Ketapang mob killings Jakarta, Indonesia 1998 James Nachtwey
Illustration by Dian Permatasari

The Story Behind These Infamous Photographs of a Murder on the Streets of Jakarta

We revisit a neighborhood rocked by sectarian clashes twenty years ago this month to see what the riot can tell us about Indonesia today.

The scene of one of the darkest chapters in Jakarta's history is surprisingly pleasant today. Twenty years ago this month, a mob of Muslim men chased local Ambonese Catholics through the narrow streets of Ketapang, a small kampung in the shadow of the Gajah Mada Plaza mall, brutally killing at least 14 men during two days of bloody sectarian clashes.

Today, the street is a diverse mix of ethnicities and religions. Betawi Muslims were buying beef rendang from Minangkabau restaurant owners. A Javanese Muslim man was selling rich-tasting soto tangkar in front of a Christian school. I was standing on Jalan Pembangunan I, looking at a scene that stood in stark contrast to the series of dramatic black-and-white photos on my phone. The images were taken by renowned photographer James Nachtwey of the anti-Ambonese riots that took place between the 22nd and 23rd of November in 1998.


The photos are some of the most-iconic images of the events of 1998. In one, a man dressed in black squats over the bloodied body of an Ambonese man and presses a blade to his throat as he peers up at the camera. The image is so unsettling because there's this casualness to the violence. The man, allegedly the mob's ringleader, is surrounded by a crowd of onlookers. No one seemed interested in stopping the killings.

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"I tried to stop the mob from killing the guy," Nachtwey later told Esquire Magazine. "Three times they actually stopped. Once, a man was about to cut the guard’s throat. At that point, I got on my hands and knees and begged him not to do it. And he didn’t do it. He actually put down his knife and stood the guard up.

"But then the mob turned on me and became very threatening. People were in my face, pushing me back. While they were pushing me back, they finished the guard off. I thought that if one of them struck me, they’d probably take me out as well. I resumed taking pictures of the guard, and that didn’t seem to bother the mob. They allowed me to photograph it. But they wouldn’t allow me to stop it."

[ Note: We're unable to show the photographs here, but click through this gallery of the 1999 World Press Photo Awards winners first, then continue reading the story. Warning, this is a story about a murder, so they're pretty graphic.]


It was a tense time in the Indonesian capital. Only ten days earlier, police had turned on student protesters marching in Semanggi, Central Jakarta, killing at least 17 of them in the clash. It was the early days of a transition in power. Gen. Suharto, a man who ruled Indonesia with an iron fist for 32 years, had stepped down six months earlier after weeks of student protests and an explosion of anti-Chinese violence shook the city.

But the chaos only spiraled outward, drawing new communities into the fray. On the eastern tip of Java, a deadly—and mysterious—witch hunt had taken hold of the city of Banyuwangi. In West Kalimantan, tensions between indigenous Dayak people and Madurese migrants were on the verge of boiling over once again, this time in a wave of death and reports of cannibalism.


Students protest near Atmajaya University, in Semanggi, Central Jakarta. Photo courtesy the Indonesian Ministry of Defense/ Public Domain

Here in Jakarta, the student protests continued as then-president BJ Habibie tried to shift the country from Suharto's authoritarian New Order regime to the democratic Reformasi era. The Semanggi clashes, dubbed Semanggi Tragedy I, were followed by a second attack one year later that left another 11 dead.

“The transition from 1998 to 1999 was a chaotic year," said Nezar Patria, a student activist who was involved in the protest movement at the time. "You could say that we don’t know who’s boss. Reformasi opened up a dictatorial pandora's box, all of the social and political problems came out. And they took us by surprise, because back then [during the New Order] nothing came out.”


The violence in Ketapang in November of 1998 kicked off when some street-level gangsters, or preman, brawled with some other local residents outside a gambling den located next to a Catholic church. One of the preman running an unofficial parking lot on the street struck one of the local men. The locals were Muslim. The preman were Ambonese Christians, and their gambling hall, described in some reports as a football betting office and in others as a bingo hall, was somehow attached to the church.


