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

Chapter 12


Undying loyalty

Where is there a mother prepared to hand over her baby to a stranger? This is what Rukiah had to do when she did not want to raise her child in prison.

Rukiah was born in Ujung Pandang, South Sulawesi on 7 March 1940. She came from a modest family. Her father was a sailor and her mother ran the house. Rukiah did not excel at school, she was average. But in her subsequent life journey, she proved to be an amazing organiser. She had a fierce drive to improve the lot of her gender.

Rukiah began to get involved with organisations when she was in sixth class of primary school. It was Ibu Salawati Daut who introduced her to organisations. Ibu Salawati, who was then in her 30s, was a well-known figure in Sulawesi. She came from Menado, but moved to Makassar and lived near Rukiah’s house. Initially, she invited Rukiah to chat about the situation at her school and also about her family. Rukiah began to get close to Ibu Salawati through these chats. She often went to Ibu Salawati’s house to ask about things she did not learn at school. Ibu Salawati would teach her how a girl should behave and mix with people socially. At this time, most girls concerned themselves only with household chores. Ibu Salawati advised Rukiah to venture beyond the house, for in this way she could also bring in a little extra income for the family.

Rukiah also often mixed with other women activists. They frequently came to her house to explain basic Party principles, one of which said that Gerwani (Gerakan Wanita Indonesia, the Indonesian Women’s Movement) was anti-polygamy. As a young woman enamoured with ideas of emancipation, Rukiah fully agreed with this. She thought that Gerwani was an organisation that could protect the rights of women. She wanted to avoid the shackles of polygamy which was common practice in her social circles. Among the aristocratic strata in Makassar, polygamy was common. People accepted it as something normal. Domestic abuse and oppression of wives were common, and victims of this abuse were powerless.

When Rukiah was 14, she joined the Makassar branch of the Indonesian Women’s Movement, Gerwani. She was then only in the second class of junior high school. Actually, to become a member of Gerwani you had to be 18 years old or above, or already married. However, the Makassar branch of Gerwani was short of members, and most of the members were from Java. So Rukiah was eventually allowed to join. At least she was proficient at reading and writing. ‘Of course, the fact that I was close to Ibu Salawati was a factor that allowed me to join and become active on the organisational side,’ Rukiah said. Her first duty was to help in the secretariat.

Rukiah’s parents did not make much fuss about her activities. Her father, a fervent nationalist and Soekarnoist, allowed her do it. Her mother did not interfere. She left everything up to her daughter. ‘My mother was the obliging and unassuming type of woman, what in Java they say ‘suarga nunut, neraka katut’, ‘faithfully following to heaven or to hell’, Rukiah said.

Falling in love

Around 1959 in Makassar there was a Holden car show, with some attractive models dressed in bikinis posing in front of the cars. This offended the local people. The women protested because they felt this was not in accordance with Eastern custom. ‘Why do you have to degrade women just to promote cars? Indonesia is not a Western country!’ Soon members of People’s Youth (Pemuda Rakyat, PR) and Gerwani hit the streets, demonstrating against the show. They all thought that the event organisers’ actions were a deliberate infiltration of Western ideas to Indonesia. The demonstrators painted slogans on the streets, walls, and strategic places.

A few days after the ‘Holden’ incident, many of the People’s Youth members behind the graffiti were held at the police station. Seeing this, some People’s Youth and Gerwani activists discussed what they should do to get them released. Rukiah was one of those delegated to go the police station.

The activists’ negotiations for the release of the detainees were successful. On the way back from the police station, a young man from Java who worked in the Bulog office (Badan Urusan Logistik, Body for Logistic Matters) in Makassar approached Rukiah and whispered, ‘Thankyou, sister. It’s thanks to you that my friends and I were freed.’

That was the first time she met Marsaid, her first love. Rukiah was suddenly overcome with shyness. She blushed. She hid her head. But her heart was racing. She was elated. She felt happy and proud.

‘It was love at first sight for us’, Rukiah recalled.

