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Breaking the Silence: Survivors Speak about 1965–66 Violence in Indonesia

Chapter 5


Surviving New Order oppression

Part 1: before 30 September 1965

People call me Leo. I was born on 21 August 1945 in Tawangrejo, Central Java. When I was small something happened that I can never forget, namely when the army came to take away my stepfather. Our house was ransacked. My mother cried, begging for my father and grandfather not to be taken. My father and grandfather were arrested by soldiers from the Siliwangi [Division]. They were tortured together with other people who worked in the village office at Tawangrejo. My father and grandfather were accused of having been involved in the Madiun Rebellion [of 1948], the revolt led by Muso. My grandfather was indeed the village head (lurah) of Tawangrejo village in Dutch colonial times. When the Madiun revolt happened, the Dutch army had entered the villages searching for freedom-fighters for the republic. If people heard the Dutch were coming, the whole village would go into hiding.

Then, when I was ten years old, I remember my world as multi-coloured. Everywhere there were posters of the political parties taking part in the general election. There were so many of them: there was the buffalo head in a triangle (PNI, Partai Nasional Indonesia, Indonesia National Party), there was the globe held in a lasso with nine stars and Arabic writing (Nahdlatul Ulama, Revival of Islamic Scholars), there was the crescent moon (MASJUMI, Majelis Sjura Muslimin Indonesia – Consultative Council of Indonesian Muslims), the single large star (PSI, Partai Sosialis Indonesia, Indonesia Socialist Party), and the moon and stars with Arabic writing (Partai Syarekat Islam Indonesia, Indonesian Islamic Union Party). The one I remembered best was the hammer and sickle which was the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, PKI) because at home there were lots of those posters. My mother and father distributed them to people. Only later did I learn that my parents were on the committee of the Communist Party in Tawangrejo.

When I was in the second year of primary school, I moved to the school in Jepara. There I lived with my grandparents on my mother’s side. They were the ones who encouraged me to continue with my schooling. So after I finished junior high school, I was sent to Yogyakarta.

I finished my senior high school in Yogyakarta in 1963. Then I went on to study at the Academy for Fine Arts (Akademi Seni Rupa Indonesia, ASRI). I was accepted into the graphic design department. During orientation, I got to know the arts group Sanggar Bumi Tarung which then shaped the journey of my life. The artists involved with Sanggar Bumi Tarung were progressive-revolutionaries. There I met Amrus Natalsya, N.G. Sembiring, Joko Pekik, D.M. Gultom and Misbah Tamrin. They later became very famous painters and sculptors. The Sanggar (studio) was the place where I was most active, apart from campus.

As a student I really admired Bung Karno. I had often heard his speeches, as I had been listening to them on the radio ever since I was at primary school. Bung Karno always inserted slogans into his speeches, like JAREK (Jalannya Revolusi Kebangsaan, the progress of the national revolution), TAVIP (Tahun Vivere Pericoloso, the year of living dangerously to oppose the colonialists, imperialists and capitalists supported by America and England), GESURI (Genta Suara Republik, the pealing bell of the Indonesian Revolution), BERDIKARI (Berdiri di Kaki Sendiri, standing on one’s own two feet, meaning not wanting to be indebted to the capitalist-imperialists). The Great Orator [Sukarno] once said, ‘The people of Indonesia must form organisations, right to the level of domestic servants!’ This statement encouraged me to join the CGMI (Consentrasi Gerakan Mahasiswa Indonesia, Indonesian Student Movement Concentration) whose slogan was ‘study, organisation, revolution’. This CGMI trilogy motivated me to finish my course at ASRI and get a scholarship to go to the People’s Republic of China.

At that time, the spirit of struggle instilled by the Government promoting the unity of the whole nation of Indonesia and movement towards social change of a just and prosperous society truly inspired everything the people did. Including me. I wanted to serve my country and my people and be seen fighting alongside Bung Karno’s government. To increase my skills, I joined workshops and courses run by the CGMI. To me, these courses gave the direction, attitude and motivation for progressive revolutionary youth. The negative aspects of young people are caused by a lack of judgement and experience because of their age. They need instruction so that their spontaneous and emotional thinking can be directed to the correct path. At CGMI I was forged as an organiser, and at Sanggar Bumi Tarung I honed myself as an artist.

In August 1965, together with friends from Sanggar (studio) Bumi Tarung, I received an invitation from the State Committee for preparations for Independence Day celebrations (17 August). The first thing we did when we got to Jakarta was make some posters at the Kartini group studio and help out with finishing the posters and banners at the Lekra (Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat, Institute of People’s Culture) offices in Cidurian. This was the first time we met Pramoedya Ananta Toer (writer), Zainal Abidin (film star) and Nyoto (one of the top leadership of the Communist Party Central Committee).

On the night of 28 September 1965, one day before our return to Yogyakarta, we listened to Bung Karno’s speech for Farmer’s Day at the Istora Gelora (Senayan Sports Stadium). It turned out to be the last time I heard Bung Karno directly.

Part 2: capture and arrest

On 30 September 1965, when I got back from Jakarta, I intended to rest a couple of days before attending lectures again. The next morning, I heard the news on the radio that the situation in Jakarta was confused and in turmoil because there was a movement by the Revolutionary Council (Dewan Revolusi) or the Council of Generals (Dewan Jenderal) or … it was not clear.

