Rise again

EVERY TIME ANYONE asks me how I came to Australia, I tell them I was adopted from China. It’s a story that doesn’t make anyone uncomfortable. It’s a story that doesn’t draw pitying looks. It’s a story that doesn’t make me look like a freak. Or a victim.

Three years after I came to Australia, my best friend and I were sitting in my room, drinking wine and talking through the night. Nearing dawn, she said: ‘One afternoon, when I was in middle school, I was walking home from soccer practice and passed an abandoned tunnel. Someone leaped out of it and dragged me inside…’

It took me several seconds to realise that she was telling me she had been raped. I hugged her, but couldn’t share my story in return. Not without admitting that the life story I’d told her, the person whom she thought she could trust, was a lie.

Five years after I came to Australia, I had dinner at a beer garden with my first love. ‘It’s so hard to read you,’ he said. ‘I’ve told you stories about my childhood and my family, but you haven’t told me anything.’

He was right. He’d told me that if he could do anything in the world, he’d like to combine human-rights education with football. He’d told me that his mother wanted him to become a Porsche-driving lawyer in Sydney, but he worked for a non-profit instead. He’d told me his secret fear was never being able to make his parents proud. Every time he asked me anything meaningful about myself, I simply kissed him.

Two weeks after that date, he left me.


TEN YEARS AFTER I came to Australia, I saw a flyer for a panel discussion with survivors of the May 1998 Jakarta riots. It was posted on a bulletin board inside a window. My reflection on the glass was superimposed on the flyer. I saw the words, which I had been scrubbing off my body since it had happened, now printed clearly across my face: Survivor. May 1998. Jakarta.

By then, I had been living alone for a couple of years, subsisting on a string of short-term temp jobs – too restless to hold down anything long-term. I changed lovers as often and absentmindedly as I left umbrellas on buses. So I went to the discussion. I thought perhaps it would make me feel something. Anything. I wanted to see if I could still feel something. I sat in the back and kept my head down.

The facilitator introduced herself as a member of an independent fact-finding team, which consisted of civil institutions and individual volunteers who had been assisting activists in Jakarta for about a year before the riots took place. She explained to the audience what had happened: after thirty years of rule by an authoritarian regime under Suharto, in May 1998 a mass of student protesters pushed for him to step down. Activists were kidnapped, and on 13–14 May riots broke out in several cities. Shopping centres were looted and burned, and around a hundred women were raped. But it didn’t scare the students into staying at home. They stormed the streets and the parliament building. After weeks of intense protests, Suharto stepped down, and Indonesia took its first steps towards democracy.

The facilitator then introduced the survivors on the panel beside her. Two of them were ethnic Chinese like me, the other one seemed to be a native Indonesian. She told us her story: her boyfriend at the time had warned her to not leave the house on 12–14 May. He was with the army’s special forces. She stayed home, but her brother went out with a friend. The friend ran to their home later that evening, covered in sewage.

‘He said my brother and he were watching the nearby mall burning when mysterious men dressed in black ordered them and the crowd to step inside a supermarket next to the mall. My brother’s friend jumped into the sewer… He watched the men lock the supermarket and torch it. When the men had gone, he ran to tell us. The next morning my father joined a team of volunteers with the police, whose task it was to transport the charred bodies to a hospital. He found my brother’s remains. I recalled what my boyfriend had said and called him. He said he knew there were going to be riots, but he swore he was not involved. I wanted to break up with him at once, but I feared for my family. My parents have been very depressed ever since. We decided to move to Makassar, where my father came from.’

Her words crashed against the dam of my lips, my heart burst out of my chest. How I wished someone would see me, ask me what had happened to me. Please. Even as I hid myself from friends and lovers, I wished they could see through the persona I presented to them and pull me out of myself.

The facilitator invited questions from the audience.

The urge to speak terrified me. I ran home, threw myself into bed and wrapped myself in the bed sheets. Here I was again, after all these years, back to where it started…


AFTER IT HAPPENED my parents took me to the hospital, and I wrapped myself from head-to-toe in hospital bed sheets. They were as thin as gauze, so I could see the world through the material, but the world couldn’t see me.

When a doctor came by and reached for my sheets, I screamed and kicked her.

‘I need to check your daughter,’ the doctor said to my parents, who were sitting at the foot of my bed. They hadn’t said a word since they brought me here.

