The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Many children died in Indonesia’s stadium disaster. Her 3-year-old was one.

4 min

MEDAN, Indonesia — It was his third soccer match.

Muhammad Virdy Prayoga, 3, was just getting to know the game. He had watched his first match just a few months ago with his parents, and on Saturday, he entered Kanjuruhan stadium with more than 40,000 others streaming in to watch Indonesia’s second-largest derby. Arema FC, the home team for Indonesia’s eastern Malang regency, was facing off against Persebaya Surabaya, its rival from East Java.

Virdy stood on his seat before kickoff, wearing an Arema scarf around his neck that stretched down to his ankles. His mother, Elmiati, 33, turned on her phone to film a video and Virdy grinned widely at the camera, his eyes shining with excitement. He loved Arema FC; he loved watching the players far down on the pitch — and he loved being part of the crowd.

Anger mounts toward police as Indonesia reels from stadium tragedy

But as chaos overcame Kanjuruhan stadium that night, culminating in what has become one of the deadliest sporting event disasters in the world, it was the crowd that took Virdy away from his mother.

“We didn’t know what was happening,” Elmiati said of the stampede. “People just kept pushing and shoving.”

As fallout continues from the tragedy, arguably one of the most wrenching figures has been the number of children reported dead. Initially, officials said that there were 17, but on Wednesday, Wiyanto Wijoyo, the head of the Malang Health Authority, told The Washington Post that the number had more than doubled to 40. According to death certificates from local hospitals, he added, there were 131 fatalities in total.

On Saturday, after the match, which Arema lost, a group of Arema supporters invaded the pitch and tried to approach players. Police and military personnel responded aggressively, using batons and riot shields to beat back supporters before firing dozens of rounds of nonlethal munitions including tear gas onto the pitch and directly into the stands. In the scramble to escape through the stadium’s narrow doors, some of which were locked, dozens of people suffocated or were trampled to death.

Of the 101 people who were taken to Wava Husada Hospital on Saturday night and Sunday morning, 73 died, said Isabella Kusuma Anjelin, an emergency medicine specialist who was working at the time. Some were children, but few were as young as 3.

Elmiati, who, like many Indonesians, goes by one name, was watching the game from section 13 of the stands. When the match ended, she, her husband and their son were still in a good mood, although Arema had lost. They wanted to get home to their other daughter, 14, who had stayed home.

She started to feel alarmed when she saw police charging onto the field. And when they started firing tear gas directly at the stands, near where she was seated, she started to panic.

“The gas burned my throat, and it was stinging my eyes and skin,” she said. “They just kept firing and firing.”

Desperate for the family to escape the thick cloud of tear gas, her husband, Rudi Hariyanto, 34, picked up Virdy as they tried to leave via gate 13. It was obstructed, allowing only one person at a time to pass through, Elmiati remembered. As people around her pushed to escape, she became separated from her husband and son.

After getting outside, Elmiati learned from another family member who had also been at the game that Hariyanto and Virdy were still inside. She gave a photo of them to local authorities to see if they could help to identify them. Just after 11 p.m., about an hour after police first started firing tear gas, she got a call.

Virdy was at Kanjuruhan Hospital, and Hariyanto was at Wava Husada hospital. Both had died.

At Kanjuruhan Hospital, Elmiati held Virdy’s body, stroking his hair. His head had been bandaged and dried blood streaked from his nose. His face was pale and his eyes closed.

“We were planning to send him to kindergarten next year,” Elmiati said. “Now he’ll never get the chance.”

Malang police chief Ferli Hidayat was dismissed Tuesday over the disaster, along with nine commanders from the Mobile Brigade Corps, a paramilitary arm of the Indonesian National Police that was present at Kanjuruhan stadium during the clearing of supporters. Hidayat declined multiple times to speak with The Post.

Mohammad Mahfud Mahmodin, Indonesia’s minister in charge of security, set up a formal inquiry into what happened and vowed to identify those responsible. Those who lost loved ones, he announced this week, would receive $3,270 in compensation.

Tan reported from Singapore. Winda Charmila in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, contributed to this report.