Stampede at Indonesia soccer game kills 125, officials say


A soccer game in Indonesia turned deadly Saturday night as security personnel clashed with soccer fans, prompting a stampede and leaving 125 dead and dozens of others injured, officials and eyewitnesses said.

Fans charged toward the center of the field after Arema FC, the home team, lost 3-2 to Persebaya Surabaya, a team that it had defeated for 23 years — and were beaten back by uniformed officers carrying batons and riot shields.

Four people who were at the match told The Washington Post that uniformed security personnel then fired what appeared to be tear gas directly and indiscriminately into the crowd, sending people into a panic. As many as 42,000 people were estimated to be at the event.

Plumes of smoke covered the stands at the Kanjuruhan Stadium in Malang regency, as tens of thousands of people scrambled for the exit doors, trampling — and killing — others who fell. Families were separated amid the chaos and some were never reunited.

“I can still hear the voices of children calling for their mothers,” said Bima Andhika, 25, who escaped the stampede with his 14-year-old sister. His uncle and three of his neighbors are among the dead, he said.

East Java’s deputy governor, Emil Dardak, said Sunday afternoon that 174 people had died but revised the number to 125 when speaking to reporters later in the day. Some casualties had been counted twice, he told broadcaster Metro TV. Health officials in Malang regency, which is two hours from Surabaya, said the death count has fluctuated because officials are still in the process of verifying the identities of those who died.

East Java Police Chief Nico Afinta said those killed suffered breathing problems and suffocated as they tried to exit the stadium. At least two officers were among the dead, he added. About 34 people died at the scene, Afinta said, and many others died at local hospitals.

“I express my deepest condolences of this tragedy that claimed lives in Kanjuruhan, Malang, last night,” President Joko Widodo said in a statement, adding that he has ordered the Football Association of Indonesia to suspend all matches until security measures can be evaluated. Arema FC, the home team, has been barred from hosting games for the rest of the season.

Gianni Infantino, president of FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, called the incident “a tragedy beyond comprehension.”

Muhammad Rezqi Wahyu Aji Sumarno, a 24-year-old Arema fan, said tensions had run high throughout the game. The rivalry between the teams, both from East Java province, is “immortal,” he added.

After the final whistle, Rezqi said, the Persebaya players moved quickly to their locker room as a handful of Arema fans ran onto the field in an attempt to “express their support and give their critiques” to the Arema players.

As more fans joined, authorities sought to control the scene, and the Arema players ran to their locker room, which fans tried to enter. When they were not able to, Rezqi said, “the situation escalated into chaos.”

Loud bangs erupted in the arena as people jumped over barriers and leaped onto railings. There were military personnel dressed in green fatigues as well as riot police in black uniforms, wielding riot shields.

Rezqi and the three other eyewitnesses said things escalated even further when officers fired what appeared to be tear gas into the stands, which were packed with supporters, including children. Initially, they targeted the fans who had stormed the field, Andhika said. But by the end, the authorities were firing at nearly every segment of the stadium.

As bottlenecks formed at exit doors, people started to get trampled.

Muhammad Iqbal, 17, was crushed after falling down a set of stairs. He experienced injuries to his legs, stomach and chest as people tried to get past him. His eyes were also left stinging and bloodshot by the gas that the police fired, he said.

“I was ready to die there. I thought for certain I’d never make it out,” said Iqbal, who works as a food vendor. “Why did they fire at innocent people?”

Mohammad Mahfud Mahmodin, coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, said 42,000 tickets to the match had been sold even though officials had wanted to cap the attendance at 38,000 people. Most people died from “pushing, squeezing, trampling and shortness of breath,” he added, and not in clashes between supporters of the opposing teams.

While violence at soccer matches is common in Indonesia, the stampede was among the deadliest in the country’s history.

“Sampai mati,” or “until death,” is a common refrain among many dedicated Indonesian soccer fans, and teams often travel to games in armored vehicles to avoid being pelted with rocks and other projectiles. To prevent fights, stadiums often only allow fans of the home team to attend.

When Rezqi finally made it out of the stadium, he was taken aback by what he saw. People had fainted on the ground, some of them covered in blood. Other spectators were angry and setting fire to police cars.

“I knew an incident was going to happen. I know the risk,” Rezqi said. However, he said he never thought such a severe episode with such a high death toll would happen. “This was beyond my comprehension,” he added.

In the hours immediately after the stampede, the police came under scrutiny for their response.

Daniel Alexander Siagian, coordinator of the Malang branch of the Surabaya Legal Aid Institute, said there was an “excessive use of force”and that crowd control rules appear to have been flouted. Based on videos that have emerged from the match, he also questioned why members of the military appeared to have been present at the arena.

“The authorities didn’t follow a clear procedure, such as issuing a warning first or using a water cannon,” he told The Post. “They just started firing tear gas.”

Amnesty International called for an immediate investigation into the police response, expressing concern over the apparent use of tear gas.

“Indonesian police unfortunately have a long track record of excessive use of force,” said Usman Hamid, executive director of Amnesty’s Indonesia office.

In 2020, during mass protests against a job creation law that opponents said would weaken workers’ rights, police exerted excessive force in dispersing protesters, Hamid said. An Amnesty report documented 43 incidents of police violence that occurred during the protests, including videos that show officers using tear gas in narrow spaces and firing water cannons at close range.

Zainudin Amali, Indonesia’s sports minister, said he was heading to Malang after the incident. He called for a full investigation and said he hoped this “disaster” would be the last of its kind.

Source: Washington Post