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

Chapter 9


Clarity at last

The sadistic tragedy that happened in Indonesia is now in the past. For decades, the stories of those who were imprisoned and murdered have always been told as though they deserved to be killed because they betrayed their country. The events themselves have begun to disappear from memory, or are made to disappear, including by those who experienced them first hand. They, or their families, want to forget the savage massacres.

But one afternoon in November 2010, three people could be seen walking in the public cemetery in Oesao, a village in the Babau district, about 30 kilometres from the provincial capital of Kupang, [West Timor. Trs.]. They seemed to be searching for something. One of them approached a house close by. Soon after, she emerged with Rina, a woman of about 60. Rina was wearing a casual blue day dress and her teeth were red from the betel nut she was chewing. The other two people came up and chatted with her. The three were members of the Women’s Network of East Indonesia (JPIT, Jaringan Perempuan Indonesia Timur) who were seeking stories about victims of the 1965 incident and burial sites. Rina pointed out a place near the graveyard. This plot projected outwards, and was planted with bidara trees. One of the JPAI team took a photograph. Rina also gave information about the names of people killed and buried in that hole. But during the conversation she became uncertain, and asked them to check with her husband because he had been present as a prisoner at that very incident. As her husband was working at the market, they decided to wait for him. Rina asked a friend to fetch her husband from the market.

A while later, Rina’s husband, Niko, arrived. He looked old, with greying hair, a lined face, and many teeth missing. He pointed out a different burial hole to the one his wife had shown. He gave extremely detailed information about the number of victims, their names, and the time of the massacre. Hearing his story, the team wanted to talk with him further, and Niko invited them to his house.

Niko’s house was small, simple, but comfortable. He had a flower garden in front, and a grassy yard. In front of his house was a kiosk where he sold snacks, shampoo, flour, bottled water and other things. This kiosk belonged to Niko. Rina worked there every day while her husband traded in the Oesao market. The visitors were invited inside the house. They introduced themselves and explained that the purpose of their visit was to seek out the sites of mass slaughter in 1965. Because it was now dusk, they decided to meet again the next day as the team had to return to Kupang.

The next day, the team rose early for their journey to Oesao. They went by motor bike. They had to drive through the Oesao market on the way. The market was busy with all kinds of activity. There were people trying to sell their wares to passers-by. Children were running around with plastic bags and offering their services to carry things. In the middle of all this cacophony sat Niko. He was bent over a trolley full of cakes. Every now and then he would get up from his plastic chair to serve a customer. He looked friendly and happy and joked with his customers. Although now 72 years old, he seemed energetic, although his body was no longer as fit as his younger days.

When the team came to the market, Niko’s attention was devoted to his cake stall. But at three in the afternoon when the market began to close, Niko was nowhere to be seen. The JPIT team asked a young woman looking after the cake stall where Niko was, and she said he had gone home to rest. Her name was Lina. She was Niko’s daughter, and she always minded the stall when her father rested.

One morning the team went to the market again to see Niko and buy some cakes. The cakes were truly delicious, and filling, which was just as well as the team had had no breakfast. While munching on cakes, they chatted with Niko. When they shook his hand, they noticed his rough skin, a sign that he did hard work. Time passed quickly and it was suddenly time for Niko to go home and take his rest. The team offered to walk back home with him under the hot sun. Even at his age he easily walked nearly a kilometre from the market to his house. He did this every day.

When they arrived, Rina was minding the kiosk. She greeted everyone warmly and invited them inside. After sitting for a while, she went outside and brought them all some cold bottled water. While drinking, they chatted for a while, and then took their leave as Niko had to rest.

A few days later, the team returned to Niko’s house and discovered that he was sick. His legs were troubling him and he could not walk to the market. He greeted the team, even so, and invited them to chat. Niko was happy to talk about many things, including his past. While he was talking, his son Kris came in. Kris had just returned from working as a motor-bike taxi driver. The team members introduced themselves to Kris and explained the purpose of their visit. Kris sat and joined them, listening to his father’s stories. He was happy because he could hear his father’s life story which he had never before known clearly.

Niko was extremely loving towards his son. According to his wife, Niko spoiled his children, especially his daughters. Niko chose to work himself rather than bother his daughters, and he preferred to walk to market and back rather than ask his children to take him there on the motor bike. But that was how he was. He did not want his children to spend all their time working and forget to enjoy themselves. He wanted his children to grow up carefree and happy, and to have no regrets in the future about their childhood. After remaining quiet for a while, Niko told his story, loudly and full of emotion.