I was on my way to Sanggar Bumi Tarung. When I got there, I met two friends who had returned from Jakarta the previous day. Together we kept track of what was happening in Yogyakarta while helping one of the lecturers at ASRI, Pak Soeromo at Tegal Lempuyangan who had a commission from Oemar Dhani to make a bronze Garuda statue three metres high with a wing span of 7 meters for a monument for the Air Force.

Over those days in October, Yogyakarta was full of very crude, disgusting and pornographic graffiti on the palace walls and gates demanding the dissolution of the Communist Party along with what were considered to be its mass organisations, like SOBSI (Serikat Organisai Buruh Seluruh Indonesia, All-Indonesia Trade Union Federation), BTI (Barisan Tani Indonesia, Indonesian Peasants’ Front), GERWANI (Gerakan Wanita Indonesia, Indonesia Women’s Movement), Lekra (Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat), HSI (Himpunan Sarjana Indonesia, Association of Indonesian Graduates), CGMI (Consentrasi Gerakan Mahasiswa Indonesia), IPPI (Ikatan Pemuda Pelajar Indonesia, League of Indonesian Youth and Students), and PR (Pemuda Rakyat, People’s Youth).

Members of mass organisations or people with connections to the messages in the graffiti began to get worried. I myself, along with friends from Sanggar Bumi Tarung, was on the alert from about 15 October 1965 when there was news that in the northern square (Alun-alun utara) in Yogyakarta there was going to be a mass assembly (‘apel akbar’) of commands to crush and dissolve the ‘the Communist Party and its mass organisations’ all over Yogyakarta. Anticipating this, the Yogyakarta CGMI asked the art school, ASRI, for help by providing safe space for the CGMI office. The head of CGMI then gave me and some friends from Sanggar Bumi Tarung the task of guarding the CGMI branch office which was in Jalan Magelang.

In the morning of 20 October 1965, I was calmly sitting in front of the gate of the branch office in Jalan Magelang drawing sketches for my assignment. I was not long there before I saw a crowd of people heading for the Alun-alun to join the assembly. So some friends and I who were on guard there decided to go along and mix with the crowd while still checking on the security situation in the CGMI branch office.

It turned out that the northern Alun-alun (town square) was packed with people, with the centre of activity on the western side. There was a stage set up for speeches. I myself witnessed the deafening roar of the crowd as it was fired up for its parade around Yogya. The crowd was using loud speakers and yelling, ‘Dissolve the Communist Party or there will be a flood of blood!’ ‘God is great [Allahu Akbar]!’ and curses aimed at the Communist Party, ‘Hang Aidit, the head of the Central Committee and pulverise his cronies!’

I managed to leave before the crowds started leaving the Alun-alun, and got to the CHTH (Cung Hua Tjung Hwee) building, owned by Universitas Republica (URECA). Friends called me in through a side door. I saw that there were many URECA students inside and students from other universities too. They asked me to help protect CHTH and URECA from the frenzied crowd. We estimated that the crowd numbered in the hundreds, probably thousands. The students guarding the building all wore a symbol of young coconut leaf (janur kuning) on their arms. They told me to beware of anyone in the crowd not wearing that symbol.

The only things we had to defend ourselves and the building were building materials that were in front of the CHTH URECA buildings that were currently under renovation. We were unified in our determination and resolve to fight back if there was any kind of violence. We waited quietly for instructions, and were forbidden to taunt the crowd passing by. Then we began to hear the shouts of the mob, their yells and curses. When they got in front of the CHTH building, some of them brandished sharp weapons like swords, machetes, kris, crowbars, hoes or other tools.

My friends and I were getting mad now, because people in the crowd were throwing bricks at the URECA sign. So we retaliated with bricks, yelling, ‘Keep away from the building!’ Success. The crowd moved back. Then we heard rifle shots outside of the building and the brick throwing stopped. Troops had arrived to secure the location, and were in front of the building facing the crowd. We thought we were safe after the army had arrived. One soldier even came inside, a corporal, who said the building was now under army protection. Speaking with a strong Javanese accent, he said that if anyone from the crowd came inside, ‘I’ll shoot him in the head’.

Then a police commander came in with some of his subordinates. They ordered all of us in the building to gather in one corner, while shooting their pistols in the air and threatening us with their weapons.

My friends and I who were inside the building were ordered to carry all the tools we had brought. Then we were ordered to come outside of the building one by one and get into trucks that were parked ready in front of the CHTH building. We were searched for hidden weapons. But they didn’t find any at all. Then we were taken to the police station at Ngupasan. After being taken into the open space there, we were left to just sit around, and they chatted with us. ‘Look, the situation in Yogyakarta is unsafe right now after what happened this afternoon at the CHTH building and the regional offices of the Communist Party, so we want you all to keep calm so everyone will be safe’, they said.

They promised us all that we would be returned home as soon as the situation permitted, to the addresses we gave. Then, until nightfall, they took down details of our names, addresses, ages, and the names of our families. We were exhausted and hungry, and many people just made up answers. I was one of those who answered honestly, to lessen risks and also, I hoped, to make things easier.

The police recorded that we numbered 134 in all. According to them, the situation did not yet allow us to go home, so we would be ‘temporarily’ accommodated in the Wirogunan prison in Yogyakarta. Prison rules forbade us from bringing anything at all. So the prison guards noted down anything we had, and took it from us.

We were all put into Block A which was used for people awaiting legal process. Normally, the capacity of Block A was 40, with 10 people per row. All of us had to attend roll call morning and evening carried out by the guard commander.

