(TENGGULUN, Indonesia) — The young Balinese widow stared across the courthouse at the man who had murdered her husband and 201 others, and longed to see him suffer.
Ever since that horrible night, when she realized amid the blackened body parts and smoldering debris that the father of her two little boys was dead, Ni Luh Erniati’s rage at the men behind the bombing had remained locked deep inside. But now, it came roaring out.
She tried to scramble over a table blocking her path to hit Amrozi Nurhasyim, whose unrepentant grin throughout the trial over Indonesia’s worst terrorist attack had earned him the nickname “The Smiling Assassin.” And then she felt hands pulling her back, halting her bid for vengeance.
What would happen a decade later between her and Amrozi’s brother — the man who had taught Amrozi how to make bombs — was unthinkable in that moment. Unthinkable that they would come face to face in a delicate attempt at reconciliation. Unthinkable that they would try to find the humanity in each other.
But inside that courthouse, and for years to come, Erniati wanted everyone associated with the 2002 bombings on the Indonesian island of Bali to be executed by firing squad. And she wanted to be the one to pull the trigger.
Her words to a reporter in 2012 were blunt: “I hate them,” she said.
“I always will.”
The practice of reconciling former terrorists and victims is rare and, to some, abhorrent. Yet it is gaining attention in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. While Islam in Indonesia is largely moderate, the country has battled Islamic militants since the Bali attacks. Last year, two families carried out suicide bombings at churches, and in October, a militant stabbed Indonesia’s top security minister.
The attacks have left Indonesia hunting for ways to prevent terrorism — and to heal from it.
Indonesia embraces a so-called soft approach to counterterrorism, where officials recruit former militants to try to change extremist attitudes in their communities, and jailed terrorists go through deradicalization programs. Last year, Indonesia’s government brought together dozens of former Islamic militants and victims for what was billed as a reconciliation conference. The results were mixed.
More quietly, over the past several years, there has been a growing alliance of former terrorists and victims brought together under the guidance of a group founded by the victim of a terrorist attack. Since 2013, 49 victims and six former extremists have reconciled through the Alliance for a Peaceful Indonesia, or AIDA. They have visited around 150 schools in parts of Indonesia known as hotbeds for extremist recruiters, sharing their stories with more than 8,000 students.
The hope is that if former terrorists and victims can learn to see each other as human, they can stop the cycle of vengeance. While reconciliation efforts have been launched after several large-scale conflicts — such as South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission — few attempts have been made in cases of terrorism.
“It’s difficult for everyone to go through this,” says Gema Varona, a Spanish researcher who studied reconciliation meetings between militants from the Basque separatist group ETA and their victims. “But it makes sense, because in terrorism, victims have been objectified. … So we need that empathy.”
Victims and perpetrators can learn to understand each other without legitimizing the violence, says Brunilda Pali, a board member of the European Forum for Restorative Justice.
“Understanding can help a lot,” she says. “But it doesn’t mean forgiving.”
For Erniati, there was nothing at first to understand. How could she possibly understand something so horrific?
And why would she want to?
Erniati doesn’t remember the first time she spotted the handsome, quiet waiter with the wavy black hair. But she remembers how much she and her fellow waitresses at the Sari Club idolized him.
Unlike the other men who worked at the popular nightclub, Gede Badrawan didn’t flirt with customers. He only had eyes for Erniati.
Gede never asked her on a proper first date. They just fell into a relationship, and then into love, and a year later, into marriage. Two sons followed.
As a father, Gede was kind and doting. He took the family to play soccer at Kuta Beach, and to their favorite park. That park is the source of one of Erniati’s most precious memories: of her younger son Made taking his first steps and starting to tumble, and of Gede catching him.
Around 11 p.m. on Oct. 12, 2002, Erniati had just settled into bed when a blast shattered the stillness.
She thought it was an electrical explosion. She didn’t know that a suicide bomber had detonated himself inside Paddy’s Pub, across the street from the Sari Club. She didn’t know that seconds later, a van carrying a massive bomb and parked in front of the club had exploded. She wouldn’t know until a witness told her much later that Gede had been standing near the van.
