A burning car and vigilante justice in Medan

Traffic in Medan, as with most of Indonesian’s big cities, is often very  bad, and traffic accidents are commonly cited as one of the country’s biggest problems. (Seth Soderborg/Indonesiaful)

There was a traffic jam at the wrong time of day in Medan on Jalan Dr. Mansyur.

Before things had gotten really tight, a police officer on a motorbike pulled up alongside me and gently gestured to me to move into the left lane. Behind him were four other officers in green PolResta jackets. A few meters in front of me a girl didn’t see the officer’s extended arm, so he tapped her, gently, on the shoulder. It was an oddly touching gesture.

It wasn’t until the traffic had crawled up most of Jalan Dr. Mansyur that I saw the smoke. Something was burning in the intersection ahead, at the one stoplight that everyone takes seriously in this town.

Naturally, I got off my bike, pulled out my camera, and joined the growing crowd. The perimeter was too close – only eight or nine meters from the burning  car – and I could feel some heat, amplified for a moment as the car popped and the crowd moved back.

Firefighters arrived quickly at the scene and were able to subdue the fire within minutes.. (Seth Soderborg/Indonesiaful)

A burning car is a loud thing. It burns hot, with snaps and bursts, and at the midpoint of the fire there is a continuous loud crackling. The first time I ever saw a car burn was late at night in a wooded alley lot and the sound was terrifying. It is less scary in the middle of an intersection with a surrounding crowd.

A trickle of angkot minibuses pushed through the crowd and made the right turn in between us and the burning van. That was not a good idea but angkot drivers are not known for good ideas.

Eventually two police officers arrived, but not the ones I had previously seen driving in the direction of the accident. They did not move the crowd or stop the picture-taking. They did help a few angkots through, but they did not seem too concerned with anything besides watching the fire and keeping people from getting too close.

Someone was hosing down the car from just around the corner of a building. The hose was inadequate, but the person was brave for trying.

The firefighters arrived five minutes after I had, though the fire had been going for a while. I was honestly surprised to see them. One of the police officers saw me recording as the firefighters rushed in with their hose. I told him that the firefighters were “very brave.” The police officer responded, “There is no problem with justice in this country,” and then he moved on.

(Seth Soderborg/Indonesiaful)

This traffic accident was no accident — three men set fire to the car after it struck a motorcyclist without stopping. (Seth Soderborg/Indonesiaful)

The fire went out after a few minutes and the traffic started to flow again. The crowd mostly remained. A few young men who had climbed the fire truck were cheering and clapping. I noticed I had a headache, probably from the fumes.

I also noticed that the streetlight had melted, although it looked like it might still be functional.

Later, I learned that the care burning at the intersection of Dr. Mansyur and Setiabudi was not an accident.

It was, in fact, set on fire by three men who followed it after the car struck a motorcyclist and failed to stop. As the teacher who corrected my use of terbakar (accidentally burned) explained, the car was burned by barbarians (dibakar oleh orang babar).

This, however, was okay — because the driver was himself a barbarian.

When the driver stopped at this red light, the pursuers pulled him out of the vehicle, beat him up, and torched the vehicle.

An object lesson in why hit-and-run is a dangerous game where the rule of law is less than complete.

About the author: Seth Soderborg is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant based in Medan, North Sumatra. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 2012 with a degree in political science. Soderborg previously worked in Brazil and Mozambique. Contact him at seth.soderborg@gmail.com.

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