The forced eviction of riverside slum dwellers has typecast victims as villains.
Everybody likes a good story. And the tale of Kampung Pulo is a good story, complete with heroes, villains and an insurmountable problem that finally gets sorted out.
The river, full of rubbish, narrowed by haphazard and illegally constructed houses on its banks, will be widened, and the residents of Jakarta will be saved from the terrible flooding that paralyses the city every year.
Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, the Governor of Jakarta, although depicted in one cartoon as the crazy villain driving the excavator that flattens all the houses of Kampung Pulo, has cast himself as the hero, the guy that saved millions at the expense of a few, or in this case, a few thousand.
The villains, according to the government’s storyline, are the occupants of Kampung Pulo. Stupid, greedy people, who don’t know a good thing when it’s right under their nose. “We’re already subsidising the apartments 80 per cent, there’s a lift, there’s everything; it’s safe, clean. What more could you want?”
Ahok is not the only one confused by the apparent lack of enthusiasm shown by the people of Kampung Pulo. Prasetyo Edi Marsudi, head of DPRD Jakarta, on inspecting the new apartments thought them, “Nice and comfortable” and the people, “Very lucky to live there for Rp 10,000 a day.”
But is the story as simple as that? Why are the ‘villains’ making such a fuss?
The fancy apartments that the minister was so impressed with, according to Sandyawan Sumardi, the head of the Free Ciliwung Community, were never what the people wanted. According to one report, 90 per cent of people in Kampung Pulo ran small businesses from their homes, such as tofu making, motor bike repairs, a small shop or restaurant.
Although the first floor of the towering apartment blocks is said to have been set aside for business activities it is not yet certain who is allowed to set up business there and under what conditions.
In giving up the homes they have lived in for years, the people of Kampung Pulo have been given the right to live in these new apartments. However, they do not own the apartment. With a change of leadership, or a shift in government opinion, they can be evicted at any time.
It isn’t just financial worries that made them reluctant to move. Like people who have lived anywhere for a long period of time, there are memories, stories, a certain culture that builds up over time. The residents talk fondly of their childhood, swimming in the river, running around together with their friends.
There are stories that the people of Kampung Pulo tell, stories that explain the world around them, stories related to the flooding that has become a part of their lives. One such story is that of the Buaya Bunting, or the tailless crocodile.
The crocodile is said to appear a few days before the floods hit, warning the villagers to move their valuables to higher ground and get out of harm’s way. Some claim to have seen the Buaya Bunting, or spirit incarnation as it is believed to be, directly.
Others call it the ‘ikan mabok‘ or drunken fish phenomena where the fish, in fear of the tailless crocodile, make their way to the sides of the river and flip about on the surface making them easy to catch. However, the Buaya Bunting, while playing a helpful role as an informal early warning system is said to have an evil side, occasionally taking a victim or two from the banks of the river, mostly people new to the area or children.
These days of course, the people of Kampung Pulo get the latest flooding news from their gadgets, and scoff at such old stories as being for those of ‘weak faith’. Even so, it is not unknown for those new to the area, or those thinking of having a party, to provide an offering to the crocodile in the form of beef thrown into the river.
But these are just stories made up to explain the environment in which people live. Stories where the protagonist serves as both hero and villain, stories that will rattle around meaninglessly in the nice and comfortable new apartments.
For now, it seems, the tale of Kampung Pulo has reached its end.
The people have moved, their houses completely flattened by the hero/villain protagonist in his excavator, the riverbanks are now awaiting further development.
At the end of this story, Ahok may have saved the day, but it’s unlikely there will be a ‘happily ever after’ – at least not for the ‘villains’.
Bronwyn Duke is a writer and translator who has lived and worked in Asia for over 10 years. Her most recent position was at the Indonesian National Commission on Anti Violence against Women. Photo: Antara.