A hot day in December, 1965. I was nine years old, a blond, sun-crisped Bali bulé boy, and a Balinese man I’d never seen before hunched on the parlor sofa of my parent’s house in Klungkung, east Bali. He reeked of fright: acrid, bitter, biting. He was silent, hands clasped between his knees. A former member of a Communist party’s community organization, he was helpless, hopeless, marked for death, a marking that painted not by gray-skinned pallor but by stink. I’ll never forget that smell.
Outside on the street in front of our house marched squads of Balinese men in black with machetes and spears, some with guns. The taming–the killing teams. Efficient. Deadly.
They were the victorious nationalists, rampant and on the hunt for Communists, who only a year previously were poised for political power and the control of the country’s future. In those black, brutal months, with a madness sweeping over the island, an estimated 50000 Balinese were slaughtered by other Balinese, killed for being Communists and for being leftist and for having said the wrong thing, even (in one recorded case) for having provided a pressure lantern for a Communist mass rally.
Klungkung had a large PKI presence, with many of the high caste Brahman families being party members. Kids I’d played with on the streets and fields and banyan trees simply disappeared. Thousands of corpses were tossed into estuary ravines by the seashore, and into the ocean itself. A journalist staying with us told of seeing a raft of bodies floating in the surf, sharks leisurely feeding.
This is why I don’t like surfing the eastern black sand beaches and sandstone ledges. There’s something spooky to that water, the roaring surf, the deep offshore trenches. There’s one particular place near Klungkung, now on the surf guide radar, that I’ve flatly refused to surf — I get goosebumps just standing on the beach.
When we moved to Gianyar when I was a teen, I had to will myself to paddle out at Lebih beach and the breaks around there, but I never lasted long. It wasn’t sharks, or being out alone—the other world, the what the Balinese call the unseen realm, shimmered very close all around me. The Balinese have a word for places like this–angker–and they would know exactly what I’m talking about, which is not really “spooky” but mystical, spiritually charged, dangerous.
I don’t know how many visiting surfers, or even resident expat surfers, know of this dark and terrible chapter of modern Balinese history, but I can tell you that every Balinese of a certain age has memories of that violent time, memories they are reluctant to talk about. Every coastal village and town in Bali that has turned into a surfing destination hides its own secret killing fields, its forgotten burial grounds.
Here’s a photo from 1964, of civilians receiving quasi-military training in the public Denpasar Puputan square. I don’t know if these men are leftists, in which case they would soon be killed, or nationalists, in which case they would be doing the killing.