Every morning, Maria Catarina Sumarsih and her husband Arief Priyadi visit and pray at the tomb of their son, Benardinus R Norma Irmawan, better known as Wawan. Wawan was a student at Atmajaya University in Jakarta and one of 17 people killed by gunfire on Nov 13, 1998 during riots and demonstration against the government of President BJ Habibie.
The frequent demonstration were part of the tumultuous aftermath of former President Soeharto’s ouster from office in May that year. The incident in which Wawan was killed, now known as the Semanggi Tragedy, is widely blamed on military gunfire. The investigation of these case was stopped after the House of Representative ruled that the shootings were not a gross human rights violation. But Sumarsih has not forgotten.
Every Thursday, for one hour between 4 pm and 5 pm, she gathers with other families who suffered human rights violations dating back to the anti-Communist purge of 1965, as well as killing associated with the end of the Soeharto era, and the assassination of human rights leader Munir Said Thalib. They demonstrate in front of the Merdeka Palace in Jakarta. The action, called simply Kamisan, or Thursday; has been going on since Jan. 18, 2007. The participants dress in black and carry black umbrella; they are occasionally joined by students, activist and celebrities.
Sumarsih is a leader and spokesperson for the group, and she has become a symbol of the human rights movement in Indonesia. “In the first day after Wawan was killed, I only cried and prayed,” Sumarsih says. I couldn’t do any housework, my husband did it. But after a long process and the support of many people, I slowly was able to live as usual. Now I can even speak out about human rights.”
This year will mark the 19th anniversary of Wawan death. The Kamisan action stubbornly continue, but the number of participants is shrinking as survivors grow older and memories of the dark days of 1998 and other past tragedies fade into history. “My sorrow has been transformed into love for people,” Sumarsih says. “My love for Wawan gives me never-ending motivation. As long as Wawan is in my soul, I won’t stop.”