Widow of Bali bombing victim forges friendship, seeks peace with ex-bombmaker

Ms Ni Luh Erniati, whose husband died in the 2002 Bali attack, with former bombmaker Ali Fauzi at his house in Indonesia on April 27, 2019. The Alliance for a Peaceful Indonesia has reconciled 49 victims and six former extremists since 2013.
Ms Ni Luh Erniati, whose husband died in the 2002 Bali attack, with former bombmaker Ali Fauzi at his house in Indonesia on April 27, 2019. The Alliance for a Peaceful Indonesia has reconciled 49 victims and six former extremists since 2013.PHOTO: AP

TENGGULUN, INDONESIA (AP) - The Balinese widow stared across the courthouse at the man who had murdered her husband and 201 others, and longed to see him suffer.

Ever since that horrible night, when she realised amid the blackened body parts that the father of her two little boys was dead, Ms Ni Luh Erniati's rage at the men behind the bombing had eaten away at her.

She wanted everyone associated with the 2002 attack on the Indonesian island of Bali to be executed by firing squad. And she wanted to be the one to pull the trigger.

She lunged toward defendant Amrozi Nurhasyim before others pulled her back, halting her bid for vengeance.

What would happen a decade later between her and Amrozi's brother - the man who had taught Amrozi how to make bombs - was unthinkable in that moment. Unthinkable that they would make a delicate attempt at reconciliation.

The practice of reconciling former terrorists and victims is rare and, to some, abhorrent. Yet it is gaining attention in Indonesia, which is grappling with Islamic extremism.

Last year, Indonesia's government brought together dozens of former militants and victims for what was billed as a reconciliation conference. The results were mixed, and the idea viewed by many as radical.

More quietly, over the past several years, there has been a growing alliance of former terrorists and victims brought together under the guidance of a group founded by the victim of a terrorist attack.

Since 2013, 49 victims and six former extremists have reconciled through the Alliance for a Peaceful Indonesia, or Aida. They have visited around 150 schools in parts of Indonesia known as hotbeds for extremist recruiters, sharing their stories with more than 8,000 students.

The hope is that if former terrorists and victims can learn to see each other as human, they can stop the cycle of vengeance.

Those behind this peace-building effort would never argue that it can turn every terrorist and heal every victim. The process is extraordinarily complex. Yet much can be gained from victims and perpetrators learning to understand each other, says Ms Brunilda Pali, a board member of the European Forum for Restorative Justice.

Understanding someone, she cautions, does not mean legitimising what they've done.

For Ms Ni Luh, there was nothing at first to understand. How could she possibly understand something so horrific?

 
 

As she searched for answers, Mr Ali Fauzi searched his soul.

The Bali bombings, which targeted Western tourists at a nightclub and nearby pub, were carried out by Al-Qaeda-affiliated militant group Jemaah Islamiyah.

Though Mr Ali was the group's chief bombmaking instructor, and though three of his brothers helped orchestrate the attack, Mr Ali says he knew nothing of the plot.

His brothers, Amrozi, Ali Imron and Ali Ghufron - who often went by the alias Mukhlas - were charged with the attack, along with several other Jemaah Islamiyah members.

Mr Ali was never charged, but spent months in police detention in Jakarta. It was there that the kindness of a police officer began to chip away at his convictions about people he had long seen as the enemy.

Yet it wasn't until years later, when he met a Dutch man named Max Boon, that Mr Ali truly understood the horror of his life's work.

Mr Boon was severely injured during a 2009 suicide bombing in Jakarta. Police suspected the attack had been orchestrated by Jemaah Islamiyah.

The attack hadn't shaken Mr Boon's faith in the goodness of humans. He believed that had the bomber met him, he might have realised Mr Boon wasn't his enemy.

Mr Boon threw himself into peace-building efforts. Mr Ali, meanwhile, was working to help deradicalise violent extremists. The pair met in 2013 at a terrorism awareness conference.

As Mr Ali listened to Mr Boon talk about peace, his heart cracked. That Mr Boon could forgive those who had caused him such pain rocked Mr Ali to his core.

Mr Boon had already been planning a project in which terrorism victims would share their stories with students in areas targeted by extremist recruiters. Mr Ali agreed to help, and to meet other victims.

Which is how Ms Ni Luh found herself sitting with Mr Ali in a meeting arranged by Aida. His grin enraged her.

As Ms Ni Luh began to tell her story, Mr Ali felt anguish. The image of Mr Ni Luh searching for her husband at the blast site, of her struggles to raise their sons alone, was unbearable.

Mr Ali wished he could erase everything he'd ever known about bombs.

"I'm sorry," he said, weeping. "I'm very sorry."

Ms Ni Luh felt something shift within her. Mr Ali was in pain, just as she was.

What he said meant less to her than what he felt. To Ms Ni Luh, apologies are just words. But the ability to understand another person's suffering, she says, goes to the core of who you are.

Her anger began to lift.

Over the next few years, Ms Ni Luh and Mr Ali grew closer. They visited schools with Aida, sharing their story of reconciliation. Mr Ali started a foundation to help deradicalise extremists.

The victims in Aida's programmes all took part voluntarily, Mr Boon says. The foundation also carefully vets the former extremists who join to ensure they have truly reformed.

Mr Ali acknowledges that reconciliation wouldn't work for everyone.

"I realise that humans are different from one another," he says. "So it's not easy to take their hearts as a whole."

Today, he and Ms Ni Luh are close friends. Mr Ali still wrestles with guilt, but Ms Ni Luh's acceptance of him has lessened the sting.

Ms Ni Luh continues to meet with former militants. She hopes her story can put them on the right path. Her sadness returns on occasion. But her anger is gone.

During a visit to Mr Ali's village, she pauses near the gravesite of Amrozi and Mukhlas, both executed in 2008.

Someday, she says, she would like to place flowers on their graves and send up a prayer. Because if God can forgive them, even if she can't, then maybe their spirits can help bring the world what Mr Ali's friendship helped bring her: peace.