This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.
On the morning of August 5, 2003, Febby Firmansyah Isran was excitedly handing out wedding invitations to his colleagues. By that afternoon, Isran was in the Jakarta Hospital suffering from severe burns that covered more than half of his body.
A suicide bomber had detonated a car bomb outside the lobby of the JW Marriott Hotel where Isran and his colleagues were having lunch. Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a terrorist group affiliated with Al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the attack which killed more than a dozen people. Isran was among the more than 150 who were injured.
For four months, Isran’s world was restricted to his room in the hospital’s burn unit. He was wrapped in so much bandage that he looked like a mummy. “My bandages had to be changed every day to avoid infection. Changing the bandages was more painful than the actual burns—it felt like my skin was being torn off.”
More than 16 years since the attack, the horror remains etched on Isran’s limbs and back. They prevent him from everyday activities like sitting on the ground to pray at the mosque, or finding a job. The gnarled fingers of his left hand make it difficult for him to write, use the computer or compose text messages on his phone. From a promising career as a young engineer, he shifted to odd jobs like driving a cab, but even then those were hard to come by.
“At interviews, they would take one look at me, see my scars and ask what happened. When I’d tell them, they would never call me back. No one wanted to be associated with a terrorist attack—not even with victims,” said Isran who is now 42 years old.
Isran is at least grateful that despite the attack, his fiancé stuck with him. When Isran was well enough, they had a wedding ceremony in the hospital. “I was so grateful that she did not leave me.”
His wedding entourage included the waiter and the security guard at the Marriott, along with his boss. They were all confined in the hospital and recovering from their injuries.
Since the 2002 bombing on the resort island of Bali that killed more than 200 people, Indonesia has been seized by a string of terror attacks. Government data from the Witness and Victim Protection Agency (LPSK) indicate that there are about 800 survivors of terrorist acts.
Survivors like Isran say that there is very little government assistance to pay for medical bills and help with the costs of long-term treatment, rehabilitation, and psychological support to rebuild their lives.
In the absence of government support, survivors band together to help themselves—and others injured in extremist violence.
When they hear of a bombing in the news, Isran and members of Organization of Family Survivors (YKP), a group he co-founded, mobilize members and go around hospitals to look for survivors and offer support to their family members. Sometimes YKP members would act as “guarantors,” vouching to pay for hospital bills to ensure that survivors would get prompt medical attention.
“Sometimes I think it is better to be the terrorist. The government has rehabilitation programs and livelihood assistance for them. But what about us survivors—who thinks of us?” said Isran.
Indonesian laws specifically outlined the rights of survivors of extremist attacks only in 2014 but a vague definition of who qualified as survivors hampered implementation. The amendment of the counter-terrorism act in 2018 better defined the criteria of “terrorism survivor/victim,” and strengthened the role of LPSK as the government body tasked to provide compensation, and medical and psychological support to survivors of terror attacks.
“We’ve been waiting for this for years. Interventions (before) were more skewed towards perpetrators. The bad guys have more market value. We are just victims. I’m not jealous, but it’s just not fair,” said Tony Seomarno who survived the 2003 Marriott bombing along with Firmansyah. Seomarno spent more than 8 months in the hospital recovering from severe burn injuries.
Suhardi Alius, head of the National Counter Terrorism Agency (BNPT), is aware of the pent up feelings of resentment and neglect among survivors but says the government is trying to balance law enforcement, security and the needs of survivors. “We have to give economic opportunities to former terrorists. If they are marginalized, they are easier to radicalize.”
“Before, we did not have a law specific for the care of survivors. Now, we do, and we are working on helping them,” Alius added.
Of the estimated 800 survivors of terror attacks, LPSK vice chairperson Susilaningtias said that more than half are under their care and the other half are currently still being verified by BNPT.
Since 2016, LPSK has issued medical compensation benefits to about 50 survivors of the more recent cases amounting to IDR 4.2BN ($307,000++) out of its IDR 64BN ($4.6M) budget.
Victim compensation and assistance are determined by the courts after a criminal investigation. The process requires paperwork like hospital records for documentation and evidence, which some survivors, especially those of the early attacks, no longer have.