Every person was issued with one plate, one bowl and one mug, all aluminium. Our food rations were the same as the criminals. In the morning we got 100 grams of boiled corn and at midday and in the evening 300 grams of rice. We got tea in the morning. The food to eat with the rice or corn consisted of green cabbage boiled with a little flavouring, together with dried salted fish. On Fridays we got half a boiled salted egg with chilli sauce. On Sundays we got one piece of boiled meat.

Because our treatment was not in accordance with the promise made at the Ngupasan police station, two friends tried to meet the head of the prison to discuss our ‘temporary’ detention. Our go-between requested that two of us be allowed out, at our guarantee. Our point in allowing two of us out was to help manage the condition of the 134 people whose condition was worsening, and whose spirits were flagging.

We had been in the prison for a week and still found it difficult to get used to the conditions of not enough food, not changing our clothes and bathing without any soap. In these miserable conditions we couldn’t sleep because it was so crowded. We would plan to sleep all facing left or all facing right, but it had to be all of us, because there was no space for anyone to lie flat on their back. The head of the prison made the offer for some of us to be moved to another block, but as we had been together from the start we did not want to be split up. It was this togetherness that gave us a sense of family-like solidarity, and we did not want to be separated, through thick or thin.

To keep healthy, every morning before roll call we would do exercises together, which one of us would lead. We would do this by standing where we had slept, moving all together so our arms didn’t hit each other. To fill the long, boring hours, we would tell stories about songs that we sang, or about cooking and food.

In November 1965, a new group of detainees was brought in, so now we filled every single block in the prison; we outnumbered the ‘real criminals’ of Wirogunan prison. We learnt that the URECA-CHTH building, which was beside the prison, and the Vreedenberg Fort, were being used as holding centres for prisoners. We inhabitants of block A now had to move to block L. There were also some SOBSI (Serikat Organisasi Buruh Seluruh Indonesia, All-Indonesia Trade Union Federation) prisoners in block L.

Our hope of being sent back home got no response from the prison guards. We got angry and lost control, and our behaviour turned strange, especially because we did not have enough food. We often destroyed the dishes and would make a huge racket when food time drew near.

From the time of the arrival of the new detainees, food rations had decreased. Whereas before our rations had been the same as the criminals, now they were the same as the new detainees. We no longer got the ‘extras’. We were discriminated against: it was as though the political detainees were lower than criminals. To guard against individualism and to foster solidarity, we would always eat in groups of three or four, the groups forming automatically before eating.

On Christmas Eve 1965, when all the detainees were looking forward to visits from their families, what happened instead was a visit from the Military Police (POMAD PARA Polisi Militer Anggota Angkatan Darat) from Jakarta who wanted to interrogate the prisoners at Wirogunan prison. Interrogation meant torture. The interrogations were carried out in each separate block, locked of course. All we could hear was the sound of torture. This happened again a month later, on the eve of Idul Fitri (23 January 1966).

Detainees of Chinese descent always got extra discrimination and intimidation from the Military Police. Apart from all kinds of torture, they were made to fight each other. Other detainees did not escape this interrogation, except for me perhaps. When they accused me of being in the People’s Youth (Pemuda Rakyat), I explained that I had been in CGMI, and I escaped it.

We spent our days together keeping our spirits up even though we were undernourished. Then we began to barter with the criminals. We would exchange whatever we still had for their food rations. This bartering was met with pro and contra opinions amongst our group. Detainees in other blocks advised us to stop the barter. They said that the food rations the criminals were bartering were actually rations that had been stolen from them. The situation of hunger and torture inspired one of my friends to compose a song titled ‘the bleeding bowl’. This song really affected me and all the detainees in the various blocks. The solidarity between detainees was also evident when someone got a package from their family, and they would divide it up evenly among each group in the room.

And then suddenly I and some others got a summons to be moved. I do not remember exactly when it was, but it was already 1966. It turned out that families had heard the news about the prisoners being moved. In the middle of the night, they were already waiting outside the prison. Sadly, the prisoners and their families could not greet each other because when we emerged out of the prison gates we were immediately ordered to get into the trucks and kneel there with our hands above our heads.

The truck convoy stopped at Lempuyangan station. There were already many soldiers wearing the red berets of the RPKAD (Resimen Para Komando Angkatan Darat, Army Para Command Regiment) there. And we were taken at gunpoint into three connecting train carriages. The red beret soldiers were on guard on top of the carriages and at each side. All the windows were closed and nailed down tight. Before the doors closed, we were given a packet of rice with fried salted soya bean cake.

By morning we had arrived in Cilacap, Central Java. We thought we were going to be killed in some place unknown to us. After getting down from the carriages, we were told to put our hands above our heads, and squat in lines making five columns. And eventually we got to Nusa Kambangan island. Again we were taken by truck, to Kembang Kuning prison.

Together with 40 others, I got room number 14 which was guarded by a trusted prison criminal. When the door was unlocked, we were ordered to clean the prison yard or outside the prison complex. We used this opportunity to look for extra food, like cassava.

Over the next few months, under the guard of the criminal prisoners, we had to get firewood. A friend and I were given the duty of looking for kindling to boil sweet potato. Then my friend got the idea of stealing kindling without our criminal guard knowing, and swapping it for salt with the mothers or wives of the prison officers. At that time, three spoons of salt became capital which could keep one eating group alive for a week. Around July 1966 there was news that there would be conditional release of detainees aged over 50 or under 20. I was in that category.

