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

Chapter 8


Always loyal to my country

The events of 30 September 1965 completely destroyed Nadue’s future as a teacher of young girls.

On the 24th November 2010, a small group of us studying Women and Culture, made up of Ina, Pulu and Papa Pius, rode motorbikes to Kampung Keka. We went through guava plantations along the Para River and eventually came to a beautiful platform house. We asked the woman there for directions to the house of Mama Nadue, and as luck would have it, this woman was Mama Nadue’s daughter. Her name was Edo. It turned out that Edo had been Ina’s friend when they were both at junior high school. Edo was extremely surprised to see us, and immediately went to call her mother who was taking a bath in the river in front of the house. We were invited to sit on the back verandah. About fifteen minutes later, Nadue arrived wearing a casual dress with red flower patterns and her hair still wet. We greeted each other in the Sabu way, touching noses. Ina looked at Nadue, her body and face thin, but her eyes alert and sharp, even though it seemed she bore a heavy burden. She seemed fit. Ina said that she remembered that in her childhood Mama Nadue was known as an excellent teacher of algebra and English. The gathering was a reunion between Nadue, Ina and Papa Pius, especially between Ina and Edo who had not met since they finished junior high school in 1980. Papa Pius, our translator, introduced himself and explained to Nadue the purpose of our visit. When Ina introduced herself, Nadue immediately asked after Ina’s mother-in-law.

Nadue eagerly talked about her childhood from the time she was adopted by the Soleman family – moving between Rote, Baun and Kupang and attending primary school at Airnona and Bonipoi. She then went on to vocational high school for teachers (Sekolah Guru Atas, SGA) in Kupang. She spoke about the physical abuse she suffered from her aunt, Martha Soleman, but her determination never to give up on her ideals. She continued her schooling through to graduation. Then she asked to return to Sabu to work as a teacher there. Here she interrupted her story to again ask after Ina’s mother-in-law, Mama Sia. Ina explained that her mother-in-law was fine, but had been in a wheelchair since October 2007.

When the family stories came to an end, Papa Pius returned to the purpose of our visit, and gave her a letter from the Women’s Network of East Indonesia (JPIT, Jaringan Perempuan Indonesia Timur). Nadue read the letter carefully, paying attention to the letterhead, and finally took out her thick reading glasses. Papa Pius then asked Mama Nadue if she would agree to be interviewed, and for us to record the interview. He then let Ina take over the interview, as Mama Nadue did not need to be interviewed in the Sabu language. Mama Nadue agreed, and Papa Pius sat with us during the interview.

Nadue had never imagined that she could give important information to others. She was extremely honest and open in explaining who she was. Because of this, when she spoke about herself she began to sob. She talked with us about her painful experiences as a result of being labelled ‘communist’ and a Gerwani activist. Her sacking that meant she could never again be a school teacher. More than this, because her husband was murdered, she became a single parent having to support the family and do all the work in the house. Her children and family were stigmatised. ‘We were consumed with emotion at the time’ she said, her voice shaking. As we listened, we were unable to stop the flow of our own tears and cried along with her.

She initially became a member of Gerwani because she was approached by the local head of the Communist Party in Sabu, Uncle Kore, whose wife lived in Nadue’s neighbourhood. Nadue said straightforwardly that the programs of the Communist Party and Gerwani were excellent, and they answered people’s needs. Uncle Kore saw that she would be a good recruit because of her potential as a teacher of mathematics and geography, and her mastering of foreign languages (English and German). Over and again during the interview, Nadue said, ‘that was my sin, leading to my condition now’. She was speaking through her tears. Ina interrupted, ‘None of this is because of anything you did wrong, but because you were a victim of events.’

Throughout the interview, Nadue’s daughter Edo also talked about her suffering through discrimination as a ‘communist kid’ and ‘Gerwani daughter’, at church, school and in society. Her younger brother who became a civil servant was also marginalised in the same way.

We ended the interview by praying together. Ina embraced Nadue while praying. It was already six in the evening when we took our leave. Before leaving the house, Ina remembered something she wanted to ask. She went back and embraced Nadue and asked her whether, as a Gerwani leader she had a tattoo on her thigh. Nadue said she did not. We then again took our leave. We are using our interviewee’s familiar name, Nadue, with her permission.

This is the way she told us about her life.


