Bali: Once Again

  • Share
  • Read Later
Helsan Surapati sits on the glass-strewn pavement outside the gutted Raja restaurant, playing a blurry video clip of smoke and bloodied faces on his mobile phone. The Balinese vendor was buying a soda just down the street when a bomb hit the three-story building in Bali's popular tourist strip of Kuta. In a quivering voice, Helsan describes how he helped carry the wounded to taxis so they could be rushed to hospital. "There were people everywhere with bloodied faces," he says. "They were afraid of another bomb and were screaming and running." He shakes his head, repeating over and over: "It was chaos, chaos."

Once again, the tourist haven of Bali was under attack. Nearly three years ago, on Oct. 12, 2002, two bombs killed 202 people there. This time, beginning around 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 1, three explosions ripped through southern Bali within about 10 minutes of each other: first came the Kuta blast, then two more at beach restaurants in the high-end tourist hangout of Jimbaran Bay, 8 km away. The authorities said suicide bombers wearing vests packed with explosives were responsible, and that their remains were found at the scenes. At least 26 people were killed and more than 100 injured.

In Bali's capital Denpasar, Sanglah Hospital was filled with the wounded and the dead. Irzalisa Irsjafri, a 31-year-old Indonesian patient covered in cuts and bruises, says she was eating with 13 friends on the beach when there was a huge noise: "I got up and saw bodies all around, not moving. I'm sure they were dead." Her husband suffered abdominal injuries and remains in intensive care. Outside the hospital, young Indonesian men light candles for the victims. White cloth banners are strung along a fence, reflecting the anger and despair the attacks have generated among Balinese. "Kill the terrorists!" reads one. Another asks plaintively: "Why Bali?"

Yet the bombings did not come as a surprise. Just days earlier Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had warned that terrorist attacks might be imminent. And though both Indonesian and foreign security officials had focused on the capital Jakarta as the most likely target, nobody doubted that Bali was a candidate too.

No group has claimed responsibility for Saturday's attacks, but security officials and terrorism experts suspect they were carried out by a group associated with Jemaah Islamiah (JI), the regional network of Islamic militants blamed for the 2002 Bali bombings. Sidney Jones, a Jakarta-based JI expert with the International Crisis Group, speculates that a faction led by fugitive Malaysian bombmaker Azahari bin Husin and his countryman Nordin bin Top may be to blame. Says Jones: "We recently received information that Azahari had started a new special forces group called the Thoisah Moqatilah." The group, says Jones, has apparently split from JI's mainstream elements, which oppose violence. It has attracted younger, more radical members, she adds, not just from JI but from other militant Islamic organizations in Indonesia: "The information is still very sketchy, but this could be their first strike."

For Indonesia, these attacks come at a vulnerable moment. Authorities are still struggling to control a potentially disastrous outbreak of bird flu that has left six dead in recent months. And on the same day as last week's bombings, Yudhoyono announced drastic fuel-price hikes designed to shore up the government's shaky finances by slashing billions of dollars in subsidies. With Bali accounting for more than half of Indonesia's vital tourism revenues, the likely exodus of visitors from the island will place further pressure on the country's economy.

Still, tourists began to trickle back to Bali relatively soon after the much deadlier 2002 bombs, and in a world becoming increasingly inured to terrorism, the impact of the latest blasts may prove relatively muted. Just up the road from the site of the 2002 bombs, Spanish tourist Fernando Bartolome and two friends sit in the Sendok Restaurant drinking beer and nibbling French fries a few hours after Saturday's bombings. "We are hungry. We have to eat," says Bartolome, who is vacationing in Bali for the first time. "Bombs go off everywhere now. It's just the way it is."