IO – Aristides Elvianus Albert Katoppo was born in Manado on the 14th of March 1938 and was known as Tides to his friends. His name is from the Greek meaning “the best person humankind has to offer” – and indeed he was.
Tides was one of Indonesia’s best journalists, a man with a great belief in the truth and both the courage and determination to pursue it for the betterment of his country and in building a more just and kindly society. He first came to public attention as a journalist for the Indonesian afternoon daily Sinar Harapan and for the New York Times when he was the first to obtain the news that Robert Kennedy came to Indonesia in 1964 with a letter from his brother President John F. Kennedy to then President Sukarno offering to mediate with the Dutch about the question of Netherlands New Guinea. The letter asked the Indonesian government not to use military force with the arms that Indonesia had obtained from the Soviets. The whole foreign press had been after that news and ended up quoting Tides.
Aristides became editor-in-chief of Sinar Harapan and was always at the forefront in reporting the important events of the day, pushing his journalists to pursue the truth. It was not easy being a journalist during the Suharto era. Once when investigating the so – called Petrus affair where criminals were being rounded up and murdered, their bodies dumped into the forest or in rivers one of his offices was sent the head of one of the Petrus victims, perhaps as a warning. The government often raided his offices. He told his reporters over and over again, “You won’t be able to please everyone but you owe it to the people of Indonesia to find out the facts and write them.” Indeed, it was not possible to please everyone and by 1972 Sinar Harapan had been shut down.
Tides later became the editor-in-chief of another afternoon daily, Suara Pembaruan where his newspaper continued to write the truth and fight for freedom of the press. Journalism however, was not Tides’ only pursuit. He was also busy with university students, helping to train the students’ press and he provided support to many of the most influential students who would eventually bring down the Suharto regime. He provided them with a place to meet at his house in the mountains and listened and discussed issues with them bringing with him other idealistic thinkers such as Yap Thiam Hien and Adnan Buyung Nasution. He helped to move the student actions and demands of 1998 into the right direction. Later he helped set up the Alliance of Independent Journalists.
Aristides travelled all over Indonesia and knew many of the tribes and peoples of the Archipelago and was involved in supporting many disenfranchised groups. He helped with negotiations and peace building with people from East Timor, Aceh and Papua. Solving problems, bringing down the temperature of tense situations and making peace between warring parties were his forte. Once he was invited to a tense inter-religious meeting with the firebrand Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front) or FPI. The Buddhists and the Christians were at a loss as to how to deal with the FPI aggressiveness. Tides began to talk about nature and preserving the environment and then he talked about planting trees. The FPI slowly cooled down and listened to the joys of nature. Finally, when he finished, they said that although they would not be participating in tree planting, they would also not do anything to stop Tides and others from doing such good work. A tense atmosphere had turned into an amicable one.
Meanwhile, Aristideses love for nature caused him to help establish one of Indonesia’s most important non-governmental groups for environmental protection, Walhi. Emil Salim who was appointed Suharto’s Minister for the Environment later said that as an economist he knew very little about the environment and that he was very much helped in this by Aristides Katoppo and his string of environmental ngos.
Aristides was an untiring proponent of unity in diversity and in this he was an able friend and ally of Indonesian President Abdurrachman Wahid. The two also shared a passion for jokes and story-telling. Tides used to say that diversity and unity were part of Indonesia’s great social wealth as important as political and economic capital. He insisted that, “Indonesia only exists because of its social and cultural capacity to tolerate a high level of diversity.”
His marriage to Sasmiyarsi Katoppo Sasmoyo, a Muslim Javanese aristocrat reflected this tolerance for diversity beautifully. Mimis, as his wife is popularly known helped him celebrate Christmas and during the fasting-month they would invite friends to open the fast together at their house and later celebrate the great Muslim festival of Idul Fitri.
Together with Cherie Nursalim, he co-founded United in Diversity or UID which facilitates tri-sector leaders from business, government, and civil society to create and implement sustainable solutions to the region’s biggest challenges. In building a new democratic Indonesia Tides also assisted the military in discussing and working out a program to transform Indonesia’s military from having a dual military and civilian function to a purely military one.
Tides was brought up in an extremely intellectual but also devoutly Christian family. His father was Elvianus Katoppo a Menadonese who served as Minister of Education and Religion of the East Indonesian State. Later he worked at the Ministry of Education and Culture and helped to establish the Universitas Kristen Indonesia and also the Indonesian Bible Institute. Nevertheless, it was Tides mother who had the greatest influence on him and whose guidance he often referred to. One of the things that Tides believed was that it was not enough to analyze things with the mind. He would say, “Don’t listen only with your mind; listen also with your heart and your spirit. It is only then that you will be able to experience synchronicity and the depths of things. All around us nature and the world are trying to tell us secrets and important things but we do not hear them.”