From that moment on, Rukiah and Marsaid were close. As they became inseparable, their friends encouraged them to marry. Their friends even went to visit Rukiah’s parents to ask for her hand in marriage, on behalf of Marsaid’s family who lived in Java. The proposal was accepted. And so the pair of sweethearts married in March 1963. It was their friends and colleagues from their organisations who organised the whole wedding.

Rukiah decided to do away with some aspects of the traditional wedding ceremony. According to her, there were some rituals that were no longer relevant to the times. For example, the ritual of throwing offerings into the sea, hitting gongs, and so forth. Apart from being impractical, she considered these traditional rituals a financial drain.

‘The important thing was that our marriage would be strong’, Rukiah said, grateful to her parents for accepting her decisions.

After her marriage, Rukiah joined the Gerwani staff in Makassar in Central Sulawesi. At that time, the leadership of Gerwani for South Sulawesi and Central Sulawesi was not yet split between two branches. As an organiser, Rukiah had to be skillful at dividing her time between her duties inside and outside the home. Her husband remained active in his organisation, so he totally understood his wife’s enthusiasm, as they were both fighting to safeguard the ideals of the Great Leader of the Revolution, Bung Karno. In his speeches, Bung Karno always said that the revolution was not over. This duty was now passed to the young generation.

Apart from her organisational activities Rukiah taught at the Melati kindergarten which was right behind her house. Rukiah herself donated the land on which the kindergarten was built. While teaching, she also continued her studies although she was pregnant with her second child.

An unforeseen change of fate

No one ever knows what the future will bring. And so it was. The political and economic situation in Indonesia suddenly worsened. In September 1965, seven high ranking army officers were murdered in Jakarta. The news broadcast on national radio (RRI, Radio Republik Indonesia) truly shocked all Indonesians. According to the news, the murders were masterminded by the Communist Party. ‘I was immediately shocked, deeply questioning, and in disbelief. But I tried to understand the situation calmly.’

The situation became increasingly unstable because other youth organisations were then linked to the Communist Party and what had happened, including Gerwani and People’s Youth. Rukiah and other staff called a meeting to discuss the situation, which was becoming increasingly critical. Those leading the meeting called on members to remain calm.

‘I managed to discuss the situation and ask for directions from Jakarta. But they told us in the regions to remain calm, and to wait for directions from the Leader of the Revolution, namely President Soekarno. So we did not think further than this. You could say that we kept calm. We had no idea that the situation would then get so bad. At that time, my husband was told to report to the police station for his own safety. Absolutely not to be arrested and detained,’ Rukiah recalled.

In this confused situation, days felt oppressive. Rukiah’s anxiety peaked on 15 October when her beloved husband did not return home. ‘Please, please no …’ Rukiah thought. She immediately imagined the worst. She had been hearing about many Party members who had been taken for their ‘safety’. ‘No!’ she said to herself. ‘This cannot happen to my husband.’ But facts proved otherwise.

The evening is still clearly etched in her memory, when at around seven at night, a group of youths from the Makassar branch of the Association of Muslim University Students (Himpunan Mahasiswa Islam, HMI) and others came to her house situated on a main road in Makassar, near the Mumi cinema. They forced entry into her house, looking for a member of Gerwani, who was none other than Rukiah herself. She instinctively escaped through the kitchen door and jumped over her neighbour’s wall into the garden behind. She paid no heed to the fact that she was eight months’ pregnant. From here she could see what was happening in her house. A group of about 30 people ransacked her house. After an hour went by and they had not found Rukiah, they started taking anything of value: watches, the radio, clothes, even crockery. Rukiah’s legs were shaking. Her belly felt tight. She did not want to think about the meaning of what was going on. She did not want to think of this as looting.

