Interview with Sustriana Saragih

Interviewer: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?

Sustri: I’m a clinical psychologist, as for now I am helping at ruangobrol.id, especially in their outreach project. We provide assistance for ex-combatants as well as terrorist prisoners, both female and male. My position is as a Lead Mentor, so I lead 10 mentors who can provide assistance directly to the ex-combatant and ex-terrorists in their areas. So my position is in Jakarta, but the mentors I train are on the field.

Interviewer: So what does your daily work look like, what are you usually doing?

Sustri: I supervise all of the cases over all the programs and activities we have on the ground. I also supervise all of the cases that have been recorded and observe the approach to see if there is any specific intervention needed or if the client needs a different form of counseling. We also take the time to look at each case and discuss if there are any specific needs that are not being met, or any specific materials that should be given to the client.

Interviewer: Have you seen any changes in your program with COVID-19?

Sustri: Actually, several of our clients are still in prison and they have started to experience a significant amount of stress because they are afraid of being infected by the virus. Several of our clients also have become stressed because the current condition impacts their business. So, right now we have to focus more on psychological assistance by providing counseling to our clients through this situation. It’s also difficult for me as I cannot meet anyone directly, since it is prohibited to meet clients directly during this time. So we have had to completely change our method of counseling by conducting all counseling online. For the clients in prison, we have daily communication with the prison officer as we can’t have direct communication with the prisoners. 

Interviewer: As a psychologist working in this time, how do you feel about having to do everything online?

Sustri: Actually, it requires a lot of adaptation. I’m a clinical psychologist, I need time face-to-face with my clients. I can’t see their gestures or their posture and a lot of my work relies on observation. So, when my work changes to this online platform, I need to be able to adapt and change my method of counseling. We can still have good meetings as long as the client feels that their mentor still cares about them and their wellbeing. They need to be able to feel the genuine concern for them.

Interviewer: So how did you get into your line of work? Why are you passionate about it?

Sustri: Since 2011, after I graduated, I immediately encountered women and children who were victims of domestic abuse. My first job was as a counselor in an NGO that provided counseling and intervention for women and children who had been victims of domestic violence. After that I worked with refugees, specifically women and children who had been victims of war or come from war-torn areas like Turkey, Iraq, etc.. I also worked with HIV-infected women and families as well. Now, I work with children and women who have been victims of violent extremism. I feel like working with them, that is my passion. I love doing it. If they’re happy, I feel happy. I feel like when I can help others, it fulfills my vision and mission in life. So I feel very happy to be able to work in the areas I do. Also, there aren’t many clinical psychologists in social work. Professional psychologists are very expensive, and in Indonesia only upper-middle class or above have access to psychologists as the service is very expensive. So when I’m on the ground, and I can provide my service freely, I feel like all my knowledge and my skills are really able to help people. I feel that this is the thing I want to do with the rest of my life- use my training to help people, especially concerning terrorism. People who are in terrorist groups or have come out of terrorist groups are in the darkest place, they need more love, they need more attention, and they need more expertise. 

Interviewer: From your point of view, how are women being impacted by violent extremism in Southeast Asia?

Sustri: Especially in Indonesia, women have two roles; a victim and a perpetrator. As a perpetrator, they have the role of creating a new generation of jihadi’s. They have the role of teaching radicalist ideology to their children. There are many children coming from ex-combatant and ex-terrorist families. They do not put the children in school, they just provide homeschooling for them. I can’t imagine the future of these children if their mother is the only one providing education for them and the education is only based on violent ideologies. Also, some of the women really do their part as a good mother by teaching their children about tolerance, and we see their children end up being more tolerant people. So from this, we can see that women really have a vital role in creating the next generation, whether it is a Jihadi generation or a tolerant generation. 

Besides that, we also see women as victims. Sometimes, they are just following their husbands to Syria to join these violent extremist groups. They only go because they believe that the Quran says they should follow their husbands decisions. 

Interviewer: How have you seen women be able to prevent/counter violent extremism?

Sustri: Like I mentioned before, women have a very vital role as parents. Most children have a special connection and bonding with their mother that is different from their fathers. From a psychological perspective, we see that children are more likely to listen to their mother over their father. Maybe because of the time spent in the mother’s womb, I’m not sure, but it’s clear that most children have more emotional bonding to their mother rather than their father. In my opinion, the mother can really instil whatever ideology she wants to instil. If she chooses to teach tolerance, the children become more tolerant people. However, if she wants to instil violent extremist ideology, the children will become violent extremists. The main role for women is in parenting and in education. 

Besides that, women also have a vital role through their impact on other women, especially in rural areas. Women in rural areas are typically communicating and listening to each other. If one woman receives education or information of some sort, she will typically deliver that to the other women who are easily influenced by it.  

One additional thing women can do is advocate for new regulations and policies. Until now, our Counter-Terrorism law does have any gender-perspective. So women should be more involved to ensure that their is gender-perspective in our policies. 

Interviewer: Can violent extremism enter an area and spread through women?

Sustri: Yes, like in one case that we are handling now, one specific woman has become a recruiter of new Jihadi’s in her area. She conducted ‘pengajian’ (once a week gathering to learn about religion) for other women in her area, and used the time to promote violent extremist ideologies. So we see that it is definitely possible for women to become recruiters of other women to join violent extremist groups. 

Interviewer: In your experience, is it common to see families with generations of violent extremist tendencies? 

Sustri: Do you remember the bombing attack in Surabaya in May of 2018? There were 7 children who survived the bombing and I provided them with psychological treatment in a social shelter. I worked with them for 9 months, and from my time with them, I saw that all these children already had violent extremist ideology. When I asked them if they would like to conduct a bombing with me, they immediately said yes. And when I asked them why they wanted to do it, they answered that their parents said they should. When asked who they would choose to bomb, they answered Christians, Detatchment 88 (counter-terrorism police force) and civil servants. They had learned to attack these particular groups. After 9 months of working with them, I could conclude that these children had radicalist and violent extremist ideology because their parents passed it to them. So for 9 months, I worked with them to try and change these ideologies their parents had instilled. Put different dreams in their head, instil tolerance and love for other groups, instil the need for life. 

Interviewer: So how much progress did you see in them after 9 months?

Sustri: Well, the children were also experiencing PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) from seeing their parents die in front of them. So those 9 months were spent not only trying to replace the violent extremist ideologies, but also to cure their PTSD. So I provided psychological testing for them, conducted observations, interviews, and more. After 6 months, we saw all of the PTSD symptoms decrease after 6 months. And when I asked the children, “Do you still want to conduct a suicide bombing with me?” Their answer was no. “Why?” Their answer was, “Because I want to live and I want to play.” We tried to teach them to become children again, to love playing, and love life. And then, when we observed their behavior, we saw that they began to play with children from other groups as well. They wanted to play with children who were Christians, and had started to lose their prejudices. All 7 of them had that positive outcome. 

Interviewer: In your opinion, for women in Indonesia, what is the most important thing for them to be aware of regarding violent extremism?

Sustri: Education. Access to information. They should have education, knowledge, access to information, and they should have the confidence to speak their minds. They also need to be able to support each other to speak their minds and to speak out about ideas they have.