After 10 years writing about politics in Canberra, I wanted to get on the road and write about the people of south-east Asia. My posting delivered in spades, though it didn’t start as I had expected.
Within my first two weeks I spent a day with Indonesian President Joko Widodo. It began with a 4am wake-up call and a drive to the Presidential Palace car park.
After a painfully slow drive to an Islamic boarding school in the sticks in Banten province, we sat through a welcome ceremony in stifling humidity before joining the presidential motorcade and whipping through village after village.
We spent 40 minutes with the President in a hot, quiet anteroom. As he flicked at the screen on his iPad, eyeing the questions we had to email ahead of time, we deliberately went off script and he slowly, carefully answered in his surprisingly deep baritone.
Jokowi (as everyone calls him) told us that he thought it was a good idea for Australia to join ASEAN, an idea that has been half-seriously kicked around for decades, and we had a front-page story.
But as I was to learn over the next three years, just because a politician expresses support for an idea, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily going to happen.
In that respect, politics in Indonesia – and all over the region – isn’t much different to Canberra’s.
A couple of weeks later I filed a short postcard on the box sellers of Jakarta. I felt like I was finding my feet.
What would follow, from April 2018 through to February 2019, was the most intense period of my professional and personal life. In the two-and-a-bit years before COVID-19 sent me home, I took 132 flights throughout the region – one every five-and-a-half days (I counted them up while waiting at an airport). Most of them were in this April-February period.
I soon learnt that as a foreign correspondent your best-laid plans regularly get thrown out the window.
The first major event in that not-quite-year was the first-ever change of government in Malaysia. I quizzed Mahathir Mohamad at 3am in a packed ballroom of the Sheraton Hotel in Kuala Lumpur on election night and jagged an exclusive interview with Anwar Ibrahim on the eve of his release.
It was as I was sitting in Anwar’s front yard (with dozens of other journalists) waiting for the man himself to arrive home from detention that a phone call came in from Canberra.
“James, the twins are coming early, the doctor says tomorrow. Get on a plane now!”
It was my pregnant wife Karen, who had stayed in Canberra with our daughter Sabina while we waited for our twin boys, Giacomo and Carlo, to arrive. I jumped in a taxi, booked a flight as we raced down the KL freeway and made it home just in time.
After six weeks of very little sleep, on the day before we were due to fly out I heard a flash on the radio about a Thai boys’ soccer team that had gone missing in a cave on the Thai-Myanmar border.
Those poor boys, I thought. They’re done for.
Five days later I was dispatched on a plane to Mae Sai in northern Thailand for two of the most extraordinary weeks of my life. British divers Rick Stanton and John Volanthen had found the boys and were devising an extraordinary rescue plan.
They succeeded, though Thai Navy Seal Saman Gunan died during the rescue effort.
The days at Tham Luang cave ran as long as 20 hours of information-gathering and writing. The wet-season rains and knee-deep mud at our outdoor desks didn’t help but it didn’t matter – no one was going anywhere until this thing was done.
Towards the end of the rescue Elizabeth Weiss, publisher at Allen & Unwin, asked me to write a book. Of course, I said yes.
Somehow, work became even more frenetic over the next three months: after returning from the cave in early July, I flew to the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. I won’t soon forget that slow-motion humanitarian disaster, a genocide according to the UN special envoy on Human Rights. In January 2020, Myanmar’s government was ordered by the International Court of Justice to take all measures it could to prevent that genocide.
Nor will I forget people like Fatema Begum and her six kids, including twin baby girls, who bravely told their story, or 13-year-old Yasmin Akhter, who told us about the day her parents were killed and her home burnt to the ground and how she had to flee to Bangladesh. She hasn’t seen her sister since, but found some safety with foster father Zafar Alam.
And then there were the other events I couldn’t plan for: the Lombok earthquake on August 5; the Palu earthquake and tsunami on September 28; the Lion Air plane crash on October 29; and the Sunda Strait tsunami on December 22.
I’d never seen disasters like this.
The memories are fragments now: the grandpa limping on the tarmac of Palu airport, broken leg swinging; the kitten I saved in a suburb swallowed whole by liquefaction; the smell of the dead; the collapsed mosque in Lombok that buried an imam and his congregation; the 80-something woman with a broken hip being tended to by a medical student as her son held up a phone for light.
We drove the long way around Mount Rinjani, seeking the Lombok quake’s epicentre, and arrived in the devastated village of Sembalun Bumbung at the base of the volcano.
The locals couldn’t quite believe we were there but showed us the damage done (at one point I was asked to help pull a dodgy sheet of metal off a roof) and then shared a meal with us.
And then a few days before Christmas, a tsunami hit the beachfront houses of the Sunda Strait after the Anak Krakatau volcano erupted.
On this occasion, amidst all the devastation, it was the single kids’ shoes washed up on the shores of the Tanjung Lesung resort that stayed with me. Returning to Jakarta on Christmas Eve was surreal and I hugged my kids extra tight on December 25, 2018.
Human tragedy is a recurring theme for correspondents trying to sum up their postings. For me, the lesson was this: all human life matters and it can be taken away in an instant (a point COVID-19 has hammered home in 2020).
Then the pandemic came, and we revealed Indonesia couldn’t test for the coronavirus in the early days (despite the denials), interviewed Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan about the devastation in the capital and sounded the alarm about a million cases in the country.
I worked with outstanding journalists such as Kate Geraghty, Amilia Rosa, Karuni Rompies, Harbir Gill, Veena Thoopkrajae, Nara Lon, Sameera Afreen and Akkarawat “Art” Taokwang and I pestered my excellent editors and former correspondents such as Jewel Topsfield, Michael Bachelard and Lindsay Murdoch incessantly, always with the questions: had I told the story? Had I done enough?
I didn’t get to say goodbye to Jakarta, much to my regret, and I still obsessively check daily testing and infection rates for the country I called home for two years, hoping that sometime soon they’ll reach the WHO’s minimum recommended screening levels.
I also count my blessings to be back in Australia during this once-in-a-century pandemic.
Hopefully over my three years writing about south-east Asia I have told the story and done enough for you – the readers of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
James Massola is south-east Asia correspondent based in Jakarta. He was previously chief political correspondent, based in Canberra. He has been a Walkley and Quills finalist on three occasions, won a Kennedy Award for outstanding foreign correspondent and is the author of The Great Cave Rescue.