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


Like other sixth graders in primary school in Jakarta at the time, my class was taken on a ‘study tour’ to Lubang Buaya – an important site for the New Order. We crowded together to listen to the stories about the shallow well where the bodies of the generals were thrown, and with our limited imaginations we tried to make sense of the diorama that depicted the extermination of people who were said to have wanted to destroy our country. We were told about the heroism of Soeharto who rescued our nation. But because we were still children, we could not take in much of it other than fear, because indeed the whole idea was to make us frightened. I stared open-eyed at the relief depicting women dancing with their scarves while, as the story went, the generals were being tortured and then murdered. My teacher whispered. ‘Move along now. Don’t spend time here. These are bad women’. We hurried on, turning back to take a peek.

It was only later in my teens that I began to understand the truth that had been hidden all this while. This truth was not taught in schools or universities, not broadcast on television, nor was it to be found in history books. This truth one had to search for oneself had to dig up from a snippet here, a snippet there. We heard vaguely about the blood that had flowed and the suffering of our fellow citizens. There before our eyes were the living witnesses who were still silent and silenced.

The Reformation era that began in 1998 opened up the opportunity for Indonesia to acknowledge the evils of the past and restore a social order based on truth and justice. But this has not been done, still to this day. In 2004, parliament passed a law to form a Truth Commission. But this law was weak and controversial. The law offered the victims reparations, but only in return for amnesty for the perpetrators. In the end, rather than fix it or strengthen it, in 2006 the Constitutional Court cancelled the Truth Commission. And so there was a vacuum, where the leaders did not dare to take firm steps to acknowledge their past wrongs, as though they were just glancing back. They did not care.

Telling the truth

This book is a compilation of stories from 15 people whose lives were forged by a holocaust in Indonesia. The word ‘holocaust’, which is used to refer to Nazi barbarity in exterminating the Jews, and meaning ‘destruction or slaughter on a mass scale’, is fitting to describe what happened in Indonesia in 1965–66. This book is written by a group of people – senior and emerging writers – who have been involved with 1965 issues for a long time or who are only now learning about what happened. The questions in their hearts were: ‘what did it feel like to be in the midst of this wave of evil towards humanity? How could someone salvage their own humanitarian sense at a time when the entire value system that had been nurtured for centuries had been completely overturned for the interests of the ‘power of the moment’?

Fifteen people, representing all points of the compass, were engulfed by the political storm that completely changed their lives. The following short extracts show just how terrible the events were that attacked the lives of those who became victims:

Leo, the young artist from Yogya: A young artist in Yogyakarta, charged with youthful enthusiasm, joins an art group on campus with ideals for change. He is invited to the capital city to make posters and banners for Indonesian independence day. When he returns to Yogyakarta, the world is upside down. Two weeks later the police take him to a ‘safe place’. He does not realise that he will be ‘held safely’ for 14 years. His experiences are amazing – he is moved from cell to cell in Java, to Nusakambangan and finally to Buru island. Before he boards the ship taking him to Buru, Leo is given an identity number, 3041, written in ink on the pillow he has just been given, like all the other prisoners. The island of Buru becomes his home for the next ten years. While on Buru, the prisoners are visited by the Red Cross, and someone smuggles a letter to them, written in English. Because the letter is discovered, everyone is punished. After a visit by the Attorney General Ali Said, their lives improve a little. They are allowed to organise sports and arts events. They are given a television set, but are not allowed to hear the news. They can only watch the pictures without sound – a silent drama that continues until today.

Benny, the policeman from West Timor: Even now, decades after his experiences, Benny is still disturbed by his memories. He finds it difficult to wipe the memories, difficult to leave them behind, the victims who had to die at the point of the gun he held. When he and his wife had difficulties having children, he was haunted by the thought that this might be Divine retribution. A generation later, Benny’s children have to interpret their own inner worries: was my father a murderer? Was he also a victim? Or both? Should I have to bear the burden of the sins of my father?

Nadue, a teacher on the island of Sabu: ‘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.’ She never imagined that her suffering on a small island in the remote southern islands of Indonesia was also that of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of others. As a young teacher, Nadue wanted to serve her nation and was the only female who could teach algebra and English on the whole of the island of Sabu at that time. She joined the Indonesian women’s movement, Gerwani, and her husband, who was also a teacher, joined the Communist Party because he thought it cared for the interests of the people. Nadue was arrested when she was heavily pregnant. It was also said she carried a bomb in her trousers, even though she never wore trousers. She was permitted to give birth at home, but immediately afterwards was taken back into prison. There she heard that her husband had been murdered. A soldier roughly cut her hair off short. ‘Even today, a woman with short hair is often called Gerwani.’ After her imprisonment, Nadue eked out a life as a farmer. She was no longer permitted to teach – even though she had contributed so much to the nation. And hundreds of schoolchildren on the island of Sabu missed out on the opportunity to study with her.

Rukiah, a young activist yearning for equality: There is a memory that haunts Rukiah, a Gerwani official from Makassar, from the time when she was finally captured with her baby in East Java. She saw a woman prisoner being tortured, stripped to the waist. The woman’s small child was tied to her legs and crying because it could not reach its mother’s breast. Without giving it much thought, Rukiah approached a friendly female prison guard and offered her small daughter to her for adoption. She had to surrender her child so her daughter could get a better life. Fifteen years later, Rukiah looked for her daughter, going from house to house until she found her. This is love that was not severed when struck by the wave of history.

And there are so many more stories: Lambatu from Bau-bau, Sulawesi, opened a school in his neighbourhood, but was later arrested and tortured. He spent time in a cell measuring 3 × 3 metres that held 22 other prisoners, witnessed 15 people die in prison, and experienced forced labour. Others who experienced forced labour were Asman and Rahim in Central Sulawesi, and Wardik in North Sumatra, who all did heavy work with little to eat, and were basically slaves for development projects. On the island of Buru, the prisoners also had to work just to stay alive, including Permadi, a famous artist who had represented Indonesia overseas. Then there are the women who held ideals of improving the lot of their gender; Lestari in East Java and Ibu Tachrin on the run, were arrested and sidelined. Luh Sutari from Bali was said to be a Gerwani member because her family were members of the Communist Party and killed. Sutarni, also on the run in Jakarta, had to raise her children and was then imprisoned and forced to give her children to various relatives. Ketut, a young artist in Bali, was arrested, released, then arrested again, and wrestled to get his life back on the rails. Niko in Kupang still starts when he hears the rumble of trucks, recalling the trucks that took away people who never returned.

These fifteen stories are just a fraction of the hundreds or thousands of stories still unrecorded. We are racing against time because the number of living witnesses is decreasing. These testimonies depict holocaust-like situations: slaughter; concentration camps; giving numbers to replace identities; prisoners organising their own food, health and arts; families torn apart; female prisoners having their hair cut short. This is our very own Indonesian holocaust. Probably we need to find the right name to describe what happened. Perhaps these stories will be the key to the liberation we yearn for.

Telling stories: breaking the silence, opposing indifference

These stories from living witnesses are our bridge. They allow us to look back, to take stock of the wrongs and tyranny of the past, and step towards the future to arrange a better life. It is time for us to reject silence, to demand the truth, and to change the ways we learn and teach history. Elie Wiesel, holocaust survivor, writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner, said:

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.

The dream of those etching stories in this book is to oppose indifference. We hope that readers are moved and spurred to give support to the voices of truth. No longer just taking a peek.

Galuh Wandita

Human rights worker and expert on transitional justice

Jakarta, 11 August 2011

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

   by Putu Oka Sukanta