Then there are other uncertainties such as the coverage of the law. The LPSK has until 2021 to pay out compensation as the final draft of the government regulation detailing compensation for survivors of terrorism is still pending presidential approval.
“We know some of the survivors are angry. We ask them to be patient. We are doing the best we can,” said Susilaningtias.
LPSK said it is looking into establishing a Victims Trust Fund to augment budgets and support the survivors’ long-term psychological and physical rehabilitation.
But aside from the survivors of the attacks, there are other critics. Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch Indonesia described the amendments in the counter-terrorism law and the government initiatives to protect survivor rights as “inadequate."
“The objective of terrorism is to create fear. By caring for survivors, empowering them and upholding their dignity, we send a powerful message that terrorism does not work,” said Harsono.
In an article, Heru Susetyo of Victim Support Asia highlighted that the media frenzy in the aftermath of a terror attack usually spurs an outpouring of sympathy and expressions of solidarity from friends, family and even strangers.
However, this dies down as the media goes on to cover other issues. For survivors, feelings of neglect and fear of being forgotten begin to creep in, compounding their physical and psychological suffering.
It took 40-year-old Nanda Olivia Daniel years before she could even speak about her injuries when a car bomb exploded outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in 2004. Daniel underwent 8 surgeries to save her right hand and for months, she feared the attack would leave her disfigured.
“I was tormented by thoughts that I would never be able to work and would have to be completely dependent on my family.”
The Australian government paid for her operations and medical needs. She, like other survivors, feel that her own government isn’t doing enough.
“Some of us lost our family members. Some of us lost our jobs. We don’t want pity. We want acknowledgment that this has changed our life and we are never the same person ever again,” she said.
Like Daniel, Iwan Setiawan is one of the survivors of the Australian Embassy 2004 bombing. Setiawan and his wife were on their way to the doctor when the bomb went off, throwing them off their motorbike.
His first instinct was to check on his wife who was 8 months pregnant at the time. Setiawan did not notice that shrapnel had dislodged his right eye. They found their way to the hospital and his wife went into early labor, giving birth that day.
Two years later, she died from complications related to her bomb injuries.
"I sometimes ask Allah why he gave me another two years with her only to take her away from me just when we were starting to move on from what happened,” said Setiawan.
Dissatisfied with the inconsistent support he received from the government and driven by the need to make sense of what happened to him, Setiawan went with NGOs and BNPT to visit terrorists in prison.
"I wanted to see what the person who destroyed my life looked like. I hoped that by meeting us survivors, they would change and there will be no other victims."
The early visits left him angry and frustrated. “Some were sorry. Others were still radical. They enjoyed seeing me with my artificial eye and hearing about my suffering. They said the bomb they made was effective.”
Still, Setiawan persisted with the visits. “A visit is only one hour. You cannot change someone’s ideology in one hour. I need to forgive them.”
BNPT has organized similar victim-perpetrator encounters. One event held in 2018 had 50 survivors come face to face with about 150 former militants and sympathizers. The move was criticized as being insensitive.
Tri Iswardani Sadatun, vice-chairperson of the Indonesian Psychological Association, is wary of face-to-face interactions between the reformed terrorists and survivors like those arranged by BNPT. “It may set an example to terrorists that they will be forgiven. Terrorism is never justifiable.”
Sadatun said that crucial to their healing is the survivors need “to forge meaning out of what happened to them”.
Instead, she has been working with survivors like Setiawan, training them to act as first responders after a bombing attack. They provide psychological first aid to affected community members by sharing their experience as survivors.
“They have to be shown ways to rebuild their lives independently and find a renewed sense of purpose. Otherwise, they will be re-victimized all over again,” she said.
Sharing his trauma and helping others come to terms with theirs has helped Setiawan. He still wants the government to recognize its responsibility to support those hurt in terror attacks and hopes that the new reforms will pave the way for that.
“Now we feel that the government cares. Even if it is slow, there is progress. Before, they just treated us like victims,” said Setiawan.
This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center