In Makassar there were many demonstrations by students and others attacking the Communist Party, which was considered to be the mastermind behind the 30th September Movement. They were provoked into capturing and even torturing Communist Party members and also members of organisations considered to be ‘under’ the Communist Party. The demonstrations involved painting slogans along the streets and putting up anti-communist banners, like ‘Gerwani sluts!’ ‘Communist Party atheists!’ ‘Communist Party: Your wife is my wife!’ and ‘Arm the workers and farmers following the Communist Party coup d’etat and their murder of the generals!’ This was the kind of provocative tone of the slogans in Makassar at the time.

Rukiah was afraid to return home that night. She had to sleep in her neighbour’s yard. Absolutely nobody was prepared to take her in, even for a moment. They were all terrified of being labelled as involved with the communists, so even the fact that Rukiah was heavily pregnant meant nothing. But what can one say? It was the situation that forced people to act in this way. Rukiah herself understood. She had to accept this treatment without rancour. It was only her desperate resolve to protect the child in her womb that kept her going. Fortunately, her mother was already caring for her first child. That certainly helped.

Rukiah, now on the ‘wanted list’, tried asking for help from one house to the next, but no one at all was prepared to take the risk. There was just one old servant who helped her in the house. Even to get her help, Rukiah had to sell anything of value that she had left.

Then she read a notice saying that all Party members and members of its support mass organisations should turn themselves in at the nearest police station for their own protection. If Party members did not turn themselves in, then the police could not guarantee their safety. Rukiah began to waver between continuing to hide and turning herself in. But if she turned herself in, what would happen when she gave birth? She despaired.

Finally, on 28 November 1965, she turned herself in at the nearest police station. Quite beyond her wildest dreams, she found that her husband was there. She was overjoyed. But only for a moment. Her husband signed to her to keep her mouth shut. ‘Ruk, when they question you, say you don’t know anything. And don’t let on that I am your husband,’ he whispered to her. Rukiah nodded. And then came her turn to be called for interrogation. As her husband had instructed her, she answered ‘I don’t know’ to all the questions. She was held for almost a month, until her labour started. Then something amazing happened. The officer called for male detainees to carry Rukiah to the car, but no one came forward. It turned out that Marsaid had orchestrated this. And then he himself came forward. So Rukiah went to the hospital with her husband. During the journey Marsaid never took his eyes off his wife. Her husband’s loving gaze gave Rukiah strength. She was immediately taken to the labour room. Marsaid could take her only as far as the door and then had to return to the police station. Although this was terribly hard, Rukiah was able to accept her husband leaving. All she could do was pray that the birth of her baby would go smoothly.

Rukiah’s prayers were answered. Her second child, a daughter, was born safely. After staying a few days in hospital, Rukiah was sent back to the police station. Not long after, she was moved to the Makassar Military District Command (Kodim). There were about 300 other detainees there. Then she was moved again to the office of Administrative Body for Food Affairs (Badan Pelaksana Urusan Pangan, BPUP). When the police could not get enough evidence, Rukiah was released, but on the condition that she report regularly to the authorities.

Rukiah immediately returned to her parents’ home. For almost two years she worked as a seamstress in a garment factory. Even though she tried to keep resolute, every now and then she would be gripped with fear when she thought about the fate of her friends who had been detained. This included Javanese migrants who knew absolutely nothing about organisations, but had become the victims of arrest.

Realising that the condition was uncertain, she thought about leaving the town of her birth and moving to Surabaya in East Java where her husband’s family were, and where she thought it would be safer. She asked her husband’s permission. He was still undergoing interrogation at the local interrogation centre. He agreed. ‘Be careful, Ruk. Take care of yourself. Don’t bother thinking about me. I will be fine here,’ Marsaid said, holding Rukiah’s hand tightly.

Rukiah went to visit her parents to ask for their blessing. She asked them not to mention her departure to anyone at all, for safety.

To Java

Rukiah immediately sold her husband’s Vespa motor bike and used the money to leave for Java. She left with her baby by boat. Her mother looked after her older child. During the journey she had the chance to think – what if she was arrested on the way? While staring at the sea, she tried to calm herself. She thought this would be better than being arrested in her own neighbourhood. At least there would be no family members who would know she had been detained.

