Know Thy Neighbors

Article written by . Archieved at 11 September 2018 on category Short Story, The Jakarta Post

Ibu, they’re getting closer,” my 7-year old daughter screams. Anxiety in her voice.

“They’re setting fire to the car showroom,” she shrieks not a minute later.

I had asked her to watch from the window on the upper floor and to report any new developments she sees on the street. I had shifted the sofa to near the windowpane so she could stand on it and get a full view of the main street lined up with shops, including our own. Her brother, three years younger, joins her on the sofa but he is quite content sitting and keeping quiet.

“Now they are breaking into Om Halim’s store,” she says, calmer than before but still sounding anxious.

We call him om (uncle) though we are not related. We are neighbors and he and my late husband had been close friends. Halim and his family run the paint shop 10 buildings up the street.

I hear my daughter’s updates almost by the minute while I shuttle between ground and upper floors, where the living room and bedroom are, moving up our valuables. I started with the safe where I keep money collected from daily sales and documents related to the business, banks and the property certificates.

Now I am moving up the heavier stuff, the pricier ones like bottles of cooking oil and gunny sacks of rice from the storage room in the back room on the ground floor.

I am nearly out of breath.

What am I thinking? What good will this do if they are going to burn the entire store? Should I not be moving stuff outside instead? Should we not be running for our lives?

Halim had called from the airport last night, telling me to leave the house soon. Leave town if you have to, find somewhere safe, I remember him saying.

“What about the stuff in the shop?” I asked.

“Leave them. We left everything behind. We only packed one suitcase for the entire family.”

After a brief pause, he added: “I hope you have insurance for the shop.”

No, I mumbled to myself, regretting the many times I dismissed insurance proposals as a waste of money that were adding unnecessary costs of running the grocery store.

“But what is going to happen, Om Halim? Why?” I asked.

“Because we are ethnic Chinese. We’re targets. It’s already happening in Medan and other cities. They loot the shops before setting fire to them. They even kill and rape. They say it’s Jakarta’s turn tomorrow.”

“But who is they? Who is doing this? How do you know all this?”

“Sorry, I can’t talk anymore. We are boarding the flight. Leave soon and stay safe.”

“Wait. Where are you going?”

The phone went dead.

I curse my husband for leaving me alone with two young children and the store behind. He died of cancer four years ago, just one month after I gave birth to our second child. I curse myself even more for not taking Halim’s advice. I sensed yesterday something was wrong when I saw some neighbors vacating their stores and loading stuff onto trucks.

What’s the worst that could happen, I asked myself yesterday. I wished someone had said something then.

Leaving the shop would mean leaving our only means of livelihood. I have rebuilt the grocery business from near ruins after we spent almost all our money and savings on my husband’s medical treatment.

I had taken loans from anyone willing to lend money, including two from loan sharks, just to keep the business running. With my husband gone, this became our family’s sole income source. Before, we had the store and the big monthly paycheck he earned working in a bank.

Now that the store is more or less settled financially, I am not going to give it up. I need this shop to raise my two children, to send them to college one day. There must be a way to protect my store, or so I foolishly thought after the conversation with Halim.

Besides, where would we go? My relatives live in Semarang, while my husband’s parents are in Surabaya.

I have called John, my husband’s younger brother who lives in Jakarta, several times since last night, but there’s no answer.

“Ibu, Pak Dayat and Pak Ismail are just outside,” my daughter, still by the window, startles me from my deep thoughts.

The two men are among our regular customers whom we have come to know quite well, or so I thought. They are residents from the kampung just behind the main street.

I climb to the upper floor to join my daughter at the window. Yes, I see them, and several more from the neighborhood are joining them. There must be at least 20, including young men and children. Most of them are our regulars.

Pak Dayat keeps throwing glances at our window as he talks with the others. Surely the tinted glass is dark enough that he can’t see us watching them.

I thought I knew them well. They have all been nice to us, especially after my husband’s death. I appreciate the business they bring. I try to reciprocate whenever I can by meeting their needs, sometimes special requests for certain types or brands of rice. I also let them open credit lines and pay their bills at the end of the month. I gave them extensions to pay their credits when they came up with some hard luck stories. Some of them still owe us money.

But now with my customers gathering outside, I don’t know what to think of them anymore. Some are wearing headbands, and one or two are carrying bamboo spears. They look fiery, ready to fight or attack.

Are they going to harm us?

I look to the left of the street, where people — many with headbands and bamboo spears — are looting and setting fire to shops. I see men and women, carrying televisions and other electronic sets, laptops and mobile phones. I see them wearing new clothes, shoes and hats obviously from shops they have just ransacked. Some are binging on pizza and bread from the bakery opposite our store. Some are carrying paint cans from Om Halim’s store.

They seem wild and happy. Looks like a street party. I see some familiar faces among the looters.

The crowd is now just two stores away. Smoke billows from stores further up the street.

I start to panic. Think, think, think. I simply cannot come up with an answer.

There is a loud bang on the main door. And then another one, and another one. Afterward, we hear repeated knocks. And they are loud.

My daughter starts to cry with fear. Her brother soon joins in the wailing.

“You both stay here. Don’t look out of the window,” I order them, not certain if I am making things worse or better for them. “I’ll go down and see what they want.” They cry even harder.

Has the crowd really reached our store?

Another loud bang on the door.

“Who is it?” I ask, almost screaming to make sure the other side hear me amidst the commotion outside.

“It’s Ismail, ncik.” I recognize his voice.

“What do you want, Pak Ismail?”

“Your children with you?” Ismail asks.

“Yes. What do you want?” I raise my voice, more out of anxiety.

“Just stay inside ncik. Maybe you should move to the upper floor.”


There’s no response from the other side. He must have moved back to join the others.

The noise outside is getting louder. I can hear people screaming, cheering, laughing, and steel rods and wooden sticks banging against each other. I can smell burning, may be from shops across the road.

I join my kids on the upper floor.

“What are they going to do to us?” my seven year-old asks.

I hug both of them, fighting back tears and trying not to let them know my own fears, but I am sure they must feel my heart beating hard and fast.

“Get out of the way! Out of the way!” I hear people screaming outside.

“No. Move on. Move on. Not this store.” Comes another voice.

“This is a Chinese shop, just like all the others here. Don’t you watch the news? They are the reason for this crisis, they are the reason we are poor. Move aside.”

“No. Don’t you touch this store. Please move along.” I recognize the voice of Pak Dayat, the neighborhood chief.

There is more shouting between the two sides but I cannot make them out as their voices are drowned out by other noises.

I cannot stand it anymore. I have to look out of the window.

I see Pak Ismail, Pak Dayat and others from the neighborhood forming a barrier around the store keeping the crowd at bay. There is pushing and shoving between the crowd trying to get to our store and the human barricade.

I hear more screams and shouts from both sides.

“Burn! Burn!”

“Break the door down! Break it down!”

“We won’t let you pass. Move along.”

And then the pelting starts. One by one, glass windows break.

I move the kids away from the window. We can’t see what’s happening outside but we can hear the noise even louder now that window glasses are broken.

I hold on tight to both children. They are crying so hysterically and as I try to calm them, I simply ignore the noise outside.

Then I realize the noise outside is dying down. I dare not look, but sounds like the crowd is moving away and heading onto the next store.

[1] Story was written by Eric Musa Piliang
[2] Had been published in “The Jakarta Post” at September 10th, 2018

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