The District Six Museum in Cape Town, South Africa, captures the memories of the inhabitants of District Six, who were forcibly displaced by the apartheid regime in the 1970s. When I visited the museum in 2010, I was struck by a short story displayed on the wall. “I can forgive them anything almost else, but I can never forget the agony and the pain of my (homing) pigeons; and my own agony and my own pain,” the story read. “Try as I might for years after I was kicked out, I simply could not get my pigeons trained to come back to Manenberg. Unerringly, they would fly back to the District, which – to them – was home. What can I do about this? Is there any compensation for this kind of thing?”
Years later, I always need to take a deep breath every time I view my photos of the museum and read the story. Of course, there is a painful political background to this story. But above all else, it describes the very human experience of being displaced. It is not just about losing an old place and getting a new one. It is not about moving out or moving in. It is about an experience of being disconnected to place and losing the simple but meaningful things that create our lives.
District Six has been on my mind again as I read about the residents of Pasar Ikan in North Jakarta. According to Kompas, the Pasar Ikan neighbourhood district was home to 4,929 residents, or 1,728 households. On 11 April, thousands of residents from the coastal region were forcibly evicted by the Jakarta administration. Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (“Ahok”) claimed that the eviction was necessary for flood control, and announced plans to reclaim the area for tourism. Residents have been relocated to three different low-cost rental apartments (rusunawa). One of these, Rawa Bebek, in East Jakarta, is located more than 25 kilometres away from the evictees’ former homes.
It was eviction by force. As many as 893 buildings were demolished by 11 excavators, in the presence of 4,218 security officials, including Jakarta Public Order Agency (Satpol PP) officials, Jakarta Metropolitan Police, North Jakarta Police, and 400 military personnel. Police deployed two water canon vehicles and a barracuda vehicle to oversee the eviction.
The eviction in Pasar Ikan was not the first and nor will it be the last under Ahok. It follows the forced eviction of residents in Kampung Pulo in East Jakarta last year (also justified as part of efforts to prevent flooding) and Kalijodo in North Jakarta a few months ago (which was apparently necessary to reclaim green space). The Jakarta administration has announced the next eviction will take place in Luar Batang, adjacent to Pasar Ikan.
It is not my intention to put these recent evictions on a par with the evictions conducted by the apartheid regime in South Africa. But reflecting on the experiences of the inhabitants of District Six can tell us about people’s experiences as they are evicted from their homes.
We are too often “developmental” in our justification of evictions in Jakarta. Unwanted or unwelcome dwellings and the people who inhabit them are viewed as obstacles to the development plans of city administrators. Adding to the problem is the fact that many of these residents do not have formal land titles. Since they are illegal inhabitants, the logic goes, they must be removed and relocated. Relocation is therefore seen as a simple matter of moving people to a new, more orderly place, with a nice edifice (for instance, rusunawa). Less often is eviction and relocation seen as an issue of displacement, where people struggle as human beings to deal not only with changes to their physical environment, but also with changes to their livelihoods and social relationships.
Psychological studies have described the notion of place attachment – the bonding that occurs between human beings and their meaningful environments. People can attach emotionally to a place and through this attachment develop not only connectedness, but also feelings of integrity and identity. When residents of places like Pasar Ikan are forcibly evicted from their place of origin, this connection and bonding to place is shattered, and, as such, so too is their sense of self.
Many middle class residents of Jakarta appear to have little sympathy for residents of these poor urban communities, viewing eviction as an eventual consequence of occupying land illegally. But it is important that we are mindful of the disruptive experience of displacement. Our feelings of safety and security are tied to our homes – it is part of human nature. When homes are destroyed, as occurred in Pasar Ikan, Kalijodo and Kampung Pulo, it has a fundamental impact on the former inhabitants’ feelings of security and certainty in place. These homes often represent the years of struggle from which the evictees’ lives were built. As one Pasar Ikan evictee commented: “We built our homes at considerable cost, we bought every single nail.”
In his efforts to transform Jakarta, Ahok needs to remember that human experience matters. To set things right, Ahok could learn from his predecessor, Joko Widodo, who understood that dialogue could be a transformative tool for development. Dialogue means having a willingness to listen not only to demands, but, more importantly, to human experience and how it defines a person’s integrity. As long as Ahok remains closed to dialogue and continues to evict people by force, he does not deserve praise for transforming Jakarta.
Abruptly disconnecting people from a place that is meaningful to them – for whatever reason – will have impacts long after the act of relocation. Forcibly destroying homes with backup from security forces will leave scars. It is a sentiment expressed in a Achmat Dangor quote on the wall of the District Six Museum: “It struck me that our history is contained in the homes we live in, that we are shaped by the ability of these simple structures to resist being defiled.”