It was an evening I Nengah Latra can never forget – 3 March 1986. The 19-year old Balinese farmer’s son who had his heart set on a career in the army was taking part in a cremation ceremony.
A kerosene lantern wasn’t working properly. He opened the glass and tried to adjust the wick. Tihe lamp exploded, showering him with burning fuel.
After 42 days in the Karangase hospital Latra was sent home to his village in East Bali, only partly healed. His blistered wrist was fused to his upper arm. His fingers on one hand were webbed, like a duck’s foot, his flesh appallingly mutilated. He was tortured by pain – and bitterness.
“I was angry with God, my family, everyone,” he said. “My hopes of joining the military and breaking free from poverty were gone. I thought it was the end of my life. I was ashamed. For two years I hid, avoiding contact.”
But that’s impossible in Indonesia, particularly in a small, dirt-poor farming community. Agus Safyi, a one-legged field worker from a Yogya rehabilitation centre found the physically and emotionally twisted man and suggested he go west for training.
Latra resisted for several months. “In my village Java was another country, far away. Even if I’d flown to the US people would still say I’d gone to Java and would probably never return. There had been cases of Javanese collecting Balinese cripples promising work, but using them to beg.
“It took months before I persuaded myself that it was not a trick, and much longer to get my family to let me go. Yet my real motive was to hide somewhere else, to disappear.
“Eventually I went and it was the turning point in my life. I met these extraordinary people who were in a far worse situation, yet they were happy and productive. I realized I’d been wasting my time on self pity.”
In Yogya he was trained in radio repairs and did so well the center’s founder, New Zealander Colin McLennan, arranged for Latra to have plastic surgery.
The operation was a success and he could now use both arms and hands. The anger started to ebb. But back home he found his new abilities difficult to use. In a village without mains power few appliances needed fixing.
He returned to Yogya and after working as a cleaner learned more skills, including English and management. Eventually he joined the rehabilitation centre staff. On regular trips to Bali he searched for other disabled people who could benefit from training.
Many were victims of the polio epidemic that swept Indonesia in the 1970s. Others were congenitally crippled or had been injured in accidents. All hid their anguish from the stares of neighbors, silently seething, compounding the agony.
Their misery was twisted further by diehard cultural beliefs. Surely the families had badly sinned to be so terribly afflicted? This was their fate, and nothing could be done.
“Government statistics claimed only three per cent to the population was disabled,” said Latra, “yet I knew the real figure was much higher, with even more in Nusa Tenggara. There was a need for a rehabilitation centre in Bali, but no money.”
He put together a proposal and sent it to the British Embassy. Within two weeks the sum sought, Rp 75 million (US$ 8,000) had been granted. The governor of Bali gave a building originally set up for the handicapped, but left empty because there was no operating budget.
The large foreign community in Bali stepped in with resources and the center was a success. Then came the Bali bomb in October 2002. Most non-Indonesians fled the island.
“Our organization was unconscious,” said Latra. “I prayed to God: ‘Should I give up and close? Run away, do something new?’” But one outsider did stay in Bali, Kiwi tour operator Jan Mantjika. She helped found a support group.
“The NZ Embassy endorsed Latra and I was impressed with his enthusiasm and integrity,” said Mrs Mantjika. “He understood Balinese culture. He knew what the disabled were thinking and how difficult it was to become an acceptable member of the community. But he was doing everything himself.”
Among the 202 people killed in the first Bali bomb was an Englishwoman, Annika Linden. Her grieving fiancé, finance trader Mark Weingard set up a foundation to help bomb victims and also supported Latra’s enterprise.
The philosophy behind the Annika Linden Foundation (ALF) is that ‘positive action is the only way to counter the negative impact of this event’.
To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the tragedy next October the ALF will open a building in the Denpasar suburb of Tohpati to house four charities supporting the disabled.
Latra’s enterprise, now named Puspadibali (Bali Foundation for empowering people with disabilities) has so far helped rehabilitate, make and fit prosthetics for more than 1,140 people. It will be housed in the one-stop shop for the disabled, integrating services.
The present workshop will be used to repair and store wheelchairs
It all sounds good and grand, but Latra looks forward to the day when there’s no need for overseas-funded charities and altruistic foreigners to help the disabled. That’s because the government will fulfil its constitutional responsibilities to care for all citizens, and the handicapped will be accepted into society.
The Indonesian Parliament ratified the UN Convention on the rights of Persons with Disabilities last month (Oct) four years after signing the document.
Latra and his colleagues, including volunteers from Australia, hope this means action will follow, sidewalks will be made safe for wheelchairs, access to buildings will be up ramps, toilets will have grab rails and employers will recruit the competent disfigured.
In a society where staff selection is often based on youth and good looks, this climb over the barriers will be near vertical.
“That’s my dream, but it will take a long time, maybe a generation,” Latra said. “There are so many things that need to change. We often find people who cannot be trained because they haven’t been to school, so we first have to teach them to read and write.
“Ten years ago charities’ reputation depended on what they were doing for the people – now the issue is what they’re doing with the community.”
Latra no longer wears long-sleeved shirts and doesn’t keep his hands in his pockets. Curiously this means his livid scars are barely noticed. The man’s personality and unflagging advocacy dominates, pushing aside any disability. He’s married and has four children.
Does he ever think that if he hadn’t been burned he would have joined the army and might now be an officer?
“Perhaps, and I might have been killed,” he said.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 14 Nov 2011)