When I was born, I was called Ati, which was a common name for Sabu girls. But my everyday name was Nadue. When I was baptised, I was given the name Maria. I was born in the kampung of Para on Saturday, 20 December 1934, the child of my father Daud and my mother Linje. I was the second of six children. My father had completed primary school in Kupang, yet he decided to become a farmer because he felt freer running his own life. My uncle and aunt on my father’s side had attended school in Makassar and Batavia [now Jakarta. Trs.].

I lived with my grandmother when I was small. I was a tomboy and liked to do things that were not normal for girls, like swimming in the river when it was in flood, or fighting with my friends, and I loved climbing trees. My grandmother (on my father’s side) decided to tell my father about these hobbies of mine, and I got a few beatings from him.

I was born and raised during the Dutch, Japanese and revolutionary times. When I was about six I started primary school in Nahagadai-Seda-Sabu. I was in the fourth class when the Japanese arrived. If the Japanese saw a pretty young girl, they would try to get her as a ‘comfort woman’. They also kicked people out of their houses so they could live there. My father was summoned by the Japanese army because he dared to scold Japanese soldiers on horseback for ruining his rice fields. All we could do was pray, not knowing if father would return home or not, because we all knew about the cruelty of the Japanese.

We really felt World War II in Sabu. We could hear the allied bombs falling on Seba harbour in 1942. When there were Japanese ships in the harbour, the local houses were all on fire. The people living near Seba harbour ran to find shelter in the school or other places. Some of them dug shelters. I had to stop school because of the war.


A year later, my father’s sister, Mama Soleman, came to Sabu and asked my father if I could go to Kupang with her. My aunt had graduated from school in Makassar. Her husband, Soleman, who was from Rote, was a policeman. They took me to Rote, and I went to primary school there. The school in Ba’a was a long way from the village of Oemau where we lived, but I walked there and back, by myself, every day. The path was hilly. The school was near the hospital and the prison. The headmaster was Pak Bartels. I was the only one from Oemau to go to school in Ba’a. I was afraid walking that distance by myself because I had to pass groups of drunken men on the way. I used to always pray that I would be safe. And, luckily, I was. One day one of the drunks set fire to a beehive just when I was going past. I was stung by the bees, and swelled up. But nothing could stop me wanting to go to school.

In 1947 my adoptive parents moved to Baun-Amarasi because my adoptive father had been fired from his job as police chief in Rote. He applied to work in the government office of the Amarasi sub-regency in Timor, and was accepted. So we moved to Kupang, and lived in the kampung of Fontain, one kilometre from the town centre.

In Kupang, I entered junior high school in Airnona, four kilometres from home. My life in Kupang changed radically. My aunt started getting lazy and kept giving me more and more heavy work to do. I had to do all the housework, including fetching water from the river for the house. The path from the river to our house was very steep. I also had to cook, clean the yard and throw out the rubbish. I had to fill the bathing tub with water, do the washing, and then water the plants – all with water I carried from the river. I had to do this work before I left for school and after I got home.

My aunt would hit me, and once hit me on the nose. I have the scar to this day. But my adoptive father treated me well. And even though I had all that housework to do, and had to walk a long way to school, nothing diminished my desire for schooling.

In 1952 I graduated from junior high school. I registered for senior high school in Kupang, at the state school (SMA Negeri). The headmaster was Simon Kitu Tibu Luji who also came from Sabu. He was also headmaster of the vocational school for teachers (SGA, Sekolah Guru A). When this school was opened in Kupang, I was already in the second class of senior high, but I took the entry test for SGA and passed. So I changed schools, and because of the different curriculum, I had to start again at first year and graduated in 1957.

When I graduated, my adoptive parents’ married daughter asked me to work for them in their home. I asked myself, ‘What’s the point of studying so hard at school just to be a servant?’ So I looked for information about work opportunities, and found that a junior high school had opened in my own village in Sabu in 1955.

I went to meet a prominent Sabu person living in Kupang, Pak E.R. Here Willa, and told him about my longing to become a teacher. I said, ‘Sir, I have graduated from SGA but still found no job. I would love to teach in Sabu and become a civil servant.’ He said, ‘well, that’s great, because as it turns out we still need teachers.’ He gave me a letter of introduction. Happy, I returned home and took my leave of my adoptive parents. They were not at all pleased about this, and regarded me as ungrateful, saying, ‘even a dog knows how to wag its tail to show thanks, but not you. Now you think you’re somebody you just sweet-talk your parents so you can go back home to Sabu’. But nothing could stop me. I wanted to work as a teacher.


