Jakarta bombing survivor fights terror the soft way

2009 Jakarta blast victim seeks to show would-be radicals violence also hurts their own communities

He lost both legs during the Jakarta Marriott bomb blast in 2009, but after three years of intense training and rehabilitation, Dutchman Max Boon is back on his feet again, and back in the country he loves.

Based mainly in Jakarta, he is now fighting terrorism the "soft" way, by focusing on prevention and outreach efforts.

"If you take only the hardline approach, by killing, shooting and locking people up, you create more hate among the families involved, and give potential recruits more reason to join," he told The Sunday Times. He is recruiting victims of terror to speak about their personal experiences.

On July 17, 2009, Mr Boon, then an executive with a consulting firm, was at a breakfast meeting when a suicide bomber blew himself up at the JW Marriott Hotel. Twin suicide bombs went off there and at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, killing nine and injuring over 50.

"One minute I was sitting at the table, next everything went dark blue and I was falling through space, unable to breathe," he said. "A minute or two later I was conscious amid the hotel sprinklers. My left leg was already loose, and my right arm felt so too. I remember I kept hold of my right arm with my left, and when a security guard came to help me, I told him not to forget my leg."

He was on the brink of death. Apart from injuries so bad he would soon lose his legs, his right arm was shattered, and he was deafened in both ears. Around 60 per cent of his body was burned severely, and shrapnel is embedded in his heart to this day.

He was flown to Singapore's National University Hospital where he had over 10 operations in three weeks, said Associate Professor Philip Iau, head of trauma surgery.

He has spent the last three years building up his strength and learning to walk on artificial legs which, he jokes, added 1.5cm to his 1.8m height.

Now an associate fellow at the think-tank International Centre for Counter-Terrorism - The Hague, he said: "I wanted to utilise my experience to do some good, and since I really love Indonesia and its people, I thought of a project that would give victims a voice in the fight against terrorism.

"If we can get victims to show others the impact that an act of terror has had on their lives, this may make youngsters think twice before engaging in violence."

The 36-year-old, who also runs a consultancy for foreigners who want to set up businesses in Indonesia, added: "I'm sure we wouldn't convince those doing the brainwashing, but we hope to reach those youngsters who haven't yet made up their minds."

He is bringing together victims, former terrorists and Islamic scholars - "peace ambassadors" who will visit neighbourhoods which are potential breeding grounds for violent radicalism.

"What I want to highlight is that terrorists are also hurting and killing their fellow Indonesians, people who look just like their mother, uncle, son."

The project is sponsored by the Dutch government, with support from the Indonesian government, said Mr Boon, who spoke about the effort at the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy Review in June.

He has been making a special trip to Singapore each year, to see the doctors and nurses who helped save his life during his six weeks in hospital.

"They all wore masks so the first time I saw them, I didn't recognise their faces. But I recognised their voices."

ailien@sph.com.sg

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