There is a scene in the movie "Balibo" where some Australian journalists in a Land Rover drive into a town (it may have been the town of Balibo itself but I can't remember for sure), and their vehicle was surrounded by intense-looking men with guns. It took me right back to a time I was in a similar situation, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra...
We were making our way across the northern tip of Sumatra, hoping to ultimately get to the smaller island of Nias, further west. When we arrived in the town of Sibolga, I don't think any of us were quite prepared for what we faced there. Oh, it was really nothing compared to the scale of events portrayed in "Balibo", but it was pretty insane, nonetheless.
We weren't sure who we could trust. Rumours were rife concerning things that had only recently happened to other foreigners who'd passed by that route. Even the Lonely Planet Guide warns travellers to avoid going via Sibolga if at all possible. If I remember correctly it described Sibolga as "the Hell you had to pass through in order to get to Heaven (Nias)."
I was the only Australian in our group- there were eight of us- 4 Americans, 2 Swedes, a Dane, and me. One of the rumours we heard was that a lone Australian traveller had recently gone to the port, attempting to catch a boat to Nias, and was promptly doused in kerosene and set alight. When we asked (horrified) "why???" we were told it was simply because he was Australian. He was just a surfer looking for waves, but apparently that didn't matter. We assumed maybe the locals were edgy because we had heard that Indonesians at that time were often anti-Australian for one of two reasons: the first, that we were allied with the U.S.; the second, that we were allied with Israel (we were there just a few months after 9/11).
We never found any support for any of the rumours, but we did face our fair share of harassment before finally getting across to Nias (which, I must add, is fairly heavenly...). We were manipulated out of money (of which we had scant supply to begin with), we were threatened...at one time one of our group was taken off on the back of a motorcycle and threatened at knife point before being brought to meet the rest of us at the port.
On arrival at the port, fear arrived in the pit of my belly, and it made itself quite at home there for the next several hours.
I've skipped a lot of the story and some of my memories are hazy now, but I remember looking at the fence surrounding the port, and the barbed-wire-topped gate, and the armed guards, and thinking it looked more like a jail than the path to Heaven.
That's when our vehicle was surrounded by intense-looking men with guns. One of our company had all our passports, and he was unfortunately the one in the front passenger seat (ie the most easily accessible). I and the only 2 other girls were as safe as we could be tucked in the very back seat (it was a van), and the other guys were in the middle. Initially my biggest discomfort arose from the fact my window would not shut all the way, and the men were constantly peering right in, trying to get a good look at the western women inside.
Then the unthinkable happened- I was about to get a lot more uncomfortable. One of them asked to see our passports. I called out to our friend to NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES give them our passports, but something got lost in translation somewhere between the back and front seats, and we all stared in horror as he passed them right out the window.
At this point I should digress to explain something else that had transpired earlier at our hotel (though it seems ironic to call the place we were holed up by such a relatively dignified name). When we asked the hotel clerk how to get to the port, he arranged everything for us with a van driver he knew (we later found out there are many syndicates in operation, who try to extort as much money as possible out of unsuspecting travellers at each point of the journey, and then split the profits). He also said we would have to fill out forms and hand over our passports before we would be allowed to board the boat. None of us felt "right" about this, so we filled the forms in with as little information as possible, and for some reason that I can't recall now, we all said that we were Americans.
Naturally, you may have figured out why we were extremely nervous when a scary-looking gun-wielding man was rifling through our passports. He was about to uncover our lie (again I'm trying really hard to remember why we thought that would be a good idea). It didn't take him long. He was furious.
I don't remember all that happened then- I think we made some lame excuse like "we thought you meant the last place we travelled from" or something equally as flimsy (you'd think we'd have learned not to lie by now, but we were genuinely scared).
Then came the moment of truth...we were there as representatives and ambassadors of Jesus, and our sole aim in trying to get to Nias was to show the people there the kindness and love of God. Would God fail us now?
"Where is the Australian?" came the angry shout from outside as my true identity was discovered. "Give us the Australian," they were saying. Our friend in the front seat was saying things to the effect of "Um, no way. She is not getting out."
At the risk of boring you with these words again, I really can't remember what happened then, other than grabbing the hands of the other two girls in the back with me, and praying my heart out for God to protect me.
I have to say, to this day we don't know how menacing these guys really were or to what lengths they would have gone just to make a few extra bucks, but at the time it was terrifying, and the not-knowing was the most terrifying part. Maybe it was all a big joke and they laughed about the "stupid gullible tourists" over their Bintang that night. But it was easily one of the scariest experiences of my life.
God most certainly did take care of us. I never had to get out of the van (not on THAT side of the gates), and right when they were demanding I exit the vehicle, our other friend (who'd been taken off somewhere on a motorcycle, remember?) turned up out of nowhere, right at the window. I guess he called their bluff and with a few short words he had us out of there and making our way through to the dock.
There is so much more of the story to tell, but that particular part forced its way out of my memory as I watched "Balibo" tonight.
I haven't been everywhere I'd like to have been in my life. But I have been profoundly broken as I've walked the dusty village roads of Nias in Indonesia and Arugam Bay in Sri Lanka; the grimy backstreets of Kuta in Bali, and the higgledy-piggledy business district of Suva in Fiji...I've wept at the kindness and generosity of strangers in Papua New Guinea and in Vanuatu (where the strangers have now become my family). I've been humbled by observing the injustice and inequality of a world that lets me and mine sleep soundly every night in a comfortable house, three meals a day in our bellies, education and health care taken for granted...all this abundance, while my neighbours- my family- in Indonesia, PNG, Vanuatu, and so many other places, go without.
The majority world don't have access to so many of the things we here take for granted. They are driven by fear and desperation to commit atrocious acts. They are forced into slavery and robbed of their dignity.
When will the minority world, we precious few with so much of the world's resources unfairly at our disposal, wake up from its slumber?
We sit back in the comfort of our armchairs and criticise and condemn, without the understanding that comes only from walking in someone else's shoes.
I can't be angry at the men who frightened the living daylights out of us in Indonesia. I can't, because I know what motivates them- it's in my heart, too...fear, hatred, misunderstanding, lack of trust, jealousy, hunger, desperation, yearning...
We all battle the same things. Our common enemy is not any one person, any particular nation- not a person at all. It is the evil that lurks in the darkness of selfishness, pride and ignorance. The evil that motivates acts of terror on a grand scale is the same evil that prompts you to want what your neighbour has. The evil that robs whole people groups of a right to a homeland, to peace and security, is the same evil that makes you buy that extra shirt you don't need instead of giving of your resources to someone who has less.
Get my drift? I am profoundly broken. Not by what has happened to me or by what I have seen, but by what is in me. I'm broken by my own wickedness.
Thank God He is real, and does hear us when we call. I know that from very real, very personal experience.