I left Kupang for Sabu by boat in 1957. Bearing my letter of introduction, I reported to the headmaster of the state junior high school (SMP Nasional), Leopol Lay. I was taken on as a teacher in an honorary capacity. I was the first female to teach arithmetic, algebra and history. I also mastered English. Later there was another female teacher, so there were two of us. Her name was Naema, and she is still alive today. The SMP shared the same location as the vocational school for teachers, about 300 metres from Seba harbour.

The desire of young people for schooling at that time was very strong, and was the same for boys and girls. In the first intake of the junior high school there were 12 boys and 12 girls. Some of the village children had to walk a total of about 30 kilometres to school and back, but they never gave up and were hungry for schooling. The long distance was no obstacle to them. There were more girls than boys in the vocational school for teachers (Sekolah Guru B) because on graduation you could immediately work as a teacher. My fellow teachers came from Sabu, Java and Bali. Their dedication was extraordinary. In Sabu, they built the future world of education for the people and for the nation.


In 1960 I married a fellow teacher, because we had fallen in love. The man I chose as my husband was called Rohi, and he was one of the first intake of students in the vocational high school for teachers in Sabu. He was teaching in a primary school run by the Evangelical Christian Church in Timor in Lobodei, East Sabu. In those days, it was common for teachers to wed because we often met, and teachers were highly revered as sources of knowledge. My husband was younger than me, but he was a good man, always with a smile on his face. We were posted in different places. I was in the west of Sabu and my husband was in the east. But this was not a problem in our marriage. However, not long after we married my husband moved from Lobodei to the Evangelical church primary school in Ei Wou which was near our home in Keka.

We were blessed with three children: Rihi, born on 3 August 1961; Edo born on 8 February 1964 and Idje in January 1966. The year Rihi was born, 1961, was a year of good fortune for me, because that was also when I got the official notification from Jakarta of my appointment as a teacher and a raise.

Introduction to the Communist Party and Gerwani

My husband and I were first introduced to the Communist Party and Gerwani through our teaching friends. In the 1960s, all the national political parties were in Sabu. Most of the party organisers were teachers and civil servants. One of the central figures in the Communist Party, perhaps even the leader, was Uncle Kore. He often came to our house and talked about the Communist Party programs. To be frank, my husband sympathised with their cause because their programs answered the people’s needs: like land issues, education, and assistance in bad times through agricultural assistance and food. Uncle Kore would come to our house for discussions after school, and this was one way he would share Party information with us. After my husband declared his support, Uncle Kore talked to me about programs for the advancement of women. I accepted information about the organisational structure of Gerwani (Indonesian Women’s Movement) and it looked good and interesting to me. Uncle Kore also said that all the wives of Communist Party members joined Gerwani.

Another person who promoted Gerwani’s theme of women’s advancement was Uncle Welem, who fired me up with visions of a better future apart from being just a female teacher. Seeing the reality of women who were illiterate and backward and with the information about women’s advancement from Gerwani, I was drawn, consciously or not, to accept Uncle Kore’s invitation to become the leader of Gerwani for Sabu. Uncle Kore himself chose me. The deputy head was Susi Med’o, and I forget who the others were when we first formed the Gerwani branch there.

Sabu society has both matrilineal descent lines called hubi (the name of the female palm blossom) and patrilineal descent lines called udu. So women and their eldest male relatives have an important role in organising social groups. Female organisations are called the house of tegid’a (ammu tegid’a). They meet annually to renew relations; renew information about weaving, descendants and hierarchy within the descent group; food, birth, and group ethics. For instance, sons may marry only descendants of their mother’s descent group. The organisation is led by a woman whom the group considers capable. The involvement of Sabu women in social organisations is culturally long-established, and nothing strange or new.

Probably this was why my husband had no objections to me becoming the local Gerwani leader even though our children were still small. Moreover, he witnessed Om (Uncle) Kore’s dedication in furthering Gerwani’s programs for women’s development.

One day Uncle Kore asked me to give a public outdoor speech for Independence Day and the anniversary of the Communist Party. I forget which year it was. I left my children Rohi and Edo with a neighbour so that I could attend.

