Sat, 27 Aug 1994

Johny Sembiring in the eyes of 3 women

By Johannes Simbolon

JAKARTA (JP): Wherever 62 year old Johny Sembiring's soul went after his murder last Thursday -- paradise, hell, the spirit world, never-never land, etc --, and whatever labels people attach to him -- bandit, crime godfather, repentant, pretender, etc --, his memory is still fresh in the hearts and minds of three women.

The three are his wife Nia Murniati, 36, his eldest daughter Dian Sari Farelina, 34, and his youngest daughter, Jenni Nurul, a second grader at junior high school.

Jenni might still be too young to understand how complicated the phenomenon of her father was, while Nia and Dian are well aware to what extent Sembiring's name is deeply implanted in some of his fellow countrymen's consciousness as the underworld's prodigal son, who at first caused nationwide nightmares and at last took pains, seemingly in vain, to rehabilitate himself and restore his name.

"People may say he was a bastard or mafia. To me, he was a father, friend and teacher," says Dian, who is working at a bank in Frankfurt, Germany.

If there is anyone who is knowledgeable about the dark episodes of Sembiring's life in his heyday and who had witnessed all the bitter consequences, it must be Dian, Sembiring's only offspring from his divorced first wife.

She was just a little girl in her hometown of Pematang Siantar, North Sumatra, when her peers and adults started sneering at her now and then, taunting her that her father was an undesirable crook. Sembiring was then already notorious nationwide as a robber.

At first, it brought about only tears. Later, Dian fought by any means against anyone, including adults, who spoke about the negative side of her beloved father. The unfriendly, violent and painful childhood left deep scars.

Dian grew up an assertive girl who had to come to terms with her predestination as a daughter of Sembiring -- something which was of course not a matter of choice. She bore no shame in visiting her father in prison everyday after school.

"My father always told me not to fight anyone who mocked me. Only pagans hate their enemies. Believers always love their foes," she quoted Sembiring as saying. "I followed his words and then decided my own way of life," she said.

One thing which still lingers in Dian's memory was when her father once told her, "Dian, I have tainted your forehead with a black streak, but you'll live and mold your own character and destiny."


His wife Nia, who was Dian's buddy during her childhood in Bogor, came into Sembiring's life when he was about to leave the dark world of crime.

In the 70s she often accompanied Dian to visit her father in Bogor prison, where Sembiring was serving his 15-year jail term for a series of robberies; and was amazed at seeing how affectionately and fatherly the robber treated his daughter.

Nia continued to visit her friend at home after Sembiring was released from jail. Her affable relationship with the family did not change until 1978 when Sembiring, a person whom she called "father" as Dian did, was alone at home and in need of someone to accompany him to a movie house.

Nia and Sembiring then went to a theater to watch a film that evening and later dined together at a street-side restaurant. There, Sembiring, who had been divorced since 1965, told Nia that he loved her. She blushed in embarrassment and avoided Sembiring for days until the he eventually came to her house in Jakarta and demanded an answer. Nia nodded and they chose to elope since her father, an employee of the state-owned PPD transportation company, strongly opposed the marriage.

"His fatherly manner continued. He never got angry with me, much less slapped my face. When he felt uneasy with me, he just expressed it in a letter," says Nia.


Sembiring, son of a North Sumatra asisten wedana (district chief) during the Dutch colonial era and an aristocratic Batak Simalungun mother, was a complicated phenomenon who swayed between good and evil throughout his life.

As a drop-out of junior high school he ran away from home in the 50s and had engaged in the dark world of crime for the past three decades, committing a series of robberies, served a series of jail terms, and managed to escape from prison several times.

"His intelligence was crafty in that he was never directly involved in the murders, although he was possibly the brain behind them," says Dian.

In the last phase of his life, since the 80s, Sembiring worked as a prominent debt collector, diligent churchgoer and charity program activist.

Fluent in several Western languages by self-study, he, whom leading Indonesian poet Rendra compared to an eagle, restlessly sought for the peak of human dreams in such world-class literature by Boris Pasternak, Ernest Hemingway, Shakespeare, etc. None of the bandits who ever lived or will live might be comparable to his love of philosophy.

The man is gone now. That the press is eager to talk about him isn't completely because he is a legend, but perhaps because he was more a Dr. Jekyll than Mr. Hyde on his murder day.