Years of living dangerously still fresh in the memories of Indonesia’s old survivors

by Rosaleen Cunningham
Monday, 10 March 2014 14:32 GMT

Ibu Lestari recalls the killing of her husband and child during Indonesia's communist purge. She herself gave birth while in hiding, and was later tortured and jailed for more than a decade. Picture taken February 15, 2014. Courtesy of Rosaleen Cunningham

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People need to know what happened, say survivors of Suharto's anti-communist purge which is explored in The Act of Killing documentary

In a quiet laneway amidst the bustle and chaos of central Jakarta, lies a modest old folk’s home. Like all institutions, there is a routine that must be adhered to - set times for mealtimes, TV, reading, lights out, bedtime. But there the similarity ends. The dozen or so residents here, mostly women, are all ex-political prisoners, all victims, and survivors, of Indonesia’s dark past. The international success of the documentary The Act of Killing, has drawn renewed interest in the darkest part of that past - the atrocities committed against hundreds of thousands of suspected communists in the mid and late- 1960s.

What is known is this:  between 500,000 and 1 million suspected communists were killed in violence that started in late 1965 after then-general Suharto and the military took power following an abortive communist coup which overthrew President Sukarno on September 31, 1965. Over the next three years, the military, led by Suharto allegedly coordinated and orchestrated the arming of citizens to purge the country of communists. More than 35,000 activists, community leaders and journalists were arrested and jailed. 

For the residents in the old folk’s home in Jakarta here, that past is never far from their minds, despite it being almost 50 years since the atrocities began. Most of the residents here are in their 80s and 90s. They know time is not on their side and so they are keen to talk to whoever will record their stories.           

“We regularly get visitors. Every week some academics, activists and sometimes journalists come and document our stories” says Ibu Sri who was a journalist, based at the Presidential palace in 1965. “It’s important we keep telling our stories. People need to know what happened”.

But security is still a concern.  This year is an election year and the Indonesian government is already embarrassed by the international attention The Act of Killing has achieved. Many family members of the women in the home are uncomfortable about their identity becoming known. They would rather the women were not photographed. Lestari, aged 80, has never met her son-in-law. “He doesn’t think it is safe to know me,” she admits. His fears are not groundless. Last week, a lecture by a Dutch historian on an Indonesian nationalist and pioneer of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) in the 1940s, was banned by the police. Facing up to the past is a difficult business in Indonesia, particularly when the details of that past are still so unclear, not only to those who witnessed events but to official historians. 

As part of the anti-communist purge, many leaders of the mass-based Gerwani women’s movement, the very women who had, 20 years earlier, led the development of the newly independent Indonesia under its first president, Sukarno, were imprisoned without trial. Lestari was a local leader in Gerwani. Pujiati, now 88, was a union leader for multinational company Unilever. Sri, 74, was a reporter at the presidential palace. All were imprisoned for at least a decade. Most lost their husbands, killed in the immediate aftermath.

Lestari’s 4 year old daughter was taken from her, tied up with other two young children of leaders, and thrown in a river. Their bodies were later recovered by terrified villagers and buried. Lestari has never found the grave. “I was pregnant when my first child and husband were killed. I gave birth while I was on the run.  I handed over my baby to a woman I knew and trusted, a fruit seller, and she raised her when I was captured and put in prison. I will always be grateful to that fruit seller”.   

Families often didn’t know whether their loved ones were alive or dead. While no firm figures are available, more than half of the detainees died while incarcerated. Some of the residents were tortured and raped. Sri and Lestari met while in prison and have been together since, living together and standing side-by side at human rights rallies.

Most survivors remained in prison until 1979, when international pressure from the United Nations and International Committee of the Red Cross finally saw them released.  They had survived the years of living dangerously. For the rest of their lives they have lived quietly, remaining politically active but always keeping a relatively low profile. Whenever they get a chance they attend human rights rallies, especially those promoting the cause of victims of state violence.

Almost 50 years on, with debate at last opening up, partly due to The Act of Killing, there are hopes that outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono may issue a state apology as a departing act of reconciliation. What do the survivors hope for? The women have the same response for every visitor. Lestari says “Admission.  An official admission of the slaughter that occurred in Indonesia under Suharto.”

Rusdiarno, one of the few men living in the home, is very clear: “An apology, a state apology. That’s what we want”. Why, we ask? He simply says: “It is our right.”

Their home remains their bedrock. Lestari says passionately: “This house is a part of the old movement. It’s my responsibility to keep the memories alive.”  

- Rosaleen Cunningham is a Jakarta-based writer