Monday, November 05, 2007


Another week has fairly zipped by and I'm fully re-immersed in Jakarta's sweltering melting pot after the holiday. And indeed it is a melting pot, more than it may appear at first glance. It's obviously a joke to claim that the city can match the cosmopolitan, internationalist ambience of New York or London, but compared with the rest of Indonesia, Jakarta is a pan-ethnic, polyglot, shopping plaza of fun.

Just last week, for example, I became embroiled in an interesting social match up in a suitably divey bar on central Jakarta's infamous Jalan Jaksa strip. A couple of friends and I were enjoying a bottle or seven of the finest, most foaming-est, nut brown Bintang that the city has to offer.

Now, one of my co-drinkers that night is an active member of the US military who spends half his time pounding around Afghanistan with a big gun and the other half enjoying a bit of Jakarta rest and relaxation (ably assisted by various Afghani souvenirs that he brings with him). Aside from checking in at the US Embassy every now and again my friend is free to pursue the Jakarta dream to his heart's content and take a well earned Bintang break from the (ironically beerless) task of Taliban bashing around Bagraim air base.

After about three bottles of the old Batavian amber nectar, three guys came and sat at the table adjacent to our own and ordered some cokes (with which they were to mix surreptitiously with the bottle of duty-free Bacardi that they had hidden under their table in a plastic bag). Eventually, introductions were proffered and the secret Bacardi supply was shared joyfully amongst the six of us. It turned out that our new friends were Afghan refugees who had fled here in 2001 during the supposed overthrow of the Taliban by the coalition of the willing. Well it's a small world and make no mistake! US military occupier meets refugee from the same war at the United Nations of Jaksa.

After a brief Bacardi and Bintang brokered US/Afghan peace conference during which my international friends compared notes on their experiences of Kabul, the Pashtuns, etc etc we moved on to more local matters. It turns out that these poor lads have been stateless refugees in Jakarta for over six years now. Apparently Indonesia plays, “Temporary," home to about 500 Afghan refugees, who, in this John Howard era of asylum seeker crackdowns, have been unable to make the final leap over to their dream destination of Australia. As a result, these would be cobbers are stuck in limbo in Indonesia, officially not allowed to work and paid a monthly pittance of Rp.500,000 by the UNHCR.

It's certainly not the dream expatriate life of the Westerner or Japanese or Korean that springs to mind when one thinks of foreigners in Jakarta. However, the boys that we met have tried to make the best of things during their six years as Jakartan refugees and I surmise that there must be considerably worse places in which to have refugee status conferred upon you in this world.

All three of them spoke Indonesian well and one of them has married a local lady with whom he has had a child. The boys also professed to enjoy the occasional night out at local sin bin/pleasure palaces such as Stadium Discotheque in Kota. Clearly these boys have found a means of income over and above the UNHCR and good luck to them I say.

It's a shame that the Indonesian government seems to view these people as a burden and won't grant them the opportunity to stay and work here legally, even after six years. Browsing the Internet I found a quote from the wonderfully and appropriately named Mr Godam from the Bogor Immigration Department who said, five years ago, that, "We have to watch over them, which is not easy because of their large number and because they stay in different places." Yes, very compassionate; whatever happened to the international Muslim brotherhood that Indonesians love to evoke during this endless war on terror?

Afghans elsewhere in Indonesia have fared even worse it would seem. I learned via the Web that in Cilacap in 2001, "For security reasons, following the attempt by several refugees to escape from their current shelter, the Nusakambangan quarantine centres, they have been transferred to Batu prison, a special block for inmates convicted of drug offences." Nice. In addition, in 2004, three Afghan refugees in Mataram, Lombok, went on hunger strike via the rather drastic method of sewing up their lips. It would seem that being a refugee here can be every bit as bad as doing time in one of Johnny Howard's outback gulags.

Returning to our Bacardi fuelled Stadium heroes though. The boys told us that they still held out hope of eventually making it to Australia somehow or other. There was no way that they would ever go back home to the troubles and the resurgence of the hated Arabized Taliban. This resolve, they said, has only been strengthened through their encounters with the Arabs in Jakarta who, they claim, are arrogant, snobby and tend to look down their noses at Afghans.

Sitting in our salubrious Jaksa watering hole though, it was time to put a positive spin on life. The booze flowed freely around our pan Asian conference table and we talked some more until I had to retire dizzy for a few minutes in order to let out a rather unpleasant Technicolor yawn. The Afghans slipped away into the Jakarta night, ready for some hot nightclub action although not before letting us know that two of them,"Swing both ways," as I believe it's known in common parlance. In this respect they were not atypical Afghans, our American friend told us after they had left.

I was coming down hard the next day with a heavy Bintang/ Bacardi hangover gnawing at my optic nerves in the office. The memories of an enjoyable and educational night remained with me though. Jaksa rocks, who needs Oz?