Together with the others in this category, I was taken to Nirbaya prison, and when we got there we were immediately housed in the blocks prepared in advance. I was in a room in block 3 on the ground level, and the room and the door faced the hall or the arts building on the terrace below.

Those detainees with enough energy were made to clean coconut shells, some of the older ones had to sort and prepare coconut fibre to make doormats. The young detainees who displayed enthusiasm for work were taken to work as domestic servants in the houses of the prison officers.

It was not easy to get chosen to be a servant, it was mainly luck. The situation had forced us to turn into individuals who had lost their tolerance and solidarity. Only a small amount of loyalty and solidarity remained. I was lucky in that I got on well with my workmate in our forced labour lifting stones together. His name was Suroto. He was younger than me, but he was very wise. He once gave me advice, ‘the suffering and torture that we are experiencing are intended to slowly kill our generation, so therefore we must make sure that there is no fighting among us.’

In early August 1966, Commander Dalim assigned me to office administration duties. Dalim was the Commander of Security, and he was under the command of the leader of prison I, and the deputy of prison II. He made me administrative assistant.

While working there I got some new experience, namely taking the fingerprints of young prisoners who had died during detention. Their fingerprints were necessary for the death certificates sent to the Regional Military Command (KODAM) in Semarang and then to the families. Now, some of the detainees who had died were still sent food and clothing parcels by their families. So my friends and I thought about how we (detainees) could share them. Eventually, by getting authorisation to go in and out [of administration] without being checked, we were able to pass on the parcels to prisoners who came from the same village or area as the person who had died. Of course we had to do this secretly without being found out by the staff in administration. If the package went through their hands it would disappear, or its contents would diminish, because they stole things.

At the end of 1966, I was still busy working in administration. When my duties there were done, I would do some drawing outside of the prison. This gave me the spirit to endure life at Nusa Kambangan. Apart from that, I was able to use my art to get some more nourishing food. I did everything I could to stay healthy.

At the end of 1967, all detainees older than 50 years or younger than 20 years were summoned. The word was that we were going to be sent back to Java. It turned out I was on that list. Together with hundreds of other prisoners we were taken to Sodong harbour on Nusa Kambangan. The guards officially handed us over to the Central Java Regional Military Command.

We were taken to the train station near Cilacap. We marched in two lines. It was extremely difficult to get into the carriage because everyone was pushing at the door. We passed station after station. At one station somewhere, the train stopped for quite a while because we had to wait for adjustment of the track. Then some food sellers started giving us their food for free. We fought over that food. The soldiers guarding the carriages just let it be.

Our hopes of returning to Yogyakarta were dashed because the train did not stop at Tugu station in Yogya. It turned out that our destination had been Tawang Station in Semarang all along. When we got there, we were ordered to quickly get into trucks and squat neatly. We had no idea where we were being taken to, because in that squatting position we couldn’t see the direction we were going, or the road.

Eventually, after a long trip, we were put into an old Dutch fort in the area of Ambarawa, Semarang. We became inhabitants of what was called ‘KAMSING’ (Kamp Pengasingan, Camp of Exile) IV Ambarawa under the authority of Diponegoro Military Command.

‘Ambarawa, town of my memories, is witness to my suffering. I will never forget the cool evening breezes piercing my soul’. These words are from a song a fellow prisoner composed in the Ambarawa camp. This song built a strong emotional connection between the 1965 military detainees accused of involvement with the communist party or the coup who were already in the camp, and the 1965 political prisoners. The sincere solidarity the military detainees showed us when they saw our condition upon arrival from Nusa Kambangan, made us feel as though we had found an important lost treasure.

Among the political prisoners installed in the western block was the oldest, a man aged 66 named Warsiman, who had been moved there from Jakarta. He would enthusiastically give us young ones advice that inspired us, saying, ‘You must have strong bones and brilliant minds to survive imprisonment’.

Because of this, we young prisoners did our best to restore our mental and physical health in Ambarawa by getting an increase in the food parcels sent by our families, and by sport. We practiced volley ball and became Ambarawa Camp’s undefeated volley ball team.

In the middle of 1968 the political prisoners were photographed and had their fingerprints taken for administration purposes. At the same time, we heard that prisoners aged 50 and over had been released. We had no idea whether it was true that they had been released or just moved to another prison.

Then a further release happened. This time it was the army military police prisoners (POMAD PARA, Polisi Militer Anggota Angkatan Darat) who were released and immediately given new assignments (fully reinstated with uniforms and weapons) as ‘platoon guards’ (tonwal, Peleton Pengawal) to check the food packages sent by families. In the beginning, we all thought that because the ones doing the checking were our own friends, they would be sure to treat us well. But we were wrong 180 degrees. Before, a package would never be damaged when it was examined, after our friends were made ‘guards’, the packages were smashed.

At Ambarawa, my work assignments kept changing. In early 1969, the military prisoners and the political prisoners were put to work building an arts centre for performances, administration buildings, and an accommodation block for the families of the prison guards. So I was a builders’ labourer.

Then the Camp Commander asked me to become a tailor. I had been recommended for this work because when I had been in Nirbaya prison, I was given that work. I was also asked to be a domestic servant in the house of First Lieutenant Abdul Aziz who was in charge of camp logistics.

