JAKARTA: An empty bus approached the police checkpoint at the Jakarta-Cikampek toll road.
When traffic police officers stepped forward to check the vehicle, the driver explained that he was just returning the empty bus to the depot.
He insisted that he was not contravening the government’s ban on performing the annual exodus ahead of the Muslim holiday Idul Fitri, a tradition known in Indonesia as mudik.
When the cops boarded the bus, they found people hiding underneath the seats. The bus driver was detained while his passengers were taken back to Jakarta.
“One time, we even found passengers hiding inside the storage bay (of a so-called empty bus),” said Adjutant Senior Commissioner Sutimin when interviewed by CNA.
From discovering buses and vans used to smuggle people out of Jakarta to being scolded by angry drivers, this Ramadan has been a challenging month for Sutimin and his men.
The 57-year old police commissioner, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, has been in charge of security at the Jakarta-Cikampek toll road for more than two years.
Since Apr 24, his workload has increased to include preventing people from performing mudik. The mass migration has been banned as part of COVID-19 restriction measures.
It is no easy task. According to toll road operator Jasa Marga, around 65,000 vehicles pass through the toll road - which serves as the main thoroughfare connecting Jakarta and the rest of Java - daily.
At the height of last year’s mudik exodus, that number ballooned to 160,000.
To make matters worse for Sutimin and his 100-strong team, the government has decided not to impose a blanket ban on intercity travel. Instead, exceptions are made for those on business trips, as well as people who need to use the toll roads to get to industrial complexes outside Jakarta.
“There are many people who tried to circumvent the mudik ban,” said Sutimin. “It is a cat and mouse game. We have to watch out for these people.”
As of Wednesday (May 13), police have recorded a total of 6,000 infractions at the Jakarta-Cikampek toll road. Those caught could face a year in prison and/or be fined 100 million rupiah (US$6,711).
The government has set up a checkpoint at the Cikarang Barat toll gate, some 30km from Jakarta.
There, the five-lane toll road was divided into three lanes: one for vehicles exiting the toll gate, one for private cars looking to stay on the toll road and another for trucks and buses.
The latter two lanes are monitored by 24 traffic police officers working a 12-hour shift. They are backed up by nine heavily armed officers from the police’s tactical units.
READ: Ramadan takes on a quiet meaning this year, as COVID-19 restrictions disrupt rituals and gatherings in Indonesia
The officers are then divided into two teams, each working for a two-hour interval while the other team rests.
And while they are on watch, the officers have to scrutinise every vehicle leaving Jakarta.
“It’s more challenging during the day,” Sutimin said.
For one, the officers have to brace searing heat, toxic fumes and dust coming from an elevated railway construction site nearby.
“It is a hard thing to do when you are fasting,” he said, adding however that he had never broken his fast.
Sutimin said it takes vigilance to spot those who do not have legitimate excuses to use the toll road.
“If we see a family inside a car carrying suitcases and belongings, chances are these people are performing the exodus. Conversely, if we see people driving alone, chances are they are off to work or on a work-related trip,” he said.
But there had been people who pushed their luck trying to circumvent the ban.
“The other day, we stopped a van pretending to be carrying workers to a factory but when we took a look, the people on board didn't appear to be factory workers,” he recounted, adding that children were among the eight passengers.
“When we interrogated them, the passengers admitted that they were going to their village in Malang (East Java), contrary to the driver’s claim.”
The driver was later arrested and the passengers were taken back to Jakarta.
Earlier, national police spokesman Argo Yuwono said officers across Indonesia had also discovered trucks used to circumvent the mudik ban and smuggle people out of big cities like Jakarta.
“We had intercepted trucks which were carrying people instead of goods, along with their motorcycles and belongings,” Yuwono told a press conference on May 7. “In one case, we even found people hiding inside a concrete mixer truck.”
The government believes that banning mudik will prevent COVID-19 from spreading from cities like Jakarta to small towns and villages, which are less equipped and may not have adequate healthcare systems to deal with the pandemic.
But with the disease devastating businesses and costing people their livelihoods, many are desperate to leave the city to be with their families.
“Sometimes there would be people pleading for us to let them through, claiming that they have a sick parent waiting for them back at their village. But they can't prove their claims. Sometimes they’ll say they have lost their job, can’t afford to pay rent and had nowhere else to go but their village,” Sutimin said.
“I do feel what they’re going through. But it’s my job to stop them from performing mudik.”
Sutimin said there was also those who got so frustrated of not being allowed to pass through the toll that they would vent their anger at the officers.
“Usually they are people who said that they are on a business trip but cannot prove their claims,” he said.
“We always tried to remain calm, even though they yelled at us. ... (They) sometimes swore and said dirty words, or even hit the steering column (of their vehicles).
“There was even one incident when a driver was so upset that he appeared ready to hit the accelerator and ram us,” the police commissioner said. “Thankfully, he didn’t.”
And then there is the risk of getting infected from the thousands of people they encounter daily.
“Despite the challenges and risks, we do our job with all our hearts. It gives us comfort to know that we are here to make sure that people stay healthy and safe. We traffic police officers are also doing our bit in the fight against COVID-19,” he said.