When she got to Surabaya, she looked for a house to rent. Even though many of her husband’s family lived in Surabaya, she tried her best to be independent. She opened a small business selling stuffed fried soya bean cake. It produced enough to cover daily costs.

But then, the situation that seemed to have calmed, suddenly changed. In 1968, on 23 May, the day of the Communist Party’s anniversary, the army instigated their Operation Swoop (Sambar Nyawa) to hunt down all party members not yet arrested. This led to another operation called Sambar Laga (Swoop and Fight) which was even more intense, to hunt down Communist Party figures. It turned out that Rukiah was on the list of Wanted Persons. Her photo was distributed all over Surabaya. Among her listed features was a mole on her forehead and the fact that she had a baby with her.

Rukiah was worried. She had noticed a man in plain clothes hanging around her house for the past few days. And what was strange, he was asking the neighbours questions about her. He even once approached Rukiah and asked, ‘You seem to be alone. Where is your husband?’

She replied, ‘Oh he’s out of town right now. He’s in Solo collecting some batik.’

Then he said, ‘I am a friend of your husband’s. Be sure to tell him I am looking for him.’

‘Oh yes, I will tell him’, Rukiah answered.

‘Your husband’s name is Marsaid, isn’t it?’ probed the man.

Oh no, my husband’s name is Sumarno’, Rukiah answered, spontaneously.

The man then took his leave with a knowing smile on his face. When he had left, Rukiah suddenly felt scared. She knew it was no longer safe where she was. That very evening she left and went to her husband’s family. But when she got there she was dreadfully shocked to see three men sitting on the terrace, and one of them was the man who had spoken to her earlier. She quickly hid and ran away, making a sign to her cousin to keep quiet.

That night I did not go back home to the house I rented. I preferred to sleep in the graveyard which was one kilometre from my house. Lots of graves have shelters, so I slept there. It was better to sleep in a graveyard than go home sick with worry. And lots of beggars sleep in the graveyard.

The next morning she went back home. Her neighbours told her that the previous night two cars of soldiers had come to her house. Rukiah was not too surprised as she had already suspected this would happen. So she immediately packed her things and said goodbye to her landlady.

‘Be careful, child. Take care of your health’, she said to Rukiah on parting.

Rukiah looked for a new house to rent nearer the city. As she had skills as a tailor, she found work at a clothing factory that made uniforms for the navy. She worked there for a month. But because of the terrible work conditions, she got a lung condition and had to go to hospital for treatment. On her way home, she noticed three men following her. One of the men arrested her and took her to an army interrogation centre. It was in a former doctor’s surgery because there was a laboratory there. Rukiah was not alone. There were about 30 other women there. Rukiah felt her hair stand on end when she saw a woman tied up, with her blouse open. Her small child was tied up beneath her feet. The child was crying because it wanted to nurse at its mother’s breast. The woman was being tortured because she would not say where her husband was.

Rukiah had a coughing fit. Her chest felt tight. She could not imagine how it would feel to be tortured like that. She also saw one of her husband’s relatives there, but they pretended not to know each other. If it was known that there was any relationship between them, then Rukiah’s identity as a Gerwani official on the run would also be known.

The detainees were moved from this illegal interrogation centre to the Tiperda (Tim pemeriksa daerah, local interrogation team) office in Surabaya around 1973. Her duty was to cook for the guards. It was there that she met a kind-hearted policewoman working for the Military Police Corps (Corps Polisi Militer, CPM). Rukiah did not know why, but suddenly she felt she should give her cute little daughter, Gestina Patriani, to her. Rukiah just could not rid herself of the image of that mother being tortured with her child. What’s more, she had no idea what was going to happen to her. This is what led her to make that decision.

So she immediately wrote a letter of authorisation of adoption. When it was completed, Rukiah handed over her own daughter to her new adoptive mother who changed Gestina’s name to Watiningsih. Rukiah did not object to this, as long as Wati was loved.

