Southeast Asia Indonesia

Football Tribe Halloween Special – Persebo Bondowoso

Today’s October 31st and it is the spookiest date of the year as Halloween rolls into town once again. A couple of years ago Football Tribe Asia did a small feature on Satun United, a Thai club known as “The Exorcists” due to their supposed supernatural abilities and for this year we decided to take on a more historical horror approach with a mundane-looking Indonesian club who are currently defunct – Persebo Bondowoso.

At a glance Persebo might seem like you run-off-the-mill provincial club in Indonesia, having last played in the second-tier of Indonesian football as recently as the 2016 Indonesian Soccer Championship B. The club was known in the Indonesian football fraternity not because of their exploits on the field, but because of their frequent relocations.

As the Magenda Stadium in Bondowoso, East Java was ineligible to play any competitive football matches, Persebo were forced to play their home games at a number of different locations outside Bondowoso, including among others nearby Lumajang in East Java and Musi Banyuasin Regency in South Sumatra. Not only that, Persebo were often the subject of ridicule amongst Indonesian football fans due to their badge bearing an uncanny resemblance to that of Spanish giants FC Barcelona. However, it was their nickname that earned Persebo a spotlight in this feature.

Unlike other Indonesian clubs that chose heroic-sounding (and sometimes fearsome) nicknames for their clubs, Persebo’s nickname careened straight away from the heroic and fearsome and straight into historical horror territory – the Laskar Gerbong Maut, aka the Death Carriages Warriors.

Why historical horror? Because the so-called “death carriages” are an actual wartime atrocity conducted during the fallout of World War II, particularly in the war to defend Indonesian independence from Dutch invaders.

During the Dutch invasion of Indonesia, Indonesian prisoners were often transported from one place to another using trains. These trains were in the most appalling of conditions – no ventilation, no windows, being filthy and unsanitary beyond belief, and more often than not hundreds of prisoners were stuffed into a single carriage that wasn’t meant to carry any human passengers at all, being carriages meant to carry goods from one city to another.

As a result, numerous people died during these treacherous trips, with one particular trip from Bondowoso to Surabaya on November 23rd, 1947 killing 46 supposed Indonesian revolutionaries, a tragedy that was annually commemorated in the city of Bondowoso. Victims often die inside carriages due to either a lack of oxygen or severe heatstroke.

In order to commemorate the noble lives lost in those train carriages of death, Persebo decided to adopt the nickname Laskar Gerbong Maut. Although there was nothing inherently too supernatural about Persebo unlike their Thai counterparts over at Satun United, the fact that the “death carriages” were an actual horrifying highlight in Indonesian history meant that the Laskar Gerbong Maut moniker is both a somber commemoration of the lives lost inside the carriages and a horrible specter of a wartime atrocity conducted in the war for Indonesian independence – especially with the reports of supernatural sightings inside and around a preserved example of a “death carriage” over at the Brawijaya Museum in Malang, East Java.

As for Persebo themselves, they cease to exist as a club after the 2016 season. After a botched rebrand into Sumatra Selatan United before the 2017 Liga 2 season, the club was relocated back to East Java, to the city of Sumenep on the island of Madura. There they were rebranded into Madura FC, thus ending Persebo’s long history in Indonesian football.

Despite this, there’s a happy ending for everyone involved in this story. Madura FC are still going strong despite being relegated into the Liga 3 after the 2019 season, while the province of South Sumatra finally got their second club to rival Sriwijaya FC, in the form of Musi Banyuasin United (Muba United). As for the people of Bondowoso, their footballing tradition still continues in the form of a phoenix club that was established in 2017, the very year Persebo ceased to exist – Persebo Muda Bondowoso, who interestingly adopted the same Laskar Gerbong Maut nickname as their predecessors.

Happy Halloween from Football Tribe Asia!