I still remember some of my speech, for instance: ‘Indonesian women should not be content with just the three basic things: giving birth, caring for children, and cooking in the kitchen. They must fight alongside their husbands for the development of the women of Indonesia. In the past, our primary duties were to marry, look after the children and the kitchen, but no more!’ Independence Day celebrations used to be really festive, with all kinds of dance performances, cock-fighting and a fair. All schools, civil servants and political party officials came along.

I imagined all those eyes looking at me, confused by my speech, surprised, or angry … I didn’t know. But anyway, I did my duty and talked about the important ideas of women progressing beyond their biological function. Probably my speech was the topic of people’s conversation, at schools, at church. But my presence there that day later brought disaster to my life.

When I finished giving my speech, I went home to enjoy my own routine duties as mother and teacher. I never sought out new members [for Gerwani] or held meetings in houses as people later accused me.

In 1964–1965 Sabu suffered a drought, and there was famine. I was fortunate as a civil servant and our family was better off than most. People were looking for anything at all to eat, like palm leaves, tamarind seeds and other plants.

A dark time that buried dreams

In late 1965, I went to Kupang to visit family. I was pregnant at the time with my youngest child, Imanda. In Kupang, I heard on the radio that there had been a coup. A few days later I got news from my family in Sabu telling me not to come home because the situation there was chaotic. My family said that there was a story going around that I had carried a bomb in my trousers. And I never even wore trousers! This made me sad and anxious, but there was nothing else for me to do but go back to Sabu and my family. Heavily pregnant, in December 1965 I took a boat to Sabu with other passengers. Arriving in Sabu, I got off the boat together with the other passengers. I could see a crowd waiting on the wharf, and they attacked, chased and terrorised a man, Tol Tari. I have no idea where they took that man. Luckily I myself did not suffer any physical violence. I was also not detained like my other relatives, or like my husband, so some people were jealous and said ‘it’s okay for her, she can just sit around at home!’

The reason why I was not put in detention is that when the authorities came to take me, I asked permission to see the District Head to discuss my pregnancy. I asked him ‘What happens if I give birth in detention?’ And he said, ‘You can stay at home for the present, but after you have given birth you will be put in detention.’

And sure enough, after I had given birth to my youngest child, at around five in the evening the authorities came, with the mob, to my house and took me to the hospital complex and the prison. I was arrested with no warrant or explanation. I just went along. I took my baby with me, and my family came too, because I really felt that this was the day of my death. I asked for my family to come so that if I was killed, I could give them my baby to take home. On the way, under heavy guard, I passed Pastor Kana Lomi who had been accused of being a communist. He gave me a sign, his hand slicing against his throat, that my husband had been killed. We used signs because we had all been told to keep quiet. This sign made me completely mute, and we could only look at each other. It felt as though my heart was sliced to little pieces while trying to stifle a scream of pain at the news of the death of my husband and the father of my children. My life went black with sadness. And meanwhile I was being rounded up like a criminal without knowing what I was supposed to have done.

At the hospital I was subjected to incredible treatment – my long hair was cut. In those days, women’s long hair was their crowning glory. Without any reason, an army person cut my hair short in a rough way. I still feel the stigma of that hair-cutting incident to this very day, when women with short hair are nicknamed ‘Gerwani’.

After the haircut, as a punishment for some crime I did not know, I was told I had to report to the authorities. There I was asked strange things, like: ‘Did you hear about the blood-thirsty incident? You must have heard about it from your husband. If you were a man, I would beat you!’ and he swung a long sharp-toothed blade called a ‘sting ray tail’ (ekor pari) by my face. To every question, I answered that I didn’t know, because indeed that was a fact.

Apart from being terrorised, I was also made to clean the toilets and bathrooms at the police station, the district offices, the church, and the houses of officials. One day, when I was cleaning the complex of the Seba town church, an old Dutch building, one of my former students who was then the district head (camat) was in charge of our punishment. She said, haughtily, ‘How come these women are allowed to go home?’

She acted as though she knew all the ins and outs of what had befallen me. Not long after that, the head of the State secondary school (SLTP) sacked me from my teaching position. I did not accept that, so I went to Kupang to the regional office of the Education Department to inquire about my status. I met Pak Adjip. He called me over:

‘Hey … where are you teaching now?