‘I won’t take away your sheets,’ she said to me. ‘I just need to make sure you’re okay.’

Her voice calmed me down and I pulled the sheets down to my chest. I saw her swallow, and she cleaned the wounds on my neck. It stung, but was just a dull sensation amid all the hurt I felt across my body.

As she bandaged me, her eyes kept flitting to the blood seeping through the sheets around my thighs, but she didn’t say a thing. She squeezed my hand and sat beside me until I was ready to part the sheets wrapped around my legs.

An hour later I saw uniformed men pushing through the hallways. I heard the men warning hospital staff not to speak to the media about rape victims.

The doctor rushed back to my bedside. ‘I’m afraid it may be unsafe to stay here. Do you have any place to go?’

My father shook his head. My mother just kept sobbing.

‘I think you’d better come with me.’

She helped me up, still wrapped in sheets, and walked us to her car. I lay down in the backseat. Nobody said a word throughout the ride. She took us to a small house in a quiet neighborhood. ‘I was going to rent out this house, but you can stay here until it’s safe to go home,’ she said. ‘The neighbours are good people.’ She gave the keys to my father. ‘Have you had anything to eat?’

My mother just kept on crying.

Fifteen minutes later, the doctor came back with takeout and bottled water. I watched her from the window in the master bedroom, where I had locked myself in. The doctor knocked on my door, offering food. I ignored her. The room had an ensuite bathroom, so I didn’t have to open the door for anyone. I could just stay safe inside.

But whenever I closed my eyes they were there, gripping my wrists and ankles, tearing me apart again. I didn’t want anyone to know we were there – for weeks I slept with sheets pressed to my mouth.

The doctor came back the next day bringing clothes, blankets, towels and more food. I let her change my bandages, but I didn’t say a word. The next day she brought me a notebook and pen. She said if I wasn’t ready to speak I could write things down.

Every time I opened the door for the doctor, my parents looked in from behind her. My mother sobbing, my father looking pale and bereaved – as if I was already dead. They seemed not to know how to deal with me. They didn’t knock on my door, didn’t talk to me. They looked like helpless children, trusting their existence to the doctor. It occurred to me, perhaps, they thought I’d brought shame on our family.

The thought drained my strength. I fell on the floor and saw the notebook and pen that the doctor had left. I reached for them and before I knew it I wrote Why?

After a month I heard the doctor ask my parents if they had plans for the future.

In response I heard only silence.

‘Do you want to go home?’

Again, silence.

‘What if you leave Indonesia?’

The doctor went to the Australian embassy many times to apply for our visas. When she asked me to join her for an interview, I wrote: I don’t want to move to Australia. I want to die. Get me some poison or leave me alone.

Every day the doctor offered to drive us to the embassy, every day I asked her for poison. One night she’d had enough. ‘Do you know how lucky you are to be alive? Your injuries, compared to so many others, were not that grave. Many women will never be able to have children. Many women died! You survived and you have a chance at a new life… If you could see how many people are queuing up at the embassy everyday, if you could see how many people are rejected everyday… You still have your entire life ahead of you. And all you want to do is die?’

She left and returned twenty minutes later, bringing a plastic bag. ‘Here’s your poison. If you think your life is worthless, despite everything I’ve done for you, maybe you deserve to die.’ She threw the bag at me.

Days later the doctor told me she’d spent that night praying that I wouldn’t take the poison – praying that she had done the right thing to make me see that I did want to live, that I did want a future.

The morning after she’d brought the poison, I came out of my room, took off the sheets and told the doctor I was ready to go to the embassy.


EIGHTEEN YEARS AFTER it happened, every time anyone asks how I came to Australia, I tell them I emigrated in 1998 from Indonesia. Most people don’t know enough about Indonesia to be aware of the atrocities that happened that year. Once in a while, though, I come across people who look concerned and ask me if the riots were a reason I decided to emigrate.

If I feel I can trust them, I tell them that I was protesting at the time against the military regime with my fellow students. When I came to Australia, I insisted on changing my name. I made up a backstory for my new self, which didn’t involve Indonesia, the riots or what had happened to me. I wrapped myself inside that new persona, much like I did with the bedclothes, creating a barrier, however thin, between the world and me. Safe inside my new persona I could take part in the world, but the world couldn’t see me, couldn’t touch me.

