Sunday, 7 October 2012

Bali's worst brought out the best

BALI introduced terrorism to Australians in an unforgettable way. It destroyed the lives of hundreds of families and left the nation numb with shock.

Until October 12, 2002, Australia had been untouched by the violent war being waged by Islamic fundamentalists across the Western world, leaving death and destruction in its wake.

That all changed when two bombs destroyed the Sari Club and Paddy's Pub in the middle of bustling Kuta, which was heaving with partygoers on a steamy Saturday night.

There were 202 people killed, and another 240 were seriously injured. Among the dead were 88 Australians and 34 Indonesians.

The mutilated bodies were taken to a makeshift morgue at Sanglah Hospital in Bali's capital, Denpasar, where they were laid on tiles and grass in an open courtyard.

As the hospital struggled to deal with the wounded, many with horrific burns and missing limbs, volunteers of various nationalities responded to text messages calling for their help.

Most were foreign expatriates living on Bali among them were an art dealer, furniture exporter, teacher, organic farmer, restaurateur and real estate investor.

For the next 72 hours they were plunged into a hellish ordeal as they worked to identify the scorched remains lying in parallel lines in the morgue's courtyard.

With scant official support they established a crisis centre, writing names of the missing or dead on sheets of butcher paper scanned by desperate relatives and friends.

They took photographs of the bodies and any identifying features such as tattoos, jewellery, underwear, T-shirts and watches.

The photographs were printed out and a database was developed with details extracted from charred wallets and purses.

Other volunteers sorted through the remains, placing legs, arms, hands and feet into black plastic bags. The bulging bags were stored in a dilapidated refrigerated truck parked beside the morgue.

In its crowded courtyard, ice from large blocks was chipped and placed on the bodies, many of them headless, as they steadily decomposed in the sweltering heat.

With body bags in limited supply, most were wrapped in sheets, quickly becoming stained as melting ice mixed with blood and other fluids, creating a slippery film across the tiles.

As the Indonesian, Australian and American governments squabbled over who would take jurisdictional control of the bodies and the investigation into those responsible for the bombings, the volunteers at Sanglah Hospital continued their grisly task.

Within 24 hours of the bombings their database had grown to contain more than 150 possible names of those who had been killed.

Relatives and friends of the missing were escorted through the morgue and shown the photos as they searched for their loved ones, many collapsing in grief when their worst fears were realised.

Among them was Adelaide father, John Golotta, who recognised his daughter, Angela, 19, by the pair of underpants she had put on in front of her brother's girlfriend before they went to the Sari Club.

Sturt Football Club stalwart Bob Marshall was identified by his two sons by an amputated finger and a watch he had bought in Bali.

One of his charges, young Sturt footballer Josh Deegan, 19, was found through a credit card in his blackened wallet.

Much has been written and spoken about the victims of the Bali bombings over the past 10 years but very little has been said about the work done by those volunteers at Sanglah Hospital.

Dispatched to the Indonesian island soon after the bombings, I found myself at the hospital as the wounded were still being taken away in ambulances and the bodies carried into the morgue.

I count myself very fortunate that I met these people and for five long and incredibly traumatic days, witnessed first-hand their selfless efforts to help others when the easiest option would have been to walk away.

Having covered the gun massacre at Port Arthur and the Thredbo ski lodge disaster beforehand, I can say with some justification that I have never seen such an incredible group of people perform such difficult tasks in such awful circumstances.

There are hundreds of stories to be told about the Bali bombings and the 10 years which have since passed many of which will never emerge because they are too painful, too traumatic, too sad.

Among them is the plight of the volunteers who worked tirelessly until they were exhausted, emotionally spent and drained of any tears.

What has happened to them or how they have coped is, sadly, something I have no idea about but I often think about them, what they went through and how much they would have suffered, mentally and emotionally.

While all of us who directly experienced the aftermath of Bali have had our own personal struggles, very little has been said about those who responded to those first text messages calling for help.

The psychological toll on them must have been horrendous. Their lives would have been irrevocably changed, damaged and ruined by what they saw and what they did.

As the 10th anniversary of the Bali bombings approaches and we all reflect on our loss, grief, sense of security and place in the world, all I ask is that we take the time to pause and say thanks to the Sanglah Hospital volunteers.

For they were the guardians of 202 poor souls who would have lain in the sun largely uncared for and unwatched until professional help arrived and the long but necessarily tedious process of official identification began.

Sunday 7 October 2012

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