes at a higher price, Abdul explained. The practice is both annoying and dangerous, but it's ubiquitous on Jakarta's streets.

Siswanto (left) and Abdul (right) on a road in Grogol.

Abdul began cleaning the roads of debris back in 2010. He was driving through Daan Mogot, in West Jakarta, when he pulled over and, out of frustration over what he saw as the city's inaction, began to pick the nails off the street by hand.

Siswanto took notice. He saw Abdul out there after work every day cleaning the streets of Daan Mogot. He quickly joined forces with Abdul and one year later the pair had the idea of creating a community group to keep the streets of Daan Mogot safe. They called the group SABER.

When I met up with Abdul and Siswanto the pair were on one of their night-time sweeps. Abdul was always on his phone, fielding calls from other crews out on the streets. Siswanto was dressed in military-themed overalls emblazoned with a police insignia. By the end of the night the SABER crew would move from Grogol to Roxy to Cideng until they finally stopped at Medan Merdeka Barat. In a normal night, the volunteers pull about eight kilograms of nails and metal off the city's streets.


SABER's street sweeping machines have a decidedly D.I.Y. flavor. Most volunteers use powerful magnets pulled from old subwoofer speakers, dragging the magnet down the street to pick up anything metal. Siswanto attached his magnets to a meter-and-a-half-long pipe with wheels on both sides that he drags down the road. The device has lights attached for extra visibility. He added the lights after the last one was run over by a car, he explained.

In an average night, SABER can pull eight kilograms of nails off the streets.

The nail traps can be difficult to spot. The tire repair stalls use rusty nails so they blend in with Jakarta's roads. They tend to favor larger, longer nails because the bigger the nail, the quicker the flat.

"The biggest would be about five centimeters," said Abdul. "When that sticks, it won't take long to get a flat tire."

Today, SABER has branches in every municipality in Jakarta. The East Jakarta chapter also collaborates with SABER volunteers in Bekasi to keep the streets leading out of the city clean. Each chapter has about 30 volunteers, but few work as hard as Abdul and Siswanto.

"When we can't do patrols we think who's going to clean up these nails if we're not doing it?" Abdul said. "Who knows how many more could be victims there could be."

SABER volunteers work on a street in West Jakarta.

But it's dangerous work. The volunteers of SABER brave Jakarta's chaotic traffic, threats from the tire repairmen, and worse threats from gangsters who collect protection money from the tire repair stalls.

"The job is high risk, because we're working on active roads," Abdul said. "If we're not careful we could get hit by motorists. We'd have to sacrifice our own time to do a service for the community—helping the people by cleaning the roads of traps.

"But we aren't many, we're low on members to be honest. And there are still so many reports of roads that are dangerous because of nail traps."