Erniati overheard people outside talking about bombs and body parts. She told herself Gede would return home after his shift ended.
When he didn’t, she grew frantic. She wanted to search for him, but couldn’t leave their sons — aged 9 and 1 — home alone. So Erniati, a Hindu, prayed for Gede until a friend arrived to watch the boys. As she sped toward the club on another friend’s motorbike, she reassured herself: “My husband is alive. My husband is alive.”
When she got there, she knew instantly that he was not. The club was a wasteland. At the hospital, she saw bodies so mangled they were unrecognizable.
The bombings had been carried out by al-Qaida-affiliated Islamic militant group Jemaah Islamiyah. The attack killed mostly Western tourists.
It took four months before Erniati received confirmation that her husband was among the dead. When the forensics officer finally called, Erniati could manage only one question: “Exactly what condition is my husband’s body in?”
“We probably identified about 70% of him,” the officer replied. They had not found his head or his forearms or his abdomen or anything from the knees down.
For more than a year, Erniati continued to make Gede’s breakfast, carefully laying the food on the table every morning, and throwing it away every night. He had been stolen from her so suddenly that part of her still felt he would come home.
Her tears made Made cry, so she shut herself in the bathroom to weep alone. She pretended for years that his father was simply away for work. He was 9 before she told him the truth.
In the midst of her agony, she searched for answers. But there were none to be found.
More than 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) from Bali, on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, Ali Fauzi had received word of the carnage.
He was, he says, as stunned as the rest of the world. Though he was one of Jemaah Islamiyah’s most skilled bombmakers, and though three of his brothers had helped orchestrate the attack, Fauzi says he knew nothing of the plot.
He was raised in the east Java village of Tenggulun, which would become an epicenter of Islamic extremism. His radicalization, he says, was heavily influenced by his big brother Ali Ghufron. Ghufron, who often went by the alias Mukhlas, studied at an Islamic boarding school under the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah.
In 1994, the group sent Fauzi to a military-style camp in the Philippines, where he honed his knowledge of explosives. He became Jemaah Islamiyah’s chief bomb instructor, teaching countless men — including his brothers — how to construct lethal devices.
Everything unraveled after the bombs erupted in Bali.
His brothers Mukhlas, Amrozi and Ali Imron were charged with the attack, along with several other members of Jemaah Islamiyah. Fauzi found himself on a police wanted list and fled to the Philippines, where he says he was jailed for three years on a charge of illegally joining the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. He was then extradited to Indonesia.
Fauzi was never charged with the bombings, but he spent months in police detention in Jakarta. It was there that the kindness of a police officer who helped get him medical treatment began to chip away at his convictions about people he had long seen as the enemy.
Yet it wasn’t until a night years later, when he found himself staring at a Dutch man named Max Boon, that Fauzi truly understood the horror of his life’s work.
Boon was sitting in his hotel room, waiting for a former terrorist to knock on his door. He was terrified.
Four years earlier, a suicide bomber had detonated his devices in the Jakarta JW Marriott lobby lounge, where then-33-year-old Boon was attending a business breakfast. Police suspected the attack had been orchestrated by Jemaah Islamiyah.
Boon suffered burns to over 70 percent of his body. Doctors amputated most of his left leg and his lower right leg.
Yet the attack hadn’t shaken Boon’s belief in the goodness of humans. He believed that had the bomber met him before the Marriott attack, he might have realized Boon wasn’t his enemy.
Boon threw himself into peacebuilding efforts, working through the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism at the Hague.
Fauzi, meanwhile, had been working to help deradicalize Islamic militants across Indonesia. Which is how he ended up shaking hands with Boon at a terrorism awareness conference in 2013.
Boon had already been planning a project in which terrorism victims would share their stories with students in areas targeted by extremist recruiters. He invited Fauzi to stop by his room to discuss the idea.
