The May 98 Riots Claimed 200 Lives in a Single Fire. Here's What They Left Behind


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May 98 Riots

The May 98 Riots Claimed 200 Lives in a Single Fire. Here's What They Left Behind

When the Yogya Center mall went up in flames it marked the tail end of nearly a week of violence and looting in the Indonesian capital.

Muhammad Saparudin told his mother he needed a brown flannel shirt for a wedding when he walked out his family home's door the morning of 15 May 1998. It was the last Siti Salmah ever saw of her 17-year-old son.

Saparudin, or Ndin as he was known by his family, was one of the 200 people killed as flames tore through Yogya Center, a mall in Klender, East Jakarta 19 years ago today. The mall was reportedly full of thousands of looters when the fire began. Hundreds perished in the blaze or leapt to their deaths from the mall's roof. Their charred remains were taken to the city's main hospital, RS Cipto Mangunkusumo, to be identified by their families.


It was too much for his mother, Siti Salmah, to take. She fell ill and died a short time later.

"Our mother hoped that Ndin would be the backbone of our family," his brother Muhammad Sahrifudin, wrote in a letter now archived by the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan). "But after he died all her hopes and dreams were lost."

The handwritten letter was one of the more than two dozen personal items and letters sent to Komnas Perempuan by the families of those who perished in the Klender mall fire. The commission was a member of the fact-finding team tasked with investigating the cause and effects of the May 98 riots. Some facts came easy. Others, like who was responsible for the violence, were harder to pin down.

Here's what the commission discovered: More than 1,200 people were killed in a wave of violence and looting that targeted the capital's ethnic Chinese minority. Hundreds of women were raped. Thousands of Chinese Indonesian-owned shops were set alight in arsons so targeted that some non-Chinese shop owners took to writing "milik pribumi" ("owned by ethnic Indonesians") across their storefronts in a bid to be spared from the carnage.

The heaviest rioting lasted for four days. Looters torched two malls, this one in East Jakarta, and another in Lippo Karawaci, and smaller storefronts and homes throughout the city. Tanks were dispatched to protect the wealthiest of neighborhoods. Others, like Glodok, West Jakarta, were left to fend for themselves—with tragic results.


Here's what the commission didn't discover: Who set fire to the mall in Klender, East Jakarta.

So families instead were left to shoulder the pain. Their family members were lost, but no one was ever held accountable. The country would move on, but these families couldn't. They didn't want their loved ones forgotten. So they sent these personal items, everyday mementos of those they lost, to the commission as a reminder of the questions that remained unanswered—of the justice that remained unserved.

"My son was collateral damage," Maryani wrote in a letter to the commission. "He died because a certain someone wanted to stay in power."

Her son's body was never found. So she sent the commission a letter and the only things she had to remember her son: a photo and a torn and faded polo shirt—his favorite.