Tides mother was a Christian woman of deep faith but his grandfather had still followed the old animist beliefs of their ancestors. He would say, “My mother told me that we could no longer follow the old ways but that those ways also had things of value that we needed to keep and one of these was instinct and the ability to read the signs in nature and the world around. She would make me look at nature for these signs and show me how to read them. What sort of signs? “Well if a bird flew in a certain direction across my path, before I headed out to school, she would tell me to wait a while, that it was a warning to be careful,” he disclosed.
Towards the end of the Second World War the Americans were stationed in Morotai and their bombers used to bomb areas of the Minahasa in North Sulawesi. Tides family took shelter in the jungle. For a time they slept in tents. One night five-year-old Tides rolled out of the tent in his sleep and gazed in wonder at the beauty and majesty of the tropical star-studded sky. His wife, Mimis says, “It had a profound effect upon Tides and all his life he adored gazing at a night canopy of stars.”
It was there at night in the midst of nature that Tides first felt the grandeur and beauty of life, of the universe of God himself. For the rest of his life nature and God would always have a very powerful connection.
In the jungle he wandered along river beds where he frequently saw snakes. Nevertheless, he continued to play in nature and slowly under his mother’s guidance his instinct and understanding grew and this kept him safe. Perhaps the most important time this happened was when Tides was with the famous student and political activist of 1965, Soe Hok Gie, when he died of poisonous gas inhalation on Mount Semeru. Tides often went mountain climbing with Mapala, the University of Indonesia nature lovers’ group and he was on Mount Semeru on that fateful night. “My mother taught me to sing to trees and to nature. She said that they would sing back. One needs to listen with an inner ear. Perhaps what she meant was communicating and I do think that the trees, the rocks and animals signal things to us, about danger for example. Several times I have felt something not right and saved myself.
The time I was on the mountain with Soe Hok Gie and the others there was a storm and a fog. I was walking in front and the wind would make the mountain appear and disappear and I sensed an evil. I felt I was facing death. At first, Soe did not see it but then he walked in front and suddenly he stopped. I asked him what was the matter and he pointed at the wall of rock. The mist kept making the rocks appear and disappear and Soe told me that he was afraid.”
Later the sky became very blue and clear although it was sunset and Tides realized that they were walking under the golden umbrella that is created when there is a gas explosion. The sunset turned it golden. Tides attributed a great portion of his own survival that day to his instincts and understanding of the signs in nature.
Synchronicity was always of great interest and importance to him. The British government invited Tides to Britain and offered to help organize interviews with anyone of his choosing. When he asked me, I suggested Sir Laurens van der Post as he did not give interviews and had been involved in Indonesia’s struggle for independence. He was a prisoner-of-war in Java and later stayed behind and helped the nationalists although he was sent by the British government. Outside the steps of his flat we discussed asking Sir Laurens to write a book about his experiences in Indonesia as he had known all the nationalists and helped them. Tides thought it was a good idea. At that moment Sir Laurens opened the door and the first thing that he said was, “Have you ever heard of synchronicity?”
We both laughed, “But of course…”
Sir Laurens then told us, “You know I wrote the report for the whole British mission in Indonesia after the War but because it was so critical of the Dutch the British government would not allow the public to read it for 50 years. Now the 50 years are over and I have just written a book about it and my experiences in Indonesia from 1945 to 1947. For 50 years no Indonesian journalist has ever asked to interview me and now the book is finished and immediately two Indonesian journalists ask to interview me.”
Tides mother was a woman of great faith and she helped create his own faith. A moving example of this occurred after two of his sons died within a close period. There can surely be no worse fate for a parent than to have to bury their child and to have to do this twice is unthinkable. After the death of his sons Tides was grieving deeply and many worried that this grief would affect his health. Later Tides said, “I had prayed to God for solace and just as my son’s ashes were about to be scattered into the sea I suddenly had a vision in broad day light of two dolphins filled with joy laughing and jumping and playing with each other as my two boys used to play – and I knew it was a message for me that they were together and that they were happy – and so I should not grieve for them…”
The vision had a tremendous healing effect on Tides’ soul. God had heard his prayer for solace. His wife Mimis was one of the reasons he survived the following years. She is an intelligent woman who shared his curiosity about the world, love of travelling and kindness towards people. She likes adventure (they met sky diving) and is passionate about nature but also the arts and culture.
Tides oldest son Jura said that he was the son who had had the most problems with his father but at the beginning of this year Tides had called him and asked Jura to help him carry out his final bucket list. Amongst other places Jura accompanied his father to Holland and Jogjakarta and in the process they reconcilled. A week ago Tides revisited Mount Semeru. It was exactly 50 years after Soe Hok Gie’s death on the mountain. Tides had come full circle.
Last week Aristides told friends that he had dreamt of his sons and the dolphins and that he had entered the sea. He missed them terribly. Then with tears flowing down his cheeks he said to the friends that he was “rela” an Indonesian word indicating more than non-resistance and submission but even a willingness. Fifteen hours later with a whisper to his wife not to be sad because he was happy to go, Aristides slipped away to the dolphins and the sea and his sons. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)