On another occasion, I was made to work in a small food kiosk near the Ambarawa Catholic convent. This was when I was able to meet my mother. She told me about the suffering my family had gone through since I left. Our meeting, even though coloured by sadness, was the most significant moment in strengthening my resolve to keep going.

Once more we heard rumours about release and movement of prisoners. But by now we all knew well what New Order laws meant, and that ‘release’ meant to remain a prisoner, but be moved to a new place of detention. There was also the news that those grouped as category B prisoners were to be sent into exile.

I have no idea how I ended up being put in this category. I was taken by truck back to Nusa Kambangan. Over the following days, while in transit, I and some others were ordered to decorate some of the prison building walls. After we had been together for a few days, it became clear that our classifications were determining where we were going to be sent. We were in the second group to be sent off to Buru Island.

We were given kapok pillows. I was given the task of writing numbers on the pillows with black ink. We were also given uniforms for our departure, namely short-sleeved shirts and long trousers. If the clothes were too big or too small, well too bad, what was important to them was the fact that we all looked the same, wearing brown. We had to carry our things packed tight, as our two hands had to be free. So our pillows and clothing were wrapped up inside our mats and tied however we could, and we carried them on our backs.

At last the awaited day of departure arrived and around the end of December 1969, the ‘chosen prisoners’ boarded the ship Tobelo which was anchored at sea in Segoro Anakan. But unlike our usual conditions, once on board we were treated in a friendly way by the guards. We got exactly the same food as them, with nutritious dishes.

On the fifth day, with moderate speed, fair weather and relatively calm seas, the Tobelo was sailing freely. Then, in the middle of Kayeli Bay, the ship dropped anchor. We were ordered to disembark. Landing craft had been prepared to take us to Namlea which was the harbour on the northern bay. From the pier to Transito – our transit accommodation while awaiting allocation – we were guarded by a battalion from the Pattimura Military Command, most of whom were Ambonese. After our registration was finally complete, we were divided into three units: Wanapura, Wanareja and Wanayasa. Each unit was to house 1000 prisoners.

The news went around that the New Order was making the island of Buru into a project clearing the jungle and swamps for rice production, with dry fields for other crops. The unit in charge was called Bapreru (Badan Perencanaan dan Rehabilitiasti Pulau Buru, Body for the Administration of Buru Resettlement and Rehabilitation). Bapreru was headquartered in Namlea, headed by Major Rusno who arrived with the first group of political prisoners in July 1969. Bapreru prepared a warehouse for food, tools and equipment. Another semi-platform warehouse was built on the edge of Waiapu swamp.

I was among the 500 or so young prisoners, high school graduates and students from agricultural high schools (SLTA) who were housed at Unit 4, Savana Jaya. At the time, no one wanted to be the commander of this unit, because they doubted that we could meet the targets of the government program, and this would obstruct their promotion to higher rank after their service at Buru Island.

On the first day we were told to go to our barracks, with each barracks housing 50 people. Each barracks had to have a leader who was appointed by the platoon guard (tonwal). The barracks leader was responsible for us all to be present every roll call morning and evening.

There was one kitchen for every five barracks. At that time, the prisoners who worked in the kitchens had to calculate rations enough for 6 months, because the fate of 500 people was in their hands. The government gave us rations for only 6 months. After that we were to be on our own. We had seeds and seedlings for beans, peanuts, vegetables, soya beans, rice, and corn, all sent from Namlea. And so, with limited tools, we had to transform the Buru wasteland.

As a political prisoner during the New Order regime, I felt as though I was experiencing the suffering our forefathers went through before Indonesia’s independence. It was like the romusha during the Japanese occupation or the forced labour during the colonial period, when people died with no rituals to mark their passing. On the island of Buru, we had to attend roll call morning and evening with no exception if we were sick. Medicines were extremely restricted.

Days and months went by, and unit 4 became the pilot for the planning team to determine where wet rice fields and dry crops would be planted. A team had been formed to survey a planned road from Sanleko to the town of Namlea. This road was to go through mangrove swamps and eucalyptus-covered hills. One of the Bapreru programs was to build a dam on Saibini River. After they surveyed the river to its source, they concluded that there was not enough river flow to irrigate the rice fields planned for unit 4, Savana Jaya.

Baperu’s initial target was self-sufficiency in food after the government subsidy ended. However, this target was threatened because the emergency dam that had been built for irrigation was insufficient. There were reports that the dam had collapsed in the middle of the night because of heavy rain. The Commander ordered all prisoners out to work that night to fix it.

The pressure of forced labour was increasingly inappropriate to our nutrition, particularly when we had not had any rice harvest yet. There was one failure after another in the agricultural sector, so in the end we could eat only our cassava crop.

The agricultural failures were caused by changes in policy from the new unit commander coupled with the cruelty of the replacement guards in the units. The situation was terrible. There were negative thoughts, and growing suspicion between the prisoners. This happened because there was a group of prisoners whose ambition it was to develop good relations with the unit command. They wormed their way into getting their forced labour reduced.

Once, unit 4 received a visit from the Swiss humanitarian branch of Red Cross International. We were all called up, and not permitted to meet the Red Cross visitors. We all had to leave the barracks to work in work placements so that Buru would look habitable and not like a place of torture. The sick bay became a particular focus of attention, even decorated inside and out by the Bapreru health officers.

