Sun, 14 Oct 2001

Expats: Staying put through it all

Bruce Emond and Hera Diani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

"Nita" and her fiancee, "Jack", are living in a state of confusion. She thinks of him all the time these days, anxious about what he is doing. At night, she worries that someone may come knocking on their apartment door.

Her greatest fear is that "something terrible" may happen when he is in a taxi stopped at a traffic light.

The facts tell the story. Nita, 25, is an Indonesian Muslim who has been living with Jack, a 29-year-old American, for the last two years. They had planned to marry early in 2002.

Sept. 11 has thrown their plans into turmoil.

"Everything is crazy," Nita said, her voice a mixture of anger and bemusement. "I keep asking Jack if he wants to go home, and I will follow later."

She added that she was angry that groups were using religion to bolster their position in anti-American protests and in urging a "sweep" of U.S. nationals and others from countries in the U.S.-led strikes on Afghanistan.

Nita's fears are shared by others who are married or romantically involved with foreigners, or who work with them. Some feel torn by their own personal condemnation of the Sept. 11 attacks and the "sweep" threat, along with their outrage at the U.S. government's response.

Away from the tearing up of flags, the attacking of symbols of U.S. culture like McDonald's and Coca-Cola, the inflammatory rhetoric, there are also human stories of people caught in the crossfire.

Rulita "Ermita" Anggraini is married to American Mark Winkle, and they run a PR company together. Mark converted to Islam when they married eight years ago and Ermita said his long periods spent in different parts of Asia prepared him well to live in Indonesia.

But Ermita added that she "understood" how some of her countrymen were outraged by U.S. actions.

"To a certain extent, I understand what has happened. It's not just about the events of the last two weeks, it's a cumulative thing from the past," Ermita said. "But now it's going away from the goal of having your voice heard, and sweeping and cutting off diplomatic relations is off track."

Expat exodus

The problem is that it will take more than a couple of strong statements from the government and the police to keep an expatriate exodus from occurring if groups come true on their threats to sweep for foreigners.

More relevant and meaningful will be community efforts to make foreigners feel secure, such as the "anti-sweeping" campaign launched by the residents of Jl. Jaksa, long the city's hub for backpackers, on Thursday. The residents turned back a group of activists from one hard-line group when they attempted to enter the street.

The chairman of the country's largest Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Hasyim Muzadi, urged the public to be wise and protect foreigners.

"Having solidarity (with Afghans) is OK, nothing's wrong with that, but don't create trouble in our own country. It's other country's conflict, why make it ours? Don't lose the sense of nationalism in the name of solidarity," he told The Jakarta Post.

Hasyim further asked people to avoid doing things that will put the country in a more difficult economic position.

"Sweeping is the right of the country, not the citizens. What we should do now is ask the government to form international solidarity to force the United States to stop the attacks. We should also form a solidarity of humanity," he asserted.

Others, such as noted Betawi (native Jakartan) leader Ridwan Saidi from the Betawi Cultural Institute, think it would be better for expatriates to leave until the situation has returned to normal.

He said it is difficult to tell the public not to express solidarity over Afghanistan. The threats and anti-West sentiment, he added, were the consequence of the global situation.

"Afghan people suffer more. That's why I think it's best for expatriates to just leave the country for a while," Ridwan said.

But picking up and leaving is not such an easy decision for people like Nita and Ermita.

Nita hopes the government will take a "strong stance", and also that Indonesians will start to concentrate on the problems at home instead of the war abroad.

Ermita believes she will know if and when the time comes to leave, but she also hopes that the worst will not happen, for the sake of her children, aged five and half years and 11 months.

"We don't want to be moving around, from place to place, because it will disturb us as a family," she said.

After all, this is her and Mark's home, too.