Indonesia crisis: 200 are killed in the looters' inferno

Richard Lloyd Parry in Jakarta sees the grisly aftermath of a free-for-all in which the lure of booty led to 200 deaths
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IT IS six hours since the fire went out, the clean-up job is well under way, and only fragments remain to be scooped up from the Yogya department store. The salvage workers have seen much worse than this, but they handle the pieces gingerly as they carry them out and drop them into into charred trays at the top of the steps.

Here they are on public display: a trickle of people approach and sort through the pieces, looking for one that they recognise. A man helps out by holding them up for inspection, or turning them over with the end of a burned stick: a wrist, an elbow joint, something that might be a thigh or buttock, and a clenched pair of burned human hands.

On the wrist is an intact metal watch, its hands stopped for ever at the moment on Wednesday afternoon when Jakarta's people started to pay the price for the mayhem in which they have indulged this week.

Until yesterday morning, despite two days of looting, smashing and burning, there had been remarkably few confirmed casualties, no more than 25 dead in three days. But you cannot sack a city of Jakarta's size without destroying human lives along with it, as the horrible and ironic story of the Yogya department store shows.

As many as 200 people died here on Wednesday, most of them looters trapped by their own fire.

By yesterday afternoon they had pieced together only 88 at the Cipto Mangunkusumo Hospital in central Jakarta.

Fifteen of them were identifiable. Most of the rest have been reduced to the lumps of flesh, bone and jewellery in the black trays.

The tragedy here began no differently from thousands of other acts of looting all over the city. All through Wednesday morning mobs of poor Jakartans assembled spontaneously and began their pillage in dozens of neighbourhoods all over the city.

There was a dangerous, skittish atmosphere among the crowd, which was seized by sudden panics and surges. After milling aimlessly in the middle of the street, a cry would go up and hundreds of people would sprint in one direction, either towards a new target or away from an imagined threat.

They reached the Yogya department store in the early afternoon, by which time several of the adjoining businesses had brought down their shutters for the day.

At 2.30pm, according to local people, they began pelting the plate glass- windows of the ground-floor McDonald's with stones.

At 3pm they forced their way in and began looting.

"They brought the stuff out, put it down in the yard and then went back in for more," said Haji Eko, who worked in the adjacent Bank CIC, now a gutted shell. "They had CDs, music centres clothes, textiles."

The fires were started in the burger restaurant and in the entrance hall of the department store - the yellow arches of the McDonald's sign, distorted by the heat, drip down the outer wall like an image from Salvador Dali.

But as the fire burned on the lower floors, there were large numbers of people upstairs, in the third-floor supermarket and electrical store, the fourth-floor food hall and bookshop, and the sixth-floor sports department.

The scenes inside, after the looters realised that they were trapped, can scarcely be imagined.

Haji Eko saw eight people jump out of the windows. Only five of them were carried away alive, all of them unconscious or with broken limbs.

Apart from looters, the victims seem to have included shopkeepers protecting their businesses, and ordinary shoppers caught in the riot.

Three sisters and a brother lingered weeping outside the shopping centres yesterday afternoon, looking for some sign of their youngest sister, Chaerunisa, who went shopping on Wednesday and never came home.

"I got back with my husband from Saudi Arabia last week," said her sister, Fauziah, "and my mother told her to go out and buy some Arab cheese for us to eat. Later the neighbours told us that there is trouble in the department store.

"We ran there straight away, but the fire was so big. We waited all night, but no one could escape from it. She was 17, just a young girl, and I had seen her for just one day after two years away from her."

The fire burned until 9am yesterday.

Mobs in at least three other places in Jakarta yesterday set fire to other shopping centres, which serve as something of a symbol of President Suharto's Indonesia.

During the years of high growth which ended last year, the glass-covered edifices went up all over Jakarta.

Inside, the rich minority spent their wealth. But most Indonesians could do no more than press their noses against the mirrored glass. This week, they forced their way inside.

"Of course I blame the rioters," said Fauziah. "But they are angry with the government and with the politicians. Their anger spilled on to the department store.

"If we had a government that listened to us, there wouldn't be a riot like this. More people will die, more like my sister, unless Suharto goes."