At that time, Units 1 to 3, which housed the first group of prisoners to be brought to Buru, had succeeded in their planting and harvest. However, they did not enjoy the product of their harvest. This was taken for the business interests of the Bapreru officials. If any political prisoner complained, he would be taken into custody beyond the Namlea eucalyptus hills under extremely tight and cruel guard. Some friends and I once managed to steal some of the harvest stored at Bapreru. There had been over-production because of the ‘success’ of the forced labour program. Luckily, we were never found out.

In 1971, the Commander of Unit 4, Captain Hasan Basri, summoned me. He needed some artists and painters from all the units for the Namlea Fair that Bapreru was putting on. The purpose of the Fair was to promote Buru as an agricultural project and rice warehouse for Eastern Indonesia.

The people in Namlea were enthusiastic about the Fair, especially the outdoor film screenings near the shore at Kayeli Bay. Once the Namlea Fair was over, some of the prisoners and I were asked to make ensigns and posters in Arabic calligraphy with Qu’ranic quotes. We were ordered to draw the Arabic letters by hand, to fill orders from the Bapreru staff.

Because of the strenuous work, I collapsed. I got hepatitis. My friends nursed me, and also force-fed me with healthy food like liver and traditional medicines. After six months, I regained my health.

To help dispel boredom and loneliness, the prisoners developed entertainment like ketoprak (traditional Javanese drama) by former BAKOKSI (Badan Koordinasi Ketoprak Seluruh Indonesia, All Indonesia Ketoprak Association) Mataram members. Others performed ludruk, wayang kulit and dramas inserting jail-type humour. This helped to lessen the burden of the daily, weekly and monthly punishments. The Bapreru Commander also allowed us to play volley ball and football.

In Buru, sports competition between units became a source of healthy fun, and meeting each other also gave us some relief from loneliness. But for the unit commanders, our competitions were an opportunity for gambling. The other entertainment was black and white television, but under strict guard. We were only allowed to watch entertainment programs. We could watch world news and other news but only with the sound turned off. So it was like watching old silent movies.

Shortly after, there was a pilot project to build houses at Savana Jaya village for the prisoners’ families who were to follow them to Buru. These houses were made of wood with tin roofs. They measured about 7 × 6 metres square with a front yard of 3 metres facing the road. A small column monument was built at the housing complex. The day before it was to be unveiled by Baprepu, my friend Rukmono and I were given the job of working overtime to carve the writing on the column.

On day ‘H’, we inmates of Unit 4 were sent far from the place of the opening ceremony. We were sent to other units. From that day on, Savana Jaya was to be only for those political prisoners whose families were there. The other inmates were asked to move to village houses in block D before the first families arrived. I got the house number 57 in block D, which housed 5 prisoners. We thought that this was just for prisoners who were unmarried, but it turned out that many others had to stay, especially those with skills to support village development.

At that time, around 1972 or 1973, the families of political prisoners had begun to arrive and were housed in block A Savanajaya. Some of these prisoners whose families arrived were confused, because now they had to part from their friends in the unit who had so far been with them constantly. They were also sad to see that their families were becoming prisoners in Buru from generation to generation.

Rukmono and I helped carry the children and the women from the boat to shore, as there was no pier. The friends whose families had arrived were too busy crying, tears of mixed sadness and joy. We were also asked to carry the government documentation team’s cameras. Apart from that, we had to decorate the house number 2 in Block A. This was given to the Seyohadi family. He had been appointed the ‘village chief’ of Savana Jaya, and this was going to be filmed for government documentation to be broadcast on national television.

The documentation team also documented the political prisoners at work in the rice fields, and at the saw mill in the forest between units 14 and 15. At units 15 and 16 they documented the farming and agriculture. I was given a cameo role in this documentary film; I had to act that I was meeting friends in the saw mill to tell them about the arrival of the first batch of families. I also had some short dialogue when I asked my friends to request the government, via Bapreru, to send their families in the next batch.

Around 1974, there were visitors from Switzerland who wanted to interview the inmates of unit 4 Savana Jaya, but the authorities would not permit it. We prisoners were told to keep well away from the visitors who were taken to the village clinic which had been prepared in advance. Only a few prisoners were ordered to greet and accompany them, and carry their bags to Sanleko.

The day after the visitors left, there was an extraordinary roll call for all inmates. The Commander, shrieking, demanded to know which prisoner had given a letter written in English to the Swiss visitors, when carrying their bags to the boat that took them to Namlea. The letter was unsigned but described the prisoners’ real situation, saying it was nothing like what they had seen because everything had been staged.

While waiting for the confession, all the prisoners were left standing in the rain. Because no one confessed, the chief guard threatened to use brand new technology to find the culprit – a lie detector. I got really scared, even though it wasn’t me who had written the letter. Over the next few days the search for the culprit went on with prisoners being summoned one by one to the Commander’s office and ordered to write, so their handwriting could be checked against the letter.

At the end of 1974, the prisoners were split up and moved to some units on the Waiapu valley, because there were plans for the arrival of the second batch of families. This second batch arrived in 1975. I was moved to Unit 1 Wanapura, which had rice fields, agricultural fields and the largest garden of all the units, because it was the oldest one. There were 1000 inmates in Unit 1, housed in 11 barracks, and the head was Dalimin. We had to learn to fit in with these inmates in Unit 1 who were mostly farmers.

When there was a change of commander, the new commander brought in cars for the transportation of him and his staff, and some prisoners were taken on as drivers. Because of this, the road from Mako to Savana Jaya village, which passed units 14 to 16, was repaired. The new commander also brought in horse carts, horses and buffalo which were prepared as transport between the units and to help with the farming. Not long after that, we got motorised hand ploughs for ploughing.

