Date: June 16, 2017
*Warning: Readers may find images upsetting.
Two-year-old Anita Sihotang cannot bear the sound of her father’s motorbike because it reminds her of the noise of the explosion last November, when a petrol bomb was thrown into a church park where children were playing, killing one child and seriously injuring Anita and two four-year-olds. Whenever her father turns the key in the ignition, she runs away.
“It was so heartbreaking to see them on that dreadful night,” recalls Anita’s father, Jackson. “We felt so powerless.”
Anita, and four-year-olds Alvaro Sinaga and Trinity Hutahaean, had been playing after Sunday school in the grounds of their church in Samarinda, East Borneo, on 13 November 2016. The suspect, Juhanda bin Muhammad Aceng, reportedly threw the bomb into the church grounds as the children waited for their parents to come out after the end of the service. He was reportedly wearing a black T-shirt with the message, “Jihad Way of Life”.
A fourth young victim, two-year-old Intan Banjarnahor, was the most severely injured. She died the following day.
Indonesians were horrified by the attack, and an image depicting Intan with angel’s wings was shared widely on social media.
Intan’s mother, Diana, said: “It was just a week after we returned from North Sumatra to attend my mother-in-law’s funeral. So we were already in deep sorrow when it happened.”
She and her husband felt unable to visit their daughter’s grave until Easter, five months after the tragedy. “I just couldn’t do it before as the pain was too much,” she said.
“She [Intan] brightened up the house with her singing and never ending questions, and now she’s gone. It feels so quiet.”
“I saw her head covered with smoke and her face black. Her body was so hot that I had to rip away her clothes.”
Traumatised, the children’s families are struggling to rebuild their lives as they come to terms with a mixture of anger and guilt.
The father of one of the injured children was working in West Borneo, more than 1,000 miles away, when he heard that his son had been hurt in the explosion. Hotdiman, a construction consultant, reached home 26 hours later.
“I cried all the way, thinking the worst – that my son’s leg or arm might have gone,” he said.
When he was at the airport, he saw a picture in a newspaper of his wife holding their son, Alvaro.
Later came the news that their friends’ daughter, Intan, had died. “That news broke my heart,” he said, “and I remembered pleading and pleading with God, ‘O God, please don’t take Alvaro away from me too.'”
Sarinah, the mother of the injured Trinity, was on duty as a church elder leading the Sunday service when she heard the explosion outside. She ran out, looking for her daughter.
“I saw her head covered with smoke and her face black. Her body was so hot that I had to rip away her clothes,” Sarinah recalled.
“Weeks after the incident, I was certain that Trinity would be healed completely, but now, looking at the slow development, my hope is starting to weaken.”
Trinity and Intan were best friends. For weeks after the explosion, Trinity asked Intan’s mother, Diana, where her friend was.
“It tore my heart and made me want to cry every time she asked, but I answered that she was on vacation to visit our family in North Sumatra,” Diana said. Trinity has not been told that her best friend has died.
Long and slow recovery
All three children have been discharged from hospital, but Trinity and Alvaro, whose injuries were especially severe and complex, continue to undergo treatment as outpatients.
Doctors feared that Alvaro’s scalp was so badly scarred that his hair would not grow back. Alvaro’s father, Hotdiman, said: “There were moments when I was broken-hearted and losing hope when I saw his scalp and scars. You know, he is my precious and my pride and joy. He is smart and handsome.”
He later learned that Alvaro’s ears were functioning normally and that Alvaro might be able to undergo a hair transplant.
Alvaro suffered traumatisation, as well as severe burns. His mother, Novita, said: “He is still terrified whenever he sees me cooking. He will be screaming, ‘Put the fire out, Mama!'”
However, she has been encouraged by Alvaro’s response to his medical care, which has included 17 operations. “What makes me strong is seeing Alvaro so brave going through all the treatments,” she said.
Meanwhile, Trinity is undergoing steroid injections to remove the raised, keloid scars. “I wish there are other options to remove the keloid. I cannot stand to see and hear her screaming before the injections,” said her mother, Sarinah.
Trinity is sedated under general anaesthetic before the injections, which she only has every fortnight because of her age.
“Weeks after the incident, I was certain that Trinity would be healed completely,” Sarinah said. “But now, looking at the slow development, my hope is starting to weaken.”
The children are afraid of meeting new people and looking at things that can reflect their faces back at them, but they are learning to regain their self-esteem.
In April, representatives from Indonesia’s State Agency for Witness and Victim Protection visited the victims and their families. They offered them bi-weekly trauma counselling and invited them to attend the trial of Juhanda bin Muhammad Aceng in Jakarta, which began last month.
Diana, Intan’s mother, said with a trembling voice: “I’m not going [to the court], but I hope the perpetrator will receive the proper punishment.”
Recently, she gave birth to a baby girl. She had been three months pregnant when Intan died. “This baby, she cures our longing to see my late daughter,” she said, unable to mention Intan’s name.
Trinity’s mother, Sarinah, added: she wanted to set an example for the other church members by forgiving the perpetrator. She said: “I don’t have any hatred towards the bomber. I forgave him already. The most important thing is for my daughter to recover well.”
Other children at the church have also been left badly shaken by the attack. They hide and cower whenever they hear sounds similar to the explosion.
A Sunday-school teacher at the church, Naomi Sagala, 24, explained: “A few weeks after the blast, I was surprised when our kids start to shout, ‘Shoot the bomber’, when they talked about the incident … with each other.
“We had to redirect them to what the Bible teaches about loving our enemies, loving the bad guys, even the bomber. We must forgive and pray that they will repent. To be honest, even adults are finding it difficult to do this. But we believe in God and in the power of His Word to heal, so we keep teaching this to our kids.”