Childhood and marriage

Niko was born to a farming family in Oesao. They lived hand-to-mouth. Because of this, when he married Rina in 1963, Niko thought long and hard about how to support his family. As a man, Niko had the responsibility to provide for his wife and family. So he worked hard on other people’s rice fields. But he never earned enough, because he had to divide the crop with the landowner. This is why the ambition of Niko and other farmers was to own their own rice fields. This dream seemed possible when the government announced it would give out land to those in need. So Niko and other farmers like him registered their names at the local Village Headquarters, and paid the required sum of 45 rupiah.

Not long after their marriage, Niko and Rina were blessed with a cute, chubby son. Their family life was complete with the birth of a son and heir. In 1965 they had a second son, which made them happier still. But this happiness lasted only a few weeks because of the 30th September affair. This affair was a black page in Niko’s life. It stole his happiness. He had to part with his wife and children. Niko was accused of being an accomplice of the Communist Party that was stealing people’s land. His desire to get his own rice fields was what led him to disaster.

Niko’s arrest: dark times 1965–1966

One day in December 1965, Niko was passing his time as usual, with no sense of foreboding. Suddenly he was jolted by the news that he was going to be arrested for interrogation because of his participation in the 30th September incident. Niko was confused and anxious, and could not think clearly. Together with some neighbours he was taken along to the village headquarters for interrogation. Their arrest was clearly improper, because no one carried a formal warrant. Also, they were given no opportunity to question the reason for their arrest. During the march to the village headquarters Niko didn’t ask the people who had arrested them anything. He remained silent, marching along with many questions running around in his head: ‘What have I done wrong; what could I have done to make them arrest me?’ He could find no answers.

At the village headquarters, (the home of the village head was being used for this, as the building for the village headquarters was not yet built), the people arrested were interrogated by some police they did not know, but who probably came from Kupang. They had questions fired at them, like, ‘Are you a member of the Communist Party? How does the Communist Party operate?’ Pak Niko answered ‘No!’ to the first question, but this did not change anything. The questions were mere formalities because even though he answered no, Niko was not released. He ended up with more interrogation and was then imprisoned.

Our self-respect taken away

Niko and his friends were held at the village headquarters at night, but during the day they were taken back to their homes. At the village headquarters they had to work. They did whatever they were told without question.

They suspected us of being Communists, so they ordered us to do anything they wanted. If they ordered us to pick up shit we would do it. Anyone who opposed them was beaten up. Those who did what they were told were okay.

Not only did they have no right to speak, the only thing they could do was follow orders. Their freedom of speech was taken from them, and space to move limited. Not only that, Niko and his friends had to walk around the village wearing billboards. Villagers came out to look. Many of them jeered, but a few were sympathetic. Niko and his friends were ashamed, because it was as though they were criminals who had to parade their crimes, and because of the severity of those crimes there was no forgiveness for them. The people regarded them as no more than trash, completely worthless and deserving of no respect at all. ‘They saw us as not even human. They would talk to us as though they were talking to some filthy rag.’

The rough treatment dealt to them came not only from the government, but also from the local people. People would beat the prisoners when they came home. Because of this, Niko did not dare to go back home when he was permitted to do so, ‘The people were so arrogant that I preferred to sleep in the cold of the village headquarters rather than go home and get punished by the mob.’

Trucks and the rumble of death

Rrrrem, rreeem, reeeem. The sound of the trucks was like the sound of death to the prisoners. Anyone loaded on to the trucks and taken away would never return. The prisoners heard stories that those taken away were murdered. They were taken blindfolded to Babau, the district centre, then again by truck to the place of slaughter which was already prepared.

When the trucks stopped it was a terrible sound. The horns were the sound of death. When the trucks stopped it was like the instruments of death you hear on the radio. Even the geckos were quiet. The birds went still. The roosters stopped crowing. In 1965 the world was still. The world was still!

Around eight at night, the sound of the trucks, the rumble of death, could be heard, as though summoning them to their death.

When we heard that sound our hair would stand on end and we would experience the most terrible fear. Some of the prisoners would be loaded on to the trucks. We would wait for them to come back, but none of them ever did, to this very day.

Anyone whose name was called quickly climbed up on the high tray of the truck. If they were not quick about it, they would be pushed up from behind. At eight at night, after we had eaten, the trucks would arrive with the army. When someone was called they had to go, and if they went it meant they would be murdered and never come back.