My old self felt so alien to me. I wanted to cast it aside. Who I was had been taken from me – I couldn’t see myself as that person anymore. How could something that was forced upon me, that I didn’t choose at all, become a big part of who I am? How could I let it imbue how others saw me? It was the only way I could imagine a sort of future: that I was someone new, whole and pure as a newborn.

My father found work as a gardener, and I enrolled in a university and lived in a dormitory. I dyed my hair, wore more make-up and jewellery and sexier tops than I used to, but always with trousers. And three, sometimes four, layers of tights underneath.

Seldom did I go home to visit my parents – I spent holidays with friends. The few times I did return home, I got into fights with my mother as she kept on calling me by my old name: Jeni. I kept shouting that my name is Anastasia.

Soon after we had arrived in Australia, the doctor referred me to a therapist and a support group, but my mother kept saying that it was no use for me to talk about what had happened to me – it would only bring more shame and pain. And she feared we could still be targeted and branded as traitors who sullied Indonesia’s good name. I didn’t understand why she clung to Jeni.

Anyway, it didn’t matter what my parents called me, because in their eyes I was always Jeni. Every time my mother or father looked at me, I became that girl again – not only Jeni, but the girl who was seized by a mob from our car, the girl who covered herself in bloody bedclothes for weeks on end, the girl who was ripped apart and broken… I couldn’t stand seeing my reflection in their eyes, so I avoided them.

Sometimes, the doctor called to check in on me. She told me she’d heard news from other survivors who had immigrated to Australia. Some of them had committed suicide, she told me, despite having started a new life. The news only cemented my determination to break from my old self completely. Slowly, I disconnected myself from anyone who knew me as Jeni – including the doctor. I just wanted to be Anastasia. Never Jeni ever again.

Five years after it happened, my parents decided to return to Indonesia. Two years earlier, Indonesia had struck down the law prohibiting the use of Chinese names and language. It had allowed citizens to embrace Confucianism as a religion, and Chinese New Year had been designated a religious holiday.

I told my parents I wished to stay in Australia – and they left me here. Finally, completely alone with no one to connect me to my old life, I was free to tell anyone any story I wished about myself.


TEN YEARS AFTER it happened, and after I went to the discussion, I shared bits and pieces of my factual past in anonymous online forums. At first, tiny bits. Then longer pieces. I went to see a therapist. I looked up my best friend from uni and we reconnected.

Although I no longer wore tights under my pants, most nights I still had vivid dreams that made me scream in my sleep. Not always about my rape, most times it was about someone being rude to me or about another trivial thing. Still, I would scream loudly enough to startle my best friend, with whom I then shared an apartment. She gave me a dreamcatcher to put above my bed. When I finally told her the real story of how I came to Australia, she hugged me. She said I was strong and brave to have survived and to have embarked on a new life. She was pleased that I trusted her with my story, as she had trusted me with hers several years ago.

After that, it was easier for me to tell my story to the men I was seriously dating. Each time I told it, I learned to define my trauma, rather than let it define me. One man said he wanted to beat up the people who’d raped me, another said he’d suspected that I had ‘issues’. The man who later became my husband simply listened and offered his love.

Now, eighteen years after it happened, when I see news on TV about Indonesia, I don’t change the channel. I’ve returned to Jakarta and visited the mass graves of the May 1998 victims – every year, activists hold a commemoration to encourage the nation to remember and acknowledge the tragedy so that it will never happen again.

I made friends with several other survivors. We exchanged stories about our struggle to heal, our progresses and setbacks, how difficult it was for us to admit rape as part of our personal history, to feel safe as a minority in a crowd, to conquer the hate burning in our hearts, to learn to trust again, be intimate again…

It was through them that I found a connection back with my hometown, with my birth country, to who I was before my sense of self was shattered. I had found a community, kindred spirits – things I didn’t realise I had been missing.

I visited my parents with my husband. They didn’t see me as their broken daughter anymore. Perhaps it was because the dress I was wearing, my stories about my wonderful job and the loving husband beside me all signalled some kind of success. I had put my life back together and my parents could see it.

‘We named you Jeni because it was the name of my best friend in high school, who’d saved me from being bullied by male upperclassmen,’ my mother said. ‘I lost her when she died in a car crash. It was too painful to lose another Jeni.’

I told her I chose the name Anastasia because it meant one who rises again. ‘Perhaps if I ever have a daughter I’ll name her Jeni.’

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