In May of 1998 Indonesia endured two weeks of intense rioting. Pressure from the Asian Financial Crisis had fueled resentment towards a seemingly inept government, leading to a series of riots across Central Java, North Sumatra, and the capital of Jakarta. It was a vastly complex upheaval but the upshot was the loss of at least a thousands lives.
One of the more horrible events occurred in the east Jakarta suburb of Klender. As the Yogya Department Store was looted it was deliberately set on fire, trapping hundreds inside. People were trampled as they tried to get out, while others simply couldn't find an exit. Police later collected 486 charred bodies.
Today Indonesia recalls this event with a peculiar mix of grief and superstition. The original building was razed and a new mall erected, yet locals treat the new building with trepidation. I was only two when the mall burned down, but I've grown up hearing more about Klender's ghosts than the tragedy itself.
I was curious about how the mall's employees deal with this past, and how generally, my country deals with death. So I went down on a rainy Saturday evening and talked to some people working there.
Oca Lesmana, 30, Janitor
VICE: Hi Oca, have you ever felt scared working here?
Oca Lesmana: Definitely. It depends on your belief, though. I've heard of people falling into a trance. But if we believe in God, bad things won't happen.
Have you ever seen or heard anything strange?
Once I heard some strange noises like a table crashing or shattering glass. I've also heard the sound of people moving around and sound of someone sweeping the floor.
Do you believe in ghosts?
I believe in them.
Do you ever find yourself behaving differently so you don't disturb the ghosts?
Not really. I work here like I work in other malls. Those ghosts were probably people who died when they weren't supposed to, but maybe they ended up as ghosts because they broke the law here—you know, with the looting and all.
Evi, 35, shop girl. She didn't want her photo taken but here's the counter where she works.
Hi Evi, how long have you been working here?
Not long. About three months.
Do you find this place spooky?
Yeah and especially when I first started.
Well, isn't this the number two place [for the highest amount of riot-fatalities] in Jakarta? There you go. There must be a lot of oddities flying around here.
Have you ever seen anything strange?
Yeah. I once saw some charred fingers in the back alley. That, and every morning before the mall is cleaned, you find kid's toes lying around on the floor. You find one on every floor. The cleaners find them before the mall opens every day.
What? How come no one else finds them?
The janitors clean them up.
That's very weird. Do you overhear customers talking about ghosts?
I heard they used to but not so much these days. It wasn't like when the mall reopened in 2000. I once came here in 2003 and yeah, people were talking about the mall being haunted.
Do you believe in ghosts?
I do. I'm really sure there's a lot of them, and not just in this place.
How do you deal with them?
It's best to just let them be. The most important thing is that we don't purposefully disturb them.
Abud, 37, security guard
How long have you worked here?
Thirteen years. So I've been working here two years after the mall was re-opened.
Have you ever experienced some strange happenings?
Alhamdullilah no, not so far. But if you called the mall haunted, you wouldn't be wrong. I've heard of people falling into a trance. A friend of mine who was on patrol in the basement once saw this woman with a child and some groceries walking in a very weird way. When he approached her, she got mad and told him she was waiting for her husband. When he looked for her again, she'd disappeared.
What do you mean by acting weird, or a trance?
Well it depends on our conscience. As Muslims, if we're clean we can't become possessed. Usually it's women who are on their periods who the most susceptible. All of a sudden they can fall down and convulse.
Right. How do you feel about working at the site of such a tragedy?
It was a tragedy, wasn't it? But we hold some remembrances and have a few offerings in memory of the people who were lost. Everybody gets involved, even the cops nearby.
Soleh, 38, store manager
Hi Soleh, how long have you worked here?
Five or six years, I suppose.
Have you seen anything weird around here?
No. It's all safe and sound. Nobody's ever complained over weird sightings. The riot happened in a long time. Besides, the building is brand new.
The woman I talked to earlier said that she once found some fingers.
Nah, that can't be true. I've been here longer. I know everything about this place.
So you've never been wary of the place being haunted?
What can you tell me about the riot?
I can tell you there used to be a department called Yogya. It was looted and then it was burned with the people still inside. That's it.
And you don't believe there's some remnant of that tragedy here?
No. After the riot the place was completely rebuilt. In accordance with Islamic teachings they prayed, held commemorations, and whatever. The point is that the supernatural world exists not just in this place, but everywhere else as well. I think I'm right about that.
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