Around mid-December 1965, it was Niko’s turn to be picked up by the truck. Niko was terrified and sad, terrified of death and sad because he had to leave his family – his wife and his baby. He was given the opportunity to go home and say farewell to his family. ‘My heart was in pain to see my family sad. They wept openly before me at my fate. I could not bring myself to wipe away their tears, all I could do was accept the situation.’ Death was now right before his eyes and Niko had to accept it. His family could not accept it, but they could do nothing. They were only poor farmers with no influence. Rina was desperately sad, could not speak, and only prayed. Before Niko returned to the village headquarters, Rina gave him her sleeping coverlet, and Niko gave her his. His heart was heavy taking that piece of cloth, but he took it with him and returned to the village headquarters. The piece of cloth helped him to feel close to his wife and children.

The day felt short, and suddenly it was dusk, and darkness fell. Darkness that filled Niko with dread. Niko did not want the day to become night. He wanted his death delayed. He was in a state of confusion facing his own death. His ears were sharply focused on the sounds around him, dreading the rumble of approaching death. Time moved on, but the rumble of the truck did not come. Niko stayed wide awake all night long, until the dawn light. The dawn turned into day. Niko was still at the village headquarters. In his heart he gave thanks to Jesus and asked himself, ‘why didn’t they come to get me?’

And that was how Niko and his friends spent almost every night through the month of December. They never slept soundly. ‘We were always on full alert, our ears listening out for the rumble of the truck. We were terrified to sleep in case we never woke up again.’

Rina accused

In a state of exhaustion while being detained, Niko had to witness his wife herded into the village headquarters for interrogation. She was interrogated even though she was nursing her baby who was just a few weeks old. While being questioned, she was permitted to go home to feed her baby who was crying with hunger.

It wasn’t even 40 days since the birth. My milk was flowing everywhere. They ordered me to go home to feed my baby. I was very afraid returning home. Because I was terrified, I went straight back as soon as I had fed my baby. I was always scared of them kicking me if they thought I was taking my time.

Niko and his family were powerless to refuse or oppose their treatment by the local authorities. At the time, everyone was terrified. They could only ‘surrender’ to God. ‘Times were harsh. Terrifying! I surrendered my fate. Only God knows. If I have truly done wrong, then kill me.’

When Rina was interrogated about her involvement with the Communist Party or Gerwani (Indonesian Women’s Movement), the questioning went like this:

Q: ‘You know something – your face is pale.’

A: ‘No, sir, I don’t know anything. I don’t know anybody. I have just given birth. I am pale because I have recently given birth.’

Q: ‘You wrote down your name so you could get some land, and now that you are questioned, you go pale.’

A: ‘No sir. I don’t know anything, I have just given birth.’

That’s the way they were treated. Rina was also taken for questioning without any official warrant. Apart from being accused of being involved with the Communist Party and Gerwani, she had to suffer the accusations from Niko’s family. According to her mother-in-law and sister-in-law, Rina was pleased that her husband had been arrested because now she could remarry.

My mother-in-law said that I would be pleased if my husband died so I could marry again. My sister-in-law did not like me, and they were angry because they thought I was just enjoying myself, even though they had no idea of what was going on in my heart.

A bright dawn of freedom

Niko was summoned one morning by the police guarding the village headquarters. They told him that he was free because there was no proof that he was a member of the Communist Party. Niko was taken home. He felt happy and relieved, all his fears of the rumble of trucks disappeared. Now he had to build a new life with his family even though when he was released the authorities said that former detainees were people ostracised by the community. They were returned to the community so they could be reaccepted.

Niko’s family was waiting for him at home, and greeted him with tears of joy. A relative, child, father and husband had returned home. These were the cries of victory of poor people. Rina hugged her husband and cried her heart out. She had thought that they would never meet again. But now her husband was home and they were going to have a happy life.

Niko thought that his release meant that his rights would be truly restored to him. But this was not so. He and others who were released had to report to authorities from 1966 through to 1977. They had to report in that they were still alive, and that they were not doing anything detrimental to the State. Apart from that, every Independence Day, on the 17 August, they had to take part in the official ceremony at the office of the District Head. Niko and his friends had to stand apart in a special line, as former Communist Party members. This was particularly difficult to bear, because their own children also had to take part in the ceremony.

They had released us, it was their decision, not ours. We were nobody. We had to report. On the 17 August we had to join the ceremony. My wife had to do this too, until 1976 or 1977.

Eventually they realised that their freedom was a sham.

‘Communist remnants’

People started calling Niko, Rina and their children ‘Communist remnants’. After he got out of prison, Niko and his family were ostracised. They were considered to be trash, useless people. They were not fit to be anyone’s friend. People were afraid to get close to them. They were just dirty rags to be trampled on. Their self-dignity was belittled. Niko was stigmatised as a ‘Communist remnant’. Rina explained:

They thought we were a nuisance. If they quarrelled with us, they would call us “communist remnants”. My sister-in-law even yelled at me in that way. If we did anything wrong, out would come the “Communist remnant” accusation. My children get called that even now.