The church today. Photo by Audy Bernadus

Local community leaders were able to calm the tensions by 3 am, but a few hours later word had spread that the preman had launched a counter-attack on a local mosque during the morning prayers, breaking several windows in the process.

"The preman were said to have attacked people while they were praying," Dwi Abiyantoro, a man who worked as Nachtwey's assistant in Jakarta, told me. "Two glass windows at the mosque were broken. But there was this widespread rumor that the mosque had been burned down. A Muslim will immediately get emotional when they hear something like that."

Abi, as he known by his friends, was with Nachtwey the entire day. He told me that when the they arrived at Ketapang, the scene was pretty quiet. But before long Abi started to hear rumors that a mob of men armed with machetes and blades were heading over from Tanah Abang, a working class neighborhood about 5 kilometers away. A second group was heading down from the nearby Kota Tua area. And the local mosques were using their loudspeakers to whip the neighborhood up into a frenzy. They urged local Muslims to mass in solidarity with the victims of the mosque attack.


Soon, Abi and Nachtwey found themselves in the middle of a lynch mob. The situation rapidly spun out of control. What began as an altercation between local Muslims and a gang of parking preman turned into a sectarian conflict between Muslims and Christians.


The mosque today. Photo by Audy Bernadus

Local Ambonese residents were running from the mobs. Some sought shelter by hiding in the gutter, until a kid on bike shouted to the mob "someone is in the gutter," Abi recalled. Then the mobs were on them. “People were stabbing their machetes into the gutter,” he told me. “That’s when I realized they didn’t have any sympathy for other people.”

Abi remembers feeling an overwhelming sense of fear at the time. Nachtwey was a seasoned war photographer with years of covering conflicts in places like Northern Ireland, Kosovo, and South Africa under his belt. But Abi was just his assistant. He told me that he broke down in tears as they both begged the mobs to stop the killings.

Some reports say the police just stood by and let the violence burn itself out. They only arrived once the mob was finished to collect the bodies. At least 14 were killed. Many of them were stabbed to death, but seven were found inside the gambling hall, which had been set alight.

In the end the mob tore through several small businesses and set fire to several churches before the authorities were able to restore order. Most of the 180 or so arrested in connection to the violence were of Ambonese descent—despite overwhelming evidence that they were the targets of the mob attacks, not the people behind the rampage.


The authorities kicked all the Ambonese residents who didn't have a government ID listing Jakarta as their official residence out of the city. Suddenly, the city of Ambon, in Maluku, East Nusa Tenggara, saw an influx of angry Ambonese Christians and Muslims from Jakarta.

"Because business in Jakarta was uncertain, the Ambonese gangsters couldn’t feed themselves," explained Andreas Harsono, an Indonesia researcher with Human Rights Watch. "It’s simple thinking: send them back to Ambon. In Ambon, they told others about what happened in Jakarta. And that triggered the Maluku sectarian conflict which broke in [second day of] Eid al-Fitr in 1999.”

By December, Christian residents living in remote West Timor set fire to several mosques in retaliation for church burnings that had occurred in Jakarta—a city more than more than 2,700 kilometers away.

Then by the early days of 1999, the violence of the capital had reignited local sectarian tensions in the city of Ambon as brawls between Christians and Muslims broke out. The city quickly split along sectarian lines as the attacks intensified. More than 2,500 were killed, and tens of thousands were displaced by bouts of communal violence that continued sporadically for years.

By the time the situation settled in Ambon, it had gotten worse across the country. Ethnic violence in West Kalimantan was displacing thousands. Separatist groups, long an issue in Aceh and Papua, had sprung up in Maluku as well. Soon, Central Sulawesi descended into a period of deadly religious clashes and East Timor would vote for its own independence, triggering violent reprisals from Indonesian security forces.


“When Suharto was toppled, all parties in Indonesia were trying to find a new equilibrium—a new point of balance" Andreas told me.