Unit 1 got 23 horses and 30 buffalo. I agreed to train and watch the horses that were still wild, because no one else wanted to do it. After my experience with the horses, the camp commander and his staff trusted me to take letters to the commanders of units that could not be reached by motor bike. After my work herding horses, I was raised to be head of barracks and I worked at the unit.

In 1978, Colonel Karyono replaced Colonel Sutikno as Camp Commander. At Unit 1 Wanapura there was a photographer called Mulyadi whose job it was to document the activities of the prisoners. The unit commander asked to be photographed together with the inmates when there was a meal in the rice fields, for him to remember his time of duty in Buru. The photos were not to depict any bad situations there, even though they happened. It had to be a beautiful memory of a place with yellow rice ready for harvest, the rice harvest, and the vegetable crops, or something depicting the prosperity of Buru, because the photos would be scrutinised if they were sent or taken to Java.

A few times, rumours were rife that prisoners were about to be released. Prisoners called Dedi, Keddy and Tarvi had been released from Unit 1 Wanapura and Unit 3 Wanayasa. They were released in extraordinary circumstances, because no other prisoners knew. The word was that the three of them had been spies whose job it was to spy on the other inmates. There was another prisoner called Doctor Merapi who was released but immediately sent to work as a doctor in the clinic at Mako.

The other releases were of prisoners aged over 60. This happened only in unit 5, even though there were many other prisoners over 60 in other units. And actually, the prisoners in unit 5 had been in Buru only since 1976, so only for two years. So the rest of the prisoners called them the ‘tourists’.

Something that cheered us up – apart from awaiting news of being sent home – was when a squad of guards came to the barracks. They asked our forgiveness because they had often punished us, explaining they had to do their duty. They asked for our blessing because they were being sent off to East Timor.

1979 was the year of release for all the prisoners on Buru. So the world would know about it, some humanitarian journalists were invited to Buru to meet prisoners and to explain that they had come to release the communist political prisoners. These journalists said they would not leave Indonesia until the communist prisoners were back home or with their families.

Part 3: release

At the end of 1979, all the political prisoners were sent home, in batches. I had already decided that when I was moved or released I would take with me the tools I thought important and my guitar. My friends had made this guitar for me when I was in the Ambarawa camp.

The prisoners from Central and East Java were taken together by boat to the Tanjung Perak harbour in Surabaya. Captain Doctor Merapi was on board too because some of the sick ones did not want to be left behind in the Mako clinic or Namlea hospital. They preferred to die back at their own homes. In the middle of the journey we were all given suitcases with shoes and a shirt which was not a uniform – we all had different ones.

Eventually we arrived at the destination and were immediately taken to Pancasila sports arena in Surabaya. The Commander of Brawijaya Military Command welcomed us. Then, after the welcoming ceremony, we were given some money and a certificate of release which permitted us to travel to our destinations. We were instructed that when we arrived at our homes we had to report to three different regional authorities, the military (Koramil), the police (Komsek) and the sub-district (kecamatan) government office. We also had to attend regular ‘santiaji’ sessions, which were compulsory reporting plus listening to lectures about loyalty to Pancasila and the state. Actually, having to carry that letter of release which functioned as a permit was not so different from reporting at the camp posts on Buru Island. The only difference was that now we were released and in our places of origin.

We were divided into groups, those going to Semarang and those to Yogyakarta, and taken by bus and army trucks with canopies. We arrived in Yogyakarta at three in the morning, and were immediately greeted and given more advice at the Military Command 72 until 4:30 in the morning.

No one was there to meet me. My friend Wakijo and his parents invited me to stay with them while arranging for papers for a change of address from where I lived before my arrest. The Wirobrajan military office had contacted my last address, but the person who owned the house was terrified and would not admit I had ever lived there. The Military Commander ordered me to stay temporarily at Wirobrajan military command until my papers were sorted out.

In the afternoon I went to the place I used to rent, to meet the owner. She was shocked to see me because she thought I had been dead since 1965. She greeted me warmly and so I ended up not staying at Wakijo’s place or at the Wirobrajan military post. It took me two days to organise the signing of all my papers of residence at the various offices (RT, RT, MPP and Koramil). I became a permanent resident in the area of Wirobrajan. I was not allowed to leave Yogyakarta for one month, and I had to attend the ‘santiaji’ sessions every week at the local police station in Wirobrajan.

Then the santiaji courses were reduced to once a month. But we were not allowed to skip class. There were about 40 or 50 of us, all ex political prisoners from Buru whose Identity Cards had stamped on them ‘ET’ for Ex-Tapol’ (ex political prisoner), who had to attend these sessions that ran from seven in the morning until 8:30 at night. And at the end of them we had to read out the Guidelines for Understanding and Implementing Pancasila, which were known as P4 (Pedoman Penghayatan Pengamalan Pancasila).

I stayed for a month at the house of Uncle Jayusman and his wife, who were teachers at junior and senior high school. Uncle Jayusman sent news to my mother in Blora that I had been released and was now staying with him. My mother came immediately. When we met, she asked me to go with her to Blora to attend the wedding of my younger sister. I agreed. I took the risk of leaving Yogyakarta.