Time passed. In 1975, after being held at the Military Police Corps headquarters in Surabaya for nearly two years, one day Captain Awari, who she had known in Makassar, arrived. ‘Ibu Rukiah! You’re Marsaid’s wife, aren’t you?’

This time, Rukiah could not deny it, ‘Yes, I am.’

Captain Awari said that Rukiah’s husband was dead. He forced Rukiah to return to Makassar. With a heavy heart, because she had to part from Watiningsih, Rukiah left Surabaya. When she arrived in Makassar she was taken to the prison. Imagine her joy when she then found that her beloved husband was still alive. Even though the male and female detainees were separated, the prisoners organised it so that the husband and wife, who had been separated now for eight years, could meet.

A new page in Nanga-nanga

A few months later, the male detainees were sent to Maros prison, and the female detainees to Gunung Sari prison in Makassar. In 1977, Marsaid and Rukiah were sent to Moncong Loe. Not long after this, Marsaid was released, but Rukiah was still held. The Commander for the Restoration of Security and Order Operations (Panglima Komando Pemulihan Keamanan dan Ketertiban, Pangkopkamtib) for South Sulawesi recommended that the prisoners still in detention agree to be sent to the internment Camp in Nanga-nanga, Kendari. They would be given two hectares of land per family. Rukiah decided to accept this offer in order to forge a new life. Her husband agreed to join her. There were around 41 political prisoners who went. But it turned out that conditions there were far from favourable. The house that had been promised turned out to be no more than jungle. There were floods in the rainy season. One of the women detainees who was pregnant miscarried because she could not walk the four kilometres to shelter.

There were already 14 other political prisoners at Nanga-nanga who came from Ameroro Camp in Kendari. The detainees had no problems mixing. Each person was given the promised allotment of land. They were given tools, an axe and a sickle. They worked together to clear the forest for agriculture. Rukiah and Marsaid, who had always lived in the city and worked in offices, found this extremely hard. But they had to do it, like it or not, or die of hunger.

Finally, in 1980 Rukiah was officially released after 15 years of detention as a political prisoner. She and Marsaid decided to stay on at Nanga-nanga. In 1982 they received the official titles to their land from the Military Area Command. By then, there were 56 houses measuring 6 × 6 metres there, and the land was planted with fruit trees.

But their peace was momentary. In 1983 there was a drought that ruined almost all the trees and crops. Many of the former prisoners gave up and moved to Lepo-lepo in Kendari, about five kilometres from Nanga-nanga. They rented houses there. Marsaid tried to find office work. Because of his education, skills and experience he was offered work in a business owned by an acquaintance in Makassar. Over time, he was able to save and buy some land.

People in Lepo-lepo accepted them without question. They did not pay much heed to their status as former political prisoners. Rukiah and Marsaid’s financial situation was now quite good, and they were independent. But even with all this happiness at Lepo-lepo, still something gnawed away at Rukiah’s heart. She remembered her daughter who she had left behind in Surabaya. She must be a pretty young woman now. Whenever Rukiah thought of her, she couldn’t sleep. Sometimes she wondered, was she still alive? How was she now? If they met, would she even want to acknowledge Rukiah as her mother? The questions went round and round in her head. Finally she decided to go to Surabaya to find her.

So with just enough money, she returned to Surabaya. She asked one of her husband’s friends to help. He worked as civilian staff in the Military Area Command office, archiving all the files. Through him, Rukiah managed to find the address of the woman who had adopted her daughter. But it was not easy to find an address in the huge city of Surabaya. And it turned out that the woman had already moved. Rukiah did not give up. With a lead from a neighbour, she was able to track down the new address. Rukiah walked from one neighbourhood to another in the heat of Surabaya, and finally found the new address.

Her heart was pounding when she walked up to the front door. All kinds of things were spinning in her head. Knock, knock, knock … Rukiah finally dared to knock. A woman opened the door. The minute she saw Rukiah’s face her expression changed. But she politely invited Rukiah inside. The woman seemed extremely nervous. She had never imagined that Rukiah was still alive, and would come looking for her. After the usual polite greetings, Rukiah got straight to the point.

