24 Hours in October 2002

Since today is the 19th anniversary of The Bali Bomb, I thought I would post this bit of text – basically to just get it out there and off my chest. It has been sitting around for years. The text is the beginning of a story about the involvement that day of me, my girlfriend of the time and The Beat magazine in the investigation. It also involves a curious Italian who passed away a few years ago. This is also part of a greater story of Bali nightlife over the past decades that will come out one day. Some names are changed. Take a read and let me know what you think.

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I was just leaving a nightclub in Jakarta with The Beat Jakarta editor, Andhika Gustama checking some events around Indonesia’s capital city, taking some photos on the Saturday night, as we did back in those days. My mobile phone rang. It was Stef Prasetiyo, my sales person and proxy director of the company that published The Beat, a magazine I had started about two and a half years before. She was calling from Bali and she was also my girlfriend.

There’s been a bomb! Through the mobile phone line held to my ear, the voice sounded distant and anxious. What? What do you mean? I asked, not sure I was hearing clearly. There had been bombs in recent times in remote parts of Indonesia where I had never been, but they were small explosions with a few people injured and didn’t seem to be of great concern. But this sounded different.

It was approximately 10.15pm on Saturday night in Jakarta, October 12, 2002. I had left Bali about five hours before on a flight to the capital, and I can’t remember now why, but I remember that call as we climbed into Andhika’s car.

There’s been a big bomb, the shop is destroyed. Everybody’s running. I can’t find my car! And my phone battery is just about dead, Stefi screamed just before the phone went dead.

Stefi and another staff member from The Beat magazine, an English girl called Eva, had just arrived to the Grand Opening of the new Sandpiper shop on Jalan Legian, just 50 meters on the left before the Sari Club. The Sari Club was one the busiest bars or clubs in Bali and especially at around 11pm on a Saturday night.

The shop was holding its opening party with about 80 people inside. Stef and Eva were fortunate to find a parking spot for her Cheeroke Jeep just before the shop on the left side of the road. The cars were banked up, bumper to bumper, all the way down Jalan Legian and central Kuta, which was usual any night of the week and especially Saturday nights.

The crowded jalan had punters overflowing from Kuta’s prime night spot of the time, The Sari Club. This part of Kuta was the busiest in all Bali for nightlife in 2002. This was before Seminyak was busy and places like Canggu were still dark hollows without a tourist in sight.

According to Stef, young men and women were on the street laughing, chatting, calling out to one other as another Saturday night was beginning to take shape as they were heading to Sari Club.

It was 11pm in Bali as she pulled the car up on the left side that had just been vacated. Finding a parking spot on that street at that time of night normally was near impossible. They got out of the vehicle and walked into the Sandpiper shop a short distance away.

The crowd inside was a mix of locals and expats beaming with the joy and anticipation of the large night to come. Starting with free drinks at the opening, which always helps lubricate the wheels, and idyll catch-ups with the in-crowd of Bali nightlife elite, most would be heading off later to Bali’s famed clubs of the era.

Stef and Eva had just received a welcome drink and a few greetings as they had entered the Sandpiper building when a weird, unknown sound began. It was buzzing, then whirling and it grew and built during what seemed seconds. Then there was a blinding flash as the atmosphere out the front of the store appeared to wobble like jelly contracting then exploding with a force that blew the floor-to-ceiling windows out of the facade into the building and over the startled occupants of the Sandpiper opening party. Part of the ceiling fell to the floor on top of some guests below. Eva suffered a bad cut on her foot while Stef came through, as always, mostly unscathed.

The shop was now in total darkness except the red yellow glow coming from what was seconds before the Sari Club and its neighbour, Paddies. As the fire raged outside, fueled by the alang-alang―the local, dry grass roofing material ― dazed guests of the opening began moving their way through the debris of the shop and onto the street.