When I returned to Yogyakarta, I met Hasyim who had previously also been in prison in Nusa Kambangan and then in the Ambarawa camp. He had been sent home in 1968 and was now a successful businessman. He invited me to start up a business in silver and batik painting, which were trendy at the time. We opened the Hasyim-Leo gallery. In order to learn something about batik, Hasyim sent me to Sutrisno, a batik artist who had become a businessman and the owner of the Galereas De Belas Artes.

Not long after that, the local priest in Wirobrajan, Sugiyarto, introduced me to Oni Ponirah who was also an ex prisoner, from the women’s prison in Plantungan. In 1980 we married. Even though we both worked – my wife doing child care – our income still was not enough to live on and we had to ask for help. So we lived at my in-laws’ house.

My wife gave birth to our first child on 12 February 1981, a daughter who we named Pipit Ambarmirah. The birth of my daughter spurred me on to get ahead in life. Sutrisno advised me to work more on my creative talents and to add to my income by helping out with poster design at the Sanggar Seni Seniman Merdeka [studio of independent artists]. And sure enough, I began to get swamped with orders for posters whenever there was a state celebration for anniversaries of major cities in Indonesia.

Actually, I was hoping to get invitations for posters outside of Yogyakarta, but as a former political prisoner I had to get permission whenever I left the city. I avoided this whole permit process, because if the studio knew of my identity as a former political prisoner, there would be unwanted consequences.

In mid 1981 my family and I rented a house in Sleman. In this new house, I started to make my own batik paintings and secured a place in the batik painting market in Yogyakarta. My income was enough to cover an extension on the rental of our house. Our second daughter was born in 1982. I named her Nilo Anjarwarih.

For the Independence Day celebrations (17 August) in 1983, a friend invited me to Jakarta to help decorate the floats for the parade. I joined the group of young artists who mounted an exhibition right in front of the dias where the president and vice-president sat. I was terrified that my identity as an ex political prisoner would be found out. My friends, the young artists, often made fun of anything connected to the Communist Party. I kept away from the media so my identity would not be discovered. I just listened and kept my mouth shut.

I also became an art teacher and taught at the Wirobrajan Christian junior high school (SMP BOPKRI, Badan Oesaha Pendidikan Kristen Republik Indonesia). I really valued the profession of teaching, even though the pay was bad. In 1985 I changed my teaching job to work with disabled children at the orphanage on the road to Kaliurang run by the Foundation of Bethesda Hospital.

Once, when my wife was staying with one of our children who was in Bethesda Hospital, she got called to attend one of the santiaji sessions. I went myself and asked for her to be excused because she was with our child in hospital. I was rebuked because I was there representing someone else, even though this was my wife. A few days later we got a summons and the family went to the local district office.

Another day, the Commander of the Military Command in Sleman came to our place because he had received a report from Mantrijeron Command that we had moved without getting the required permission. I was ordered to request permission to move, because ex political prisoners were not like ordinary citizens, and these were the rules. As a result, a few days later, the local village head and the local head of security who had known us for more than five years at Nologaten Catur Tunggal in Depok, Sleman, said that reluctantly he had to ask us as a family not to extend our rental on the house once the lease expired, and to move back to Mantrirejon.

This affected my business, because my batik paintings had begun to take off. I also lost the foreign students I had studying batik. Meanwhile, my batik paintings which I signed ‘LEO’ were already being distributed all over Europe. My paintings depicted Indonesian social life, and they were promoted in Holland, made into a coffee-table book and reviewed by a Dutch magazine. My friend Johan, a Dutchman whose wife was Indonesian, also exhibited my paintings at the Indonesian-French restaurant, in collaboration with Kusni Sulang, an Indonesian exile in Paris.

I then started to help drawing for the serial comics in SAMIN magazine by Moh. Farid and Yayak. The stories were about exploitation of child labour. Soon after, the contract finished and I stopped teaching the disabled children. In 1990 when the lease ran out on my house, my wife and four small children and I, were forced to move back to live with my in-laws in Mantrijeron.

The authorities in Yogyakarta continued to discriminate against political prisoners residing there. We had to continue going to the santiaji sessions even though in other places this was no longer required. When we asked about this, we were told ‘we have not received any instruction from the central government.’ The Commander of the Military Command in his briefing to us said that political prisoners were now considered to be good citizens and were given the right to vote in elections. We were required to vote for Golkar because this would continue the progress of development. I no longer went to the local authorities to arrange for travel permits. I thought the only important thing was to attend these santiaji sessions.

I did all kinds of work to support my family and get my children through school. I got work making posters and interior decoration at Batam, as part of Minister Habibie and Tutut Soeharto’s project. Our group was made up of 20 young artists. I also once worked at Surabaya Fair. Most recently I joined an NGO in Timor Leste. I had to teach art. I worked for 18 months in the town of Same and another six months in Dili. My wife asked me not to go back to Timor Leste, but to work in Yogya and stay with her and the children.

My eldest has graduated from university now, is married, and lives in Kota Gede with her husband. My second and third children have also graduated from university, and the youngest is finishing his study at the Indonesian Institute of the Arts (Institut Seni Indonesia, ISI) in the Interior Design department. Even though my wife and I are former political prisoners who were never tried, and were inhumanely treated by the New Order, we have managed to build our lives like other citizens.

Transcriber and interviewer: Leo and Pipit Ambarmirah.

Writers: Anandito Reza B. and Putu Oka Sukanta.

Breaking the Silence: Survivors Speak about 1965–66 Violence in Indonesia

   by Putu Oka Sukanta