It was 8.30pm in the city of Medan, Indonesia one day last month and Giwang Ramadan, a 20-year-old student, was doing something he did regularly – picking up his younger brother from an after-school religious studies class at the local mosque.
It was only a five-minute drive by motorbike from his house in the Tembung district of Medan to the mosque, and Ramadan took a shortcut that he often used, down a back alley off the main road.
“In the middle of the alley, I saw two men sitting on a motorbike with their faces covered, wearing black hats,” he told news.com.au.
“They told me to get off my bike and one of them was brandishing a large knife.”
Ramadan leapt off his bike, fearful that he would be stabbed and left to bleed to death in the dark alley, as the man on the back of the motorbike sprung into action, commandeering Ramadan’s white Honda Beat and driving off into the black night.
“They deliberately drove off in different directions so I couldn’t follow them,” he said.
But Ramadan is not the only Medan resident to have succumbed to such an attack.
In recent months, the provincial capital of North Sumatra has been gripped by a crime wave of robbers on motorbikes which has terrified the local populace.
According to Ramadan’s mother Erni, “everyone in the neighbourhood has a story”.
Just three days before Ramadan’s ordeal, another neighbour was attacked and had their motorbike stolen. There have been so many cases of violent robberies that a local neighbourhood watch has been set up in the area by residents who sit at road blocks from 11pm to the early hours of the morning.
Medan has long had a lore that could be rooted in film noir.
The city has a dark reputation in Indonesia as a centre of criminal activity – leading to it being nicknamed “Gotham City” after DC Comics’ shadowy fictional city which is home to Bruce Wayne/Batman and his allies and foes.
However, local journalist Choking Susilo Sakeh, who founded the Posmetro tabloid that regularly reports on lurid criminal activity in the city, told news.com.au that Medan’s sordid reputation is somewhat unfounded – despite the recent rise in violent crime.
“Medan doesn’t actually have a culture or a tradition of violent crime by motorcycle gangs. While the city is known for its preman or local thugs, it doesn’t have a history of brutal or sadistic crime like we are seeing now,” he said.
“Local Medanese are very open which can scare some visitors, but if someone here doesn’t like you, they will tell you straight to your face. The Medan way of solving disputes is to challenge your opponent to a fist fight, but it has to be one-on-one so it is fair.”
Local law enforcement and politicians have also been at a similar loss to explain the recent uptick in violent attacks across the city, which has seen local residents killed and seriously injured in the robberies, leading to the city bringing in members of the army to patrol the streets in conjunction with the police.
One of the theories put forward by officials has been that the robberies are linked to the drugs trade, with perpetrators looking to make a quick buck off the stolen items to pay for their drug habits.
Ramadan said that, after his motorbike was stolen, he fled to a neighbouring housing complex close to the alley to raise the alarm and reported the theft to the police the next day. Some days later, the police told him they had apprehended one of the alleged perpetrators, a recidivist known to police, who was shot in the leg while evading arrest.
On July 9, police shot dead another robber in an unrelated case in Deli Serdang on the outskirts of Medan.
The use of force by police has been the source of some tension in the city, with Medan’s mayor, Bobby Nasution, sparking controversy among human rights groups when he said police should shoot robbers dead “if necessary”.
“The violent robberies by motorcycle gangs have caused public concern and should be dealt with firmly because the perpetrators keep repeating their actions,” he said.
In addition to being Medan’s mayor, Nasution is the son-in-law of Indonesia’s current president, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.
“Robbers and other criminals have no place in Medan. Their actions worry people. Law enforcement have done the right thing. I appreciate the Medan police,” Nasution said.
Yet while human rights groups have complained about the inflammatory rhetoric, Medan residents themselves are less worried about the rights of the robbers and more concerned about their personal protection.
In a recent poll undertaken by pollster Poling Kita, more than 15,000 respondents said they supported Nasution’s comments about shooting robbers dead, while only 382 respondents said they were not in favour of such a policy.
For his part, Ramadan said that his experience left him badly shaken and unable to eat for a week. He supports the shooting of robbers, who he said should be prepared to face the consequences of their actions.
“I hope the people who robbed me get a sentence proportional to what they did to me,” he said.
“The situation in Medan is out of control.”
Aisyah Llewellyn is a freelance reporter based in Indonesia.