‘I’m not teaching any more, Uncle.’

‘Whaaaat? … Why is that? Now let me see … tomorrow you just come to the office and pick up a formal letter and then go back to Sabu.’

Then I visited Pak Dan, also on the staff at the regional education office, at his home, and he greeted me warmly and said, ‘Come to the office tomorrow, okay?’

So I returned to Sabu and presented my letter to the District office of education. But the answer I got was the same as before: rejection. I wanted to scream at the difference of information between the offices in Kupang and in Sabu.

In 1972, I tried once again in Kupang, asking about my status at the Provincial office of Education there. I met my old high school friends, including Pak Piga Rade. This is what he told me. ‘I am terribly sorry, but there is nothing we can do. You must know yourself the current political situation. You are already in your 40s now, so you should give up trying to get these papers through.’

When I heard his reply, I gave up all hope. There was nothing more I could do. My only thought was my children. I was a single parent but I had no income to support them.

My futile experience of seeking justice made me despair. And in this state of deep depression, I burnt all my documents that had any connection with my work as a teacher.

I had no skills in agriculture or weaving like most Sabu women. I had to move and make a living from farming. The fluctuating economy and my meagre finances meant my family covered the costs of my children’s education, and brought them up. I felt like a worthless parasite, a burden on others, while also blaming myself, seeing this as my sin. Even though I did not understand why I felt I had sinned. Perhaps my family and even my children did what I did: they secretly blamed me as the instigator of this disaster. It affected not only me, but the lives of my children and my extended family. To all the members of my family, I beg forgiveness. This was not my wrongdoing, this was something I could never understand, why I experienced all this bitter pain. And I am thankful for their support for the children.

One day Rohi was teased by a policeman when he went for a test to enter the police force. The policeman said ‘Your father was Communist, wasn’t he? You’ll see soon enough …’ Rohi went home and cried. He said. ‘Why did our father have to be a Communist? We are all victims.’

And whenever something happened at Church or in the community, people would always say, ‘This is because they are communists!’ My children would hear this and feel stigmatised.

Self confidence

For 45 years now I have kept quiet about the wickedness of the State towards me and my family. And then, suddenly people came and wanted to listen to me. This was impossible. When on 24 November 2010 I heard that there were people doing research, I was suspicious about their purpose in coming to visit me in my home. They brought a letter, which I scrutinised carefully. There were friends of my teacher Pa Pius; Ina, my daughter Edo’s friend from junior high school days, and Pulu, a Sabu girl. I willingly poured out my tragic story, which filled my heart to the brim because it had been stored there for such a long time.

Then I had the chance to go to Kupang. Full of trepidation, like someone sick with old age, I finally steeled myself to go to Kupang. My children and my grandchild who is studying theology at a university in Jakarta encouraged me to go. So with my daughter Edo accompanying me, we flew to Kupang and at the airport we were met by the team, Pak Putu Oka, and my son Rohi.

This first friendly meeting in late March 2011 in Kupang began to heal the wounds in my heart and Edo’s, through the stories we shared, crying together, gasping for breath and embracing in prayer, and then agreeing with Putu Oka and his team to expose the story of my life.

It turns out that I am still someone, that there are still people who want to listen to this bitter history, who believe in me. And what is most heartening is to meet with friends from Alor, Kupang, Soe, Sumba and Jakarta. It turns out that I was not the only one to suffer this State crime, but there were so many people. So now I have found my self-respect as a human being. My dream is to return to Sabu and help friends and relatives with the information I got in Kupang that we are victims of State crime. I feel the voice in my heart saying over and again, ‘I never did anything disloyal to my country or to my people.’

Now I live in peace, after that meeting in Kupang enlightened me. I am a new person with a sense of calm, enjoying my children who have their own families; some work for government, some in the private sphere. Edo and her family agreed to return to Sabu and we have become close, they look after me in my old age; this is a great joy to enjoy old age, thanks be to God.

I pray that I have the strength to go on until God calls me to His bosom; that I can accept all that passes with self-control, because I am emotional; that I can accept this reality patiently. Whatever happens, I hope Ina will pray for me. Please Lord, forgive the sins of my children and my family. Let us live in harmony.

Interviewers and transcribers: Pius, Ina dan Pulu.

Writers: Ina and Pulu.

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

   by Putu Oka Sukanta