Sambas’ open secret

I stepped off the minivan into the warm, wet air of Sambas. A gang of ojek drivers lurked by the wayside. My van driver shouted out to a group of middle aged men. “He wants to go to Aruk!”

He turned to me and said, “Check with that guy.” I said my thanks and waved goodbye.

“We can go to Aruk now. I have space,” said the man. I declined, saying I want to spend a night in Sambas. But I took his number, to think over his offer.

Backpack in tow I walked the length of the street, searching for a hotel. Two were above my price range. One charged IDR 80,000 for 2 single beds. Fan. Shared bathrooms. I took it. Hotel Linsai, 5 minutes from the bus station.

I settled in my simple room and walked to the bathroom. In that moment I regretted not taking the expensive option. I have to say, it was the grimiest bathroom I’ve ever seen. A squatting toilet, taps with no water and the clincher, a cement pool with murky brown water. I almost considered burning the payment and just booking a comfortable, triple the rate room next door with TV, AC and breakfast. But I didn’t. 

So Plan B is buying bottled water from the 24 hours maret, using it for brushing teeth and well, dabbing myself clean of sweat and dirt. Yep, I didn’t shower at all.

I think roughing it out sometimes mean making certain sacrifices. Although if I ever have another choice I’d walk the length of the town to find something more decent.

Sambas is a compact town, with residential homes radiating outwards turning into villages. Located exactly beside the Sambas River, this sleepy town has a newer feel to it. The old shophouses were painted new, the roadways and alleys easy to navigate. Always there are people moving, walking, driving. It felt very intimate.

I wandered to the riverside where a market and waroeng intermingled, with view of the village on the opposite bank. I followed a wooden walkway that stretched as far I could see, connecting neighboring villages by the river where home are built on stilts to avoid flooding from rising tides. Boats anchored by jetties, plying both banks carrying people and goods. It was a Friday, and the afternoon sky echoed with the sonorous chanting of Friday prayers.

I made friends with a Sambas ojek driver, who would bring me to the Sambas Palace in the evening. But it rained so I postponed the excursion.

At night, food carts are wheeled out onto the main streets, chairs and tables laid out for dinner. Food variety is quite limited to Javanese and Sumatran food, albeit delicious.

If you live in Borneo, you would have heard of the ethnic conflicts that dominated the West Kalimantan province in the 90s. Sambas is ground zero for one of the worst riots in history.

The Dutch colonialists implemented a Transmigrasi program that resettled poor and landless people from Java and Madura to less densely populated islands like Borneo and Papua. They were given land, homes. Things came to a head in 1999 in Sambas when indigenous Malays and Dayaks allied, massacred the entire Madurese population of Sambas. They raped, hunted, killed and tortured 3000 Madurese who held the town under siege. Many fled to havens in Pontianak and Singkawang. Reports of cannibalism by the victorious Malays and Dayaks were a thing of notoriety, with one Western journalist reporting seeing charred femurs and plastic bags of stringy grey human flesh skewered and shared. The war, allegedly caused by the Madurese, galvanised the entire West Kalimantan province, with fighters coming in from the deep jungles and coastal cities. 

Gak ada keturunan Madura yang berani menginjakkan kaki ke bumi Sambas lagi. Kami di sini juga tidak mengijinkan.

Not a single Madurese has dared stepped foot onto the soils of Sambas ever again. Nor are they welcome.

I met a half blooded Madurese lady in Singkawang who say she has been to Sambas, but needed to hide her heritage for fear of reprisal. 

It’s a surreal feeling to think this quiet, unassuming town was, barely 20 years ago, the site of a war and mass murder. I ate my dinner in silence, enjoying my last night in Kalimantan Barat, seeing its people laugh, talk, walk and breathe in the cool after rain air of the night.

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One thought on “Sambas’ open secret

  1. Well there you have it. People far away making decisions which they probably did not consider local feelings. We seem headed into more of these confrontations in the future as we observe events around the world.

    Liked by 1 person

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