Though Fauzi was not connected to the bombing that destroyed Boon’s legs, Boon knew his history. As he waited, a dark thought rattled him: What if Fauzi was coming to finish the job?
But as Fauzi listened to the Dutch man talk about peace, he felt his heart crack.
That Boon, who was of a different faith, could forgive those who had caused him such pain rocked Fauzi to his core. He stared at the handsome young man sitting before him, with no legs where legs should be. And for the first time, he truly understood what a bomb does to a body and to a life.
Fauzi began to cry, and wrapped Boon in a hug. Boon hugged him back. Fauzi quickly agreed to meet other victims.
At the airport the next day, Fauzi sailed through security. But Boon’s prosthetic legs set off the metal detector, forcing him to endure a pat-down. Boon turned to Fauzi and quipped: “So the former terrorist they let walk through, but the victim they have to control.”
The former bombmaker burst out laughing and a friendship was born.
They had found the humanity in each other. Boon could only hope that when the others met Fauzi, they would find the same.
Erniati was filling her plate at a hotel buffet when Fauzi first approached her. Her heart pounded. How had she gotten here?
Months earlier, Boon had met with Erniati and several other bombing victims to present his idea. Erniati had balked.
For 12 years, she had struggled to move beyond her anger. The executions of Amrozi, Mukhlas and another convicted perpetrator had brought her no relief. The prospect of sitting down with a former terrorist sounded crazy.
A few victims, however, agreed to meet Fauzi for AIDA’s pilot project. Afterward, their reviews were positive. Erniati warmed to the idea. Maybe he could answer her questions.
But now, staring at Fauzi inside the hotel where she and four other victims had gathered to meet him, she had no idea what to ask.
Fauzi’s heart was pounding, too. “Hello,” he said with a smile. “How are you?”
Erniati bristled. How could he smile after what he had done?
Her reply was curt: “I’m from Bali.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I apologize for what my brothers and my friends have done.”
But Erniati couldn’t get past his grin.
Fauzi saw the way the other victims were looking at him.
They hate me, he thought.
That night, Fauzi couldn’t sleep. He lay in bed, fretting over what to say to Erniati and the others at their first official meeting.
When they finally convened around a table, Fauzi felt like a defendant on trial. Then Erniati began to tell her story.
As Fauzi listened, his awkwardness morphed into anguish. The image of Erniati searching for Gede amid the smoking ruins, of her struggles to raise their sons alone, was unbearable.
Fauzi had long been proud of his skills as a bombmaker. But in that moment, he wished he could erase everything he’d ever known about bombs.
He began to weep. “I’m sorry,” he said through tears. “I’m very sorry.”
Erniati looked at Fauzi and felt something shift within her. He was in pain, just as she was. Their pain came from different places, but it was pain all the same.
What he said meant less to her than what he felt. To Erniati, apologies are just words. But the ability to understand another person’s suffering, she says, goes to the core of who you are.
The anger that had long suffocated her began to lift.
Fauzi excused himself to wash his tearstained face. When he returned, he told his own story, about his path in and out of radical ideology, and his commitment to peace.
His apologies, though, were not welcomed by all. One victim angrily rejected his words.
Fauzi understood. Were the situation reversed, he says, he doubts he would be as accepting as Boon and Erniati.
Over the next few years, Erniati and Fauzi grew closer. They visited schools with AIDA, sharing their story of reconciliation. Fauzi started a foundation called the Circle of Peace, which helps deradicalize extremists. Erniati was moved by his efforts, which seemed a genuine attempt to atone.
One day, Erniati asked Fauzi if she could see his home. It was a stunning request; The bombers had plotted the attack that killed her husband in a house not far away, and Mukhlas and Amrozi’s families live just across the street.
But she wanted to see how Fauzi lived. And so, with some trepidation, Boon and others from AIDA agreed. As their car rolled into Fauzi’s village, Erniati felt like she was entering a lion’s den.
