It’s three years since two members of the Bali Nine – those young Australians jailed in Bali for drug smuggling – were executed in Indonesia.
Reporter Cindy Wockner was among the media pack in the small Javanese town of Cilcap, when Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran faced the firing squad on an island nearby.
Though she’s normally an objective journalist, Cindy sobbed into the arms of one of the men’s lawyers as it became clear that the men were about to die.
Bali-based Cindy had been covering their story, ever since they were first arrested ten years earlier, for attempting to bring 8.2 kilos of heroin to Sydney.
Cindy, now based back in Australia, has just written a book on the two men, The Pastor and The Painter, who she says, went from being unlikeable young criminals to rehabilitated, productive individuals.
She talks to The Starfish:
Why the book?
Well I wrote it primarily because I told Andrew and My that I’d tell their story. I told them I’d tell their story, and would continue to do so. It was a pledge I made.
It must have been pretty harrowing reliving some of this?
Not just for me, but all the people involved, especially the mens’ families, who were really traumatised for a long time after their deaths. I didn’t want to put them through more interviews when they were traumatised. It took a long time before everybody was ready.
Where were you when you first found out the nine Australians had been arrested?
I was siting in a police cell, interviewing Schapelle Corby for a newspaper. My phone rang and I didn’t want to answer it, I had a big scoop on my hands! But finally my Indonesian assistant took the call and told me that nine Australians had been arrested on heroin charges. I had to race out and forget my interview with Schapelle. I remember passing Mercedes Corby on the way out and she looked quite alarmed, wondering why I was running! Little did I realise I’d still be working on this story for many years.
How long did you cover this story?
I covered it for 10 years, from when the men were first arrested, right up until they were executed. And I visited the jail many, many times. I was one of the very few journalists they ever trusted and spoke to. So for this reason, I was able to get a bit closer to them.
Of course, the nine Australians all ended up in jail in Bali, rather than Australia, because the Australian Federal Police, tipped off Indonesian authorities. The idea behind that, though it led to executions of Australian citizens, presumably was so the Indonesians could help capture the Mr Bigs. And yet nobody was ever caught, were they?
Other people were arrested in Australia; other couriers were arrested and charged in Australia. But no, the only other person arrested higher up the chain was their supplier, a young Thai woman who came from Bangkok to Bali to drop the drugs off to the Bali 9. She was arrested on the Thai border, and detained, but somehow she escaped from custody, never to be seen again!
And though you got to know Andrew and Myu well, they never told you who the Mr Bigs were?
No. They never gave me any information as to anybody else involved who was more more senior. Myu said he’d never tell me or anyone else because it would be too dangerous for his family. As far as they were concerned, it was, ‘we did this, we got caught, we get the punishment.’
So they took their secrets with them to the grave? That must have been frustrating for you, as a journalist, not able to get them to tell you.
Yes, but it was out of fear and concern for their family members more than anything else.
You must have got to know many unusual characters while covering this case over the years?
Yes, some are mentioned in the book. Like one guy, who was an Indonesian prisoner in the jail, who’d studied law and had a big future, but ended up in Kerobokan. He was dealing drugs inside the jail, making $4000 a month from dealing drugs in there. He said he changed his life and reformed completely after Andrew Chan told him, ‘you’ve got to give this up.’
He’s now out and a pastor. He told me that this was all thanks to the influence of Andrew Chan.
I met lots of characters, though some didn’t want their stories told in my book.
When you picture them back in Kerobokan, what do you remember?
Back in 2010, when Andrew and Myuran were first able to set up an area to work on their computers and paintings, and I did a story on them. Myuran was so excited about the project. They finally had a purpose inside the jail. I remember how excited they were; they were like little kids. Myu said, ‘this will make me a better person.’ Over the years both guys changed completely.
How did they change?
Initially they were cocky, unlikeable and in denial about the crimes they’d committed. By the end they were completely reformed, helping others around them.
Was there anything you used to bring the guys in jail when you went to see them?
Myu loved kettle chips from Australia! I’d always bring him packets of kettle chips, even though they always got crushed in my luggage, he didn’t care! And Andrew loved Chinese Five Spice! He was a very good cook but you couldn’t get those in Bali back then. Andrew also loved getting rugby league caps because he loved giving them as presents to other prisoners.
How many times would you say you’ve been in Kerobokan jail?
Too many to count! Hundreds of times. It’s changed a lot now. In the early days, anyone could just walk in to visit, they just had to pay the guards 5000 rupiah! Now the men and women are segregated and the process is a lot more formal. When I first used to go to the jail, some prisoners could just walk out from time to time! I remember seeing a European prisoner outside the jail one day and I said to him, ‘But you’re in jail! What are you doing out here?’ and he said, ‘I’m just in there some of the time! I’m off home to visit my wife.'”
Did covering this story change your life?
It probably did. Changed my outlook. I’ve spent a lot of time covering crime, and I’ve always been a fairly sensitive kind of reporter, but rarely does a journalist get to cover one case for so long. This was over such a prolonged period that you get to know the characters so well, it was so devastating when they were killed. I don’t think anything can prepare you for the rollercoaster of emotions involved in getting to know two people well, who end up being executed.
Did you really believe it was going to happen?
None of us did really. I didn’t, and their legal team remained hopeful, right until perhaps the final couple of days. We always thought that something would happen to save them. So of course what happened was devastating for everyone. You can’t be around people for such a long period of time without feeling involved.
Do you have any souvenir from them? A painting from Myuran, perhaps?
No, Myuran was going to paint a picture of my son but he died before he was able to do this.. I do have a letter from him though, in which he said he was sorry that he hadn’t had the time to do this for me.
The Pastor and The Painter (Hachette) is out now.