After an Indonesian Family’s Suicide Attack, a Quest for Answers


Times Insider delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how news, features and opinion come together at The New York Times.

I stared at the two boys in the photograph because I have two boys. But it was the little girls who commanded attention. They were tiny and big eyed, like fawns. Their red veils were trimmed with gold. Each seemed to be holding a flower.

My colleague, Muktita Suhartono, and I had come to Surabaya, an Indonesian city with alleyways of terra cotta roofed homes, largely on the basis of a single photo. It was a normal family portrait of a father, mother, two sons and two daughters.

On May 13, the entire family of six blew themselves up in coordinated suicide attacks on three Christian churches in Surabaya, killing a dozen bystanders and injuring at least 40 more. The boys were 15 and 17 when they died, the girls 8 and 12.

As a parent, I wanted to understand what had compelled this family to erase itself from the earth. Every explanation seemed inadequate.

After his death, the father, Dita Oepriarto, was accused by the Indonesian police of having been the leader of the Surabaya chapter of a local Islamic State-linked terror group, Jamaah Ansharut Daulah. But it is one thing to martyr yourself. It is quite another to take your whole family with you.

The church bombings were followed by two more incidents in which Surabaya families detonated deadly explosive devices.

During the course of a few days of reporting, Tita and I spoke with dozens of people who knew Mr. Oepriarto and his family. They painted a portrait of normalcy — of girls on bicycles, of boys learning to drive the family car. The mother, Puji Kuswati, was, by all accounts, chatty and friendly.

Nor were there many clues on the quiet Surabaya lane where Mr. Oepriarto was born and lived with his young family before moving to another neighborhood seven years ago. With the exception of one elderly woman who said that Mr. Oepriarto’s mother had refused to shake her hand because she was a Christian, the consensus was that the family respected the multireligious nature of the community.

Neighbors noted that when Mr. Oepriarto was growing up, his mother and sisters did not cover their hair, as is the tradition with more conservative Muslims.

At the children’s experimental private school, run by a moderate Muslim social organization, Heru Tjahyono, the innovation director, described the interfaith activities he had designed, such as field trips to local churches and temples.

“If this family turned out to be terrorists,” he said, “then anyone could be a terrorist.”

Mr. Oepriarto’s radicalization seems to have occurred when he was at one of Surabaya’s best public high schools and joined an outside Quranic recitation group that preached extremist ideology. What would have happened if the cleric who led that group had been moderate instead?

Three days after the church attacks, the authorities had constructed a plywood wall to block Mr. Oepriarto’s house from view. But the police stationed in front of the home were friendly. They offered us a chair on which we could stand to peer in.

On the veranda, I saw signs of middle-class domesticity: a purple bicycle, children’s flip-flops and rows of bottled drinking water meant for a dispenser. Someone loved the girls enough to buy them bike helmets.

Mr. Oepriarto’s neighbor, Wery Tri Kusuma, said his wife’s last interaction with Ms. Kuswati, the mother, came just one day before the family blew itself up. Ms. Kuswati came over to tell Mr. Kusuma’s wife that she didn’t need to knock if she felt like picking some sour star fruit that grew from a tree on Mr. Oepriarto’s land.

“It was like she knew what was going to happen, and she was giving us permission to take what we liked after they were gone,” Mr. Kusuma said. “They were very good neighbors.”

But good parents they were not. The speculation among academics and analysts studying radicalization was that Mr. Oepriarto and Ms. Kuswati thought their family would reunite in heaven, a place they could best reach as a family through jihad.

As journalists, we try to understand — though not necessarily condone — the factors motivating a person’s actions. But no explanation can rationalize turning your own children into suicidal jihadists. Tita and I went to Surabaya looking for answers. Visiting the children’s school and home, talking to their friends and family, I realized that we would never know the truth.

Keep up with Times Insider stories on Twitter, via the Reader Center: @ReaderCenter.

Hannah Beech has been the Southeast Asia bureau chief for The Times since August 2017. She covers more than 10 countries in a region with some of the world’s fastest growth rates and largest tracts of rainforest and spiciest cuisine, as well as a growing collection of strongmen governments. She lives in Bangkok, Thailand.


Source : Nytimes