‘First, I apologise for coming here without prior notice. The reason I am here is just to see my daughter who I entrusted to you. I have been so disturbed, because I can’t even imagine what she looks like now.’

Hesitatingly, the woman explained, ‘I must first beg your forgiveness. Watiningsih, your daughter, has not lived here for a long time.’

‘What happened to her?’ Rukiah snapped.

The woman explained in detail her family situation after Watiningsih came to live with them. At first it all started out well. But over time, there was a drastic change in her son’s behaviour. He was jealous of Wati, and was always mean to her. He was afraid of losing his family’s love because he thought that they gave Wati more attention and loved her more than him. He used to hit her. Finally, the woman decided to give Wati to a friend of hers who was longing to have a child. The woman explained,

Please do not be too worried, for Wati’s adoptive mother loves Wati as her own daughter. The couple was desperate for a child on whom to shower their love. When they saw Wati, they immediately wanted to take her and asked for my permission to bring her up as their daughter.

Rukiah calmed down. She tried to understand. As a mother, she could not bear to hear that her daughter had been tormented by her adoptive older-brother. ‘Would you please give me the address of the family?’ Rukiah asked.

The woman gave her the address. Very soon thereafter, Rukiah went to find the place. This was not easy. When she got there, the family had moved. So once again she had to find a new address which was not clear. When she found the address, it turned out the family had moved from Surabaya to the countryside, not long after the man’s retirement.

After almost a month of searching in Surabaya and nearly giving up, Rukiah’s husband’s uncle managed to find the place where Wati’s adoptive parents had moved. They were in a village about 40 kilometres away. The family greeted Rukiah in a friendly way. Rukiah was not afraid to tell her whole story and her bitter experiences. Wati had not yet returned from school, so this was a good opportunity for Rukiah to chat with the family.

When Wati got home from school, her adoptive mother called her over. ‘Come here for a moment, child. I want to talk to you.’ Wati came over. The adoptive mother patiently explained that Rukiah was Wati’s mother. As Rukiah observed the way she talked to Wati, she felt relieved. It seemed that her daughter had ended up with good people. She had been brought up to be a good and obedient child. Hearing all this, even though in her heart she probably did not believe it, Wati did not resist. Politely, she walked over to Rukiah and hugged her warmly. They were lost for words. They wept. And even though no words were spoken, the warmth of Wati’s hug was enough to convince Rukiah that her very own daughter still had some inner connection with her. Fifteen years is a long time for separation. But this is what Rukiah and her second daughter experienced.

And there were countless other families who had similar or even worse experiences, courtesy of the New Order regime. Many families were split apart. Children were made orphans, because their parents were murdered or tortured to death. If no family members came to help, then they had to survive as best they could. Some performed on the streets, or became beggars, worked in food stalls, at the harbour, anywhere they could. And these innocent children lost their childhood and adolescence and had to face a bitter life.

Rukiah learnt many lessons during her time as a political prisoner. She learnt that Indonesia, renowned for its friendliness, could, at that time, change into an inhumane nation. People were free to torture, murder and rape their fellow citizens just because that person was a member or sympathiser of a Party now banned. And hundreds of thousands of people who knew absolutely nothing at all also became victims.

Rukiah endured her sufferings with determination. She has aged. Her body is more fragile. But her spirit is still strong. She is thankful that the New Order that oppressed her collapsed. Soeharto stepped down in 1998. Rukiah and her husband, along with victims of the 1965 incident, welcomed the new era. The era of Reformation. There was a spark of hope that the new government would uphold justice. But to this day, justice has not come.

The succession of governments in the Reformation era have not dared to face the dark history of 1965. But Rukiah is certain that God will not remain quiet. There will come a time when the real truth will appear.

Interviewer and transcriber: Resma Nanga.

Writer: Ika Mustika.

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

   by Putu Oka Sukanta