These words were often used to abuse Niko’s children at school. Their friends and even their teachers would use this phrase to taunt them. In the end, Niko and Rina’s oldest son, Son, stopped going to school. He could not bear the bullying. Their second son Paul suffered the same treatment from his schoolmates and his own teacher. But because he didn’t really have much idea what ‘Communist’ meant, he didn’t take much notice. Only when he was in his teens and knew what it meant, did he discover the truth. He was resentful of the people who had called them ‘communist remnants’.

‘If it is true that you were a Communist, Dad, why didn’t they murder you back then? Why do they call you that now?’ Paul asked his father. He went to his uncle and asked what really happened. He also found old people who knew exactly what happened and from them he got a different story from the one going around that accused his father. Armed with this information, Paul would challenge anyone who called them ‘remnant communists’, including the District Head when he slapped his father in the market because he had not paid his taxes. To Paul, the matter of taxes had nothing to do with ‘remnant communists’. So why did the District Head link them? Paul took a different stance to that of his brothers and sisters. He worked for a private business in Kupang.

Melki, another of Niko’s children, had another story. When he wanted to enter the police academy, snide comments about him being the son of a former communist stopped him pursuing that career. Melki now lives and works in Bali.

Niko’s son Kris, listening to Niko’s story, interrupted to say, ‘At last I have heard Dad’s story.’ Lina remained silent. Son and another of Niko’s daughters were not present. None of Niko’s children was able to work as a civil servant. They became traders, motor bike taxi drivers, and worked in the private sector.

Rina cried and said that only God knows all. They just had to accept the jeering and abuse. This continues right to the present, for every time Niko stands up for his rights and his property, these acts are always accused as being a rebellion by ‘communist remnants’.

Our movement has always been limited in every way. There are things we cannot do. Like when someone’s cows eat our plants, we can’t get angry or talk about it. If we speak up, they’ll say we are ‘communist remnants.

The events of 1965 have also affected the relationship between Niko and his sister. Their relationship had never been good, but the 1965 events made things much worse. Even when one of their relatives died, Niko’s sister did not come to the funeral because Niko and his family were there. It is still difficult for them just to greet each other.

The Church stayed silent

In the terrible time just after his release, Niko had to face the hatred of society. He was seen as an evil criminal that should be killed, as someone useless, a traitor to the country, trash, and all kinds of other abuse. Faced with this situation, Niko and his family had to find some motivation. They longed for people to drop by and visit, and give them support. But words like support and good cheer were a rarity.

From day to day, month to month, not a single person came to knock on their door to chat or share experiences, including the Church. The Church never visited or checked up on Niko and his family. Even though Niko was registered as a member of the congregation, offering support and showing readiness to listen to his stories would have helped him keep up his spirits and sense of self confidence. The Church was silent.

The Church did absolutely nothing to handle the problem. The Church was afraid to speak up. This was also because the situation forced it to take a stance of silence. If the Church had acted to defend the victims, the Church itself would have been accused of being Communist.

God is our Saviour

Now, 45 years after the events of 30 September 1965, Niko and his family live contentedly. Their children all have work, and some of them have married. Niko is now a grandfather and he adores his grandchildren.

While talking about his past, Niko reflected about how his wife and he remained strong because their God gave them strength when they were weak. God always protects those in the darkness and in terrifying situations.

Because of God, the whole family is as it is now. Mama is now a leader of the congregation at Church. Our children are also active in the church, in various types of service. We always find time to go to Church on Sundays. We do this as a way of saying thanks to God. Thank you Lord Jesus.

The meeting ends

The meeting of the JPIT team with Niko had gone well. Niko and his family were happy because there were still people who wanted to hear their story, and who did not look down on them as former prisoners. The team was also happy to hear this valuable story of their nation, a story almost lost. The young generation has a lot to learn, including the story of Niko and his family who continue to live their lives, even though life has not been good to them. With a happy expression, Niko said that he would be pleased to meet anyone who wants information from him. At the end of the conversation, the team asked Niko: ‘Are those old trucks still around? And how do you feel when you see them now?’ Niko answered, ‘Yes, the trucks are still around. When I am at the market and they go past, it reminds me of 1965. But now God helps me, and I am safe.’

Eventually, Niko managed to overcome his fear of the rumbling sound of trucks, and he is still living today.

Interviewers: Tatiana, Alice and Nancy.

Writers: Alice and Nancy.

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

   by Putu Oka Sukanta