Muslim women condemn the failure of the military to stop the religious violence between Christians and Muslims in Ambon. Reuters Photo

There were concerns that Indonesia would split up like the former Yugoslavia did into smaller warring countries along ethnic and religious lines—a phenomenon referred to as "balkanization." But Indonesia held together, in no small part thanks to a decision to cede power to the regions, allowing local leaders a degree of self-rule through a process called "decentralization."

That process itself, the handover of power to local officials, created a whole host of new problems and drove the country's rapid resource boom and the clearing of once-virgin rainforest. But that's how history works. One action can reverberate out in all directions, causing unforeseen consequences years, and even decades, later.

Nezar, believes there's a direct line from the sectarian tensions of the Ketapang riots to the hardline Islamist protests that hit the capital in late 2016. Andreas told me that the Reformasi era opened the door to not only freedom of expression, but also corruption and rising religious conservatism. And this freedom of speech has now been twisted by organizations who want to use it to promote hate, he explained.

“After 1998, there was more room for expression," Andreas told me. "They used this room to say that the existing system has failed, that the disparity between the poor and the rich has widened, that there’s corruption, degraded morality, free sex, LGBT…”


It's this, our current political climate, that brought me back to the streets of Ketapang. I wanted to see if I could find someone, anyone, who could make this all make sense. How could something so brutal, so tragic, happen in the city I call home within my own lifetime? And how did we move past it? Or did we never really move on at all? Were the events of 1998 buried beneath layers of fear and shame by a population eager to forget the past, no matter how recent it may be?

I approached a man who told me he didn't want to be identified in this story at a small warung on Jalan Pembangunan I. He was happy to talk to me, but fearful of retaliation once I mentioned what I was working on. The man recalled those days in November, twenty years ago, as a time of great fear. "I didn't sleep for a week so I could watch my house," he told me.

I left the man to wander the rest of the neighborhood. Most of the people I approached declined to talk about the riots at all. No one was eager to dredge up all these old feelings for the sake of one young reporter with an obsession with the past. But then I met a man in his 50s who showed an interest in Nachtwey's photos. He asked me if I wanted to walk over to where one of the photos was originally taken. Sure, I said.

We ended up in a narrow alley behind Gajah Mada Plaza. The alley today looks about the same. It's still a narrow little street with a cement wall on one side a metal grates on the other. The older man asked me to look at the photo a second time. He studied the mob chasing the man and pointed out a man whose ankle was bent awkwardly inward.


The alley today. Photo by Audy Bernadus

He could recognize that man anywhere, he told me. He then pointed toward the security post about 30 meters away and casually remarked, "That's him, the one with the fucked-up foot. He's asleep."

I stood there speechless. I set out that morning to try to figure out what happened in Ketapang twenty years ago. I expected to meet some victims and talk to some older residents about how terrifying the entire thing felt. What I didn't expect was to find one of the killers sleeping at a security post only meters from where he once murdered a man in cold blood.

I wish I could say I walked right over and asked him if he was one of the men in the photo. But I was nervous and more than a little scared. I left the street and returned to my office to think about what had just happened.

Then, two weeks later, I was back in Ketapang, this time ready to find this man and ask him why he participated in the mob violence. I lit a cigarette even though I don't usually smoke to try to hide my nervousness. I offered the man one of them, but he declined, explaining that he planned to take a smoke break later on after he ate his lunch at the nearby warung.

I launched into a series of questions about the riots, about the men who hunted down and killed the Amobonese preman. The man smiled but refused to answer any of my questions. He wouldn't even tell me his name. He explained that yes, he did witness the incident, but added that it was a long time ago and everyone had made peace since then. He didn't say whether he was actually one of the men pictured in the photos taken by Nachtwey.

The man then rose to his feet and said he was heading off to eat. But before he left, he turned to me and offered an explanation as to why he had no interest in talking about the riots.

“It was a dark time, a gloomy part of our history," he said. "I don’t want it to become a conversation again. It’s something we should forget about forever."