When she arrived at Fauzi’s home, however, she found it reassuringly normal. There was laundry scattered around, just like at her house. Fauzi introduced her to his wife and children and showed her his goats.
When he had to break away to teach a class at Islamic school, he sent the group to a water park with his friend Iswanto, another former Jemaah Islamiyah militant. Erniati and Iswanto rode the rollercoaster together; for her, the ride was scarier than the one-time terrorist.
She and Fauzi became friends on Facebook. Fauzi sent Erniati a gem she had once mentioned was beautiful. She had it made into a necklace.
But she still couldn’t accept what his brothers had done.
Erniati stands barefoot on the verandah of her modest home, slicing scissors through black fabric as Hindu chants ring out from a nearby temple. This is how she has kept her family alive for 17 years, through a small garment company an Australian man set up for Balinese bombing widows.
Her colleague, Warti, swings by. Like Erniati, Warti’s husband was killed in the attack. Unlike Erniati, she has no desire to meet anyone associated with his killers. For her, all of that is best left in the past. To meet now, she says, would only cause her more pain.
“I don’t want to dwell and keep thinking about it,” she says.
Erniati understands this. She runs the Isana Dewata Foundation, an advocacy group for bombing victims, and knows everyone heals in different ways.
And reconciliation doesn’t help everyone. Karen Brouneus, a Swedish psychologist, studied the effects of Rwanda’s post-genocide, community-based court system, which focused on reconciliation. Her survey of 1,200 Rwandans found that those who participated in the courts had higher levels of depression and PTSD than those who didn’t.
Those who have studied reconciliation efforts say victims must never be forced into them. The victims in AIDA’s programs are all voluntary, Boon says. The foundation also carefully vets former extremists to ensure they have truly reformed, checking their background with Indonesian researchers and slowly getting to know them.
AIDA says the results of its efforts have been promising: Friendships have formed between former terrorists and victims. And after sharing their stories at schools, students’ attitudes toward violence changed significantly, includinga 68% decrease in those who agree they’re entitled to revenge if they or their family fell victim to violence.
Fauzi himself acknowledges that reconciliation wouldn’t work for every former militant.
“I realize that humans are different from one another,” he says. “So it’s not easy to take their hearts as a whole.”
The uniqueness of these bonds is something that Jo Berry understands intimately. In 1984, Berry’s father was killed in a bombing by the Irish Republican Army. In 2000, she asked to meet the man who planted the bomb, Patrick Magee, and the two became friends. Yet she has met plenty of former IRA activists she hopes to never meet again.
“It’s not like there’s one formula,” she says. “And that’s why I think it’s really hard.”
Erniati found that her warmth toward Fauzi did not carry over to his brothers. In 2015, she visited one of them, Ali Imron, in jail. He too apologized, but she wasn’t convinced.
Her feelings toward the executed Amrozi and Mukhlas are even more muddied.
When it comes to them, she says, she just wants to forget.
On a sunny morning in east Java, Erniati and Fauzi sit on his couch, nibbling dates. The smile that once enraged Erniati she now returns.
Outside, around a dozen ex-Jemaah Islamiyah militants prepare for a local bicycle race. Erniati smiles politely at them, but keeps her distance.
Fauzi still wrestles with guilt, but Erniati’s acceptance of him has lessened the sting.
Erniati continues to meet with former militants. She hopes her story can put them on the right path. Her sadness returns on occasion. But her anger is gone.
Later, she heads to lunch with Iswanto, the ex-militant with whom she’d ridden the rollercoaster years before. Along the way, he gestures toward a fenced-off enclosure on the side of the road.
This, he tells her, is the burial site of Amrozi and Mukhlas.
Erniati stares at the grassy plot. Someday, she says, she would like to place flowers on their graves and send up a prayer.
She will pray for God to forgive the men who killed her husband.
Not because she accepts what they did. But because if God can forgive them, even if she can’t, then maybe their spirits can help bring the world what Fauzi’s friendship helped bring her: peace.
Associated Press writer Niniek Karmini contributed to this report.