People were running, stumbling and walking in all directions, away from the flames, dazed, stunned and injured. As the throng of people pushed Stef and Eva towards the north of Jalan Legian, Stef stopped and said, Eva, I have to get my car, I can’t leave it here. Eva pleaded with her to forget the car and keep on going, but there was no way she was going to leave the luxury car there and began walking back against the flow of people escaping the area, to where she had parked the near new Cherokee jeep.

Back in Jakarta I was wondering what that phone call meant. I called back, but no answer. We rushed to the nearest bar to try to find some news and get a drink. Scanning the TV channels in the bar for news, nothing was appearing and no one seemed to be aware of anything, let alone the tragedy that was unfolding a thousand kilometers away on the tourist island of Bali.

Soon enough though the story hit the news and little by little the destruction, the death toll, the horror of what had happened in the peaceful and idyllic island, till that point, dominated the news for that night and the weeks to come.
I stayed the night at Andhika’s house in central Jakarta. I was anxious to get back to Bali to find out what was happening. By morning stories were appearing on the international news sites and blearing from TVs all over the country and world and it wasn’t looking good.

I flew back to Bali that Sunday afternoon. The flight was full and somber. There was a tension in the air as we took off, with everyone on board not exactly knowing what we were on our way to discover. The man sitting next to me on the Garuda flight was a journalist from a local news magazine on his way to cover the story. It seemed like all the country’s and world’s news services were all on their way.

After arriving at Denpasar Airport and heading home to Seminyak, Stef and I went to a mourning, candlelight gathering at the beach in front of La Luciola where many expats had met to mourn the loss of life and tragedy in our midst. It was a subdued and dazed gathering of people, the same feeling was everywhere all over town. Nobody knew exactly what the situation was, but we knew that many had perished and many were being treated in hospitals.

Stef had told me earlier that she had received a disturbing SMS message from one of our clients that had tried to place a controversial full page advert in The Beat magazine the week before. The advert would have appeared in the edition distributed the Friday night before the bomb. When we arrived at the beach ceremony she began telling me what had been happening since early that Sunday morning.

The first message arrived at around 7am. Now can’t you see, you stupid slut? it read. This was the first message that arrived and the first she showed me on her phone that evening on the beach surrounded by candle light. There were about 20 messages through the day getting worse in their temperament and anger. I had a picture in my mind of this man holed-up somewhere drinking straight out of a bottle of whiskey, slowly getting crazier and crazier as the day went on.

The man was Italian and by the name of Andrea Sorteni. We had first come across him when he took over an obscure nightclub in Sanur named Janger a year before, but quickly disappeared after the venue went bust a short time later. He appeared again in our lives a month before the bomb, taking over a late-night nightclub on Jalan Dhyana Pura called Skandal. I didn’t really have clear what the relationship was between him and Stef and never really would.

I thought at the time the message must be referring to the bombs in Bali being a consequence to the building tensions around the world, with demonstrations of millions of people in the world’s capitals against the US going into war with Iraq and the chaos that would follow. Which as it turned out was exactly what happened, and not long after. However, there was something more to what Sorteni was referring to and it wouldn’t be long till we found out.

The image he wanted to place in the magazine, which arrived to our home and graphics studio with the Italian’s Indonesian associate a week before, was a photo of dead bodies on the street with the words No War in Irak at the top. The image was in the middle of the page and at the bottom were the words Skandal Diskotek Bali. This was the name of the man’s new discotheque of course, but also translated into English meant scandalous Balinese discotheques.

At that time, a week before the bomb, this page seemed a little controversial and we told him that we couldn’t run it and maybe he should talk to Bali Post of somewhere else about his political beliefs not us, as The Beat magazine was supposed to be about good times and happiness. At this point he started ranting and raving at Stef over the phone when he heard the decision, saying, and I do recall clearly, You don’t understand what this is all about.

There is a lot more to this story. This is just the first 24 hours. In the following weeks and months there was an abundance of intrigue with Indonesian Intel and Australian AFP as we were placed in a safe house in Jalan Benesari Kuta, with other witnesses of the event, and ours was the first lead police had.

The image is from the ceremony a few days after the bomb in front of Sari Club. Credit: The Beat Bali. 

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