Finding Peace: Women who were unlawfully detained and tortured in the government’s crackdown on communist sympathizers say all they want in their twilight years is recognition from the state of their plight and their innocence
Yogyakarta. The group of women greeted each other warmly at the house in Yogyakarta that Sunday afternoon. They exchanged smiles and shook hands, before sitting down on a mat and continuing their chatter.
Then they began handing over money, Rp 10,000 (82 US cents) each, to a woman appointed the treasurer of the group.
These women regularly meet for arisan, a gathering among friends, family or neighbors, typically held once a month, where participants contribute to a pot that one lucky winner takes that day.
While arisan is a common pastime for women in Indonesia, for these old women, it is about more than just socializing or winning the draw.
These women are members of Kiper, a portmanteau of Kiprah Perempuan, or Women’s Movement, a support group set up in 2005 for survivors of the government’s anti-communist purge of 1965-1966 that left an estimated half million Indonesians dead.
“We set up this group to support to each other, because most of the victims don’t have the guts to speak up about their experiences, unless it’s with people who experienced the same thing,” says Kiper coordinator Erlin Agus Sudadi.
Millions of Indonesians were rounded up, detained, tortured or killed in the aftermath of an alleged coup attempt blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party, or PKI, on Sept. 30, 1965.
The crackdown on the party and its supposed sympathizers was led by Suharto, then an Army general, and the whole communist coup malarkey has widely come to be acknowledged as a pretext for the military to unseat then-president Sukarno.
“It’s important to speak about the wounds they suffered during their imprisonment,” Erlin says of the survivors.
“It won’t erase the scars, but at least they have a place full of friends who won’t judge them, but instead support them. Even though most of the members are already old, they are very enthusiastic about attending our meetings.”
Kiper holds one meeting every two months, attended by members from Yogyakarta and neighboring cities in Central Java.
“Currently Kiper has around 40 members, but we can’t always gather altogether because sometimes they fall ill,” Erlin says, noting that most are over the age of 60.
When the JG visited last week, only 25 members were present.
The women talk not just about the past at these meetings, but also about their daily lives.
Erlin says that they also take up a collection, Rp 5,000 per member, and the money collected is given to the member who needs it the most at that time. She then repays it simply by continuing to attend the meetings and paying her dues.
Stories of suffering
At 49, Erlin is too young to remember that dark period of history, but her life has been irrevocably shaped by it — her parents were among those arrested and jailed in 1965.
But a woman who does remember is Endang Lestari, who was a 20-year-old university student when she was arrested at home by the military without any warrant.
She was accused of being a PKI sympathizer because of her membership in the Unified Movement of Students of Indonesia, or CGMI, an organization with ties to the communist party. That tenuous link saw her thrown into the notorious Plantungan prison in Kendal, Central Java, where she remained for the next 14 years.
“When I was young, I was idealistic and brave. I was independent. I had a dream to pursue,” Endang tells the Globe.
“But after being imprisoned for 14 years, something is lost inside of me.”
She says she continues to suffer from an unexplainable dread.
“Sometimes, when I’m out on the street, I feel anxious for no reason. I get so anxious that I can’t breathe,” she says.
“After I joined Kiper, the frequency [of the panic attacks] has gradually decreased. Here, with other victims, I can talk about my fears, and apparently they also feel the same way as I do.”
But she won’t speak of her experiences in jail.
For Sri Muhayati, 73, one of Kiper’s founders, her arrest in 1965 ended her dream of becoming a doctor. But more importantly, her status as a political prisoner had major repercussions on her family, particularly her siblings.
“When I was in jail, what hurt me the most was the fact that my family was stigmatized by the community,” she tells the Globe, her eyes watering.
“My sisters and brothers were called ‘PKI minions.’ My younger sister couldn’t even be with her boyfriend because of me.
“I didn’t experience physical or sexual violence during my five-year imprisonment in Yogyakarta because I helped the officers take care of the sick prisoners in jail,” adds Sri, who dropped out from Yogyakarta’s Gadjah Mada University (UGM)’s medical school, or UGM. “I was useful, so they didn’t bother to lay their hands on me.
“But the fact that my imprisonment had many bad effects to my family scarred me for years. They couldn’t get jobs in governmental offices. They had difficulty attending public schools.
“So when I got out of jail, I decided to remove my name from the family certificate. I didn’t want to be a burden on my sisters’ and brothers’ future. I didn’t want my past to haunt them,” she finishes, sobbing by now.
Christina Sumarmiyati, now 69, was the daughter of the chairman of the Indonesian Peasants Front, or BTI, who since high school had nurtured an interest in teaching illiterate people in her village in Yogyakarta’s Sleman district how to read and write.
She joined the Indonesian Youth and Student Association, or IPPI, in 1962, an organization with the aim of educating rural communities by encouraging people to read good books.
“I remember Sukarno once said that to improve the nation’s quality, we should motivate the young generation to read good-quality books,” she tells the Globe at her house in Yogyakarta.
“I loved to teach and I loved to help people in my village to become literate like me.”
But in late December 1965, Christina was arrested, also without a warrant. She was held without charge in Sleman’s Cebongan Prison with 500 other prisoners until April 1966, when she was released with no explanation. For months afterward she had to report twice a week to the warden’s office.
“But in April 1968, I knew that the starting point of my real nightmare had just begun when I was rearrested by soldiers who broke into my dormitory room in Yogyakarta,” Christina says.
“They accused me of joining Gerwani, which they said had killed those six generals at Lubang Buaya [in Jakarta],” she adds, referring to the Indonesian Women’s Movement — closely linked with the PKI, and the now-debunked propaganda that it was involved in the torture and murder of top Army officers kidnapped by the communist party at the start of the “coup.”
“I was a student at the UGM teaching department. I was a private teacher too. I was a part of a student organization at the university. I was not, and I am not now, part of Gerwani,” she says emphatically.
“But they kept forcing me to admit to a crime I didn’t commit. I was sexually abused. I was physically tortured. I was mentally abused. All just to make me say what they wanted me to say. But I was unmoved, so they continued to inflict their cruelty on me.”
Christina says some of the other prisoners at Plantungan underwent the same ordeal.
“Some of the prisoners I knew got pregnant in jail, probably by the [prison] guards,” she says.
Sense of relief
Although sharing her experiences with other Kiper members has helped Sri Wahyuni, 80, ease the burden she has had to carry for nearly half a century now, she has never truly forgotten her traumatic experiences.
“It’s not that I hold a grudge. It’s just the pain won’t leave every time I remember it. It’s become a part of me,” says Sri, who now walks on crutches.
Sri was a member of Gerwani. She was arrested in 1965 and released in 1971.
“I was sexually abused in jail. One time, the officers even beat me until I couldn’t move,” she says, adding that her disability is the result of the physical abuse she suffered in jail.
With Kiper, she says, she has the support of friends.
“I feel happy and at peace. But sometimes I still cry,” Sri says.
Erlin says she can relate to the feeling.
“As a child of my parents, I feel a sense of relief being among the women in this community. But I don’t want to pass down this pain to my children, or my future grandchildren. I don’t want them to know about the bitter fact that their grandparents were once imprisoned,” she says.
Kiper counselor Pipit Ambariah says that the organization, established with the help of Syarikat Indonesia, a Yogyakarta-based Islamic group, serves as more than just an arisan community for its members.
Having partnered with local and international nongovernmental organizations, Kiper has held, among other activities, a trauma-healing program as well as workshops on women’s empowerment and entrepreneurship for its members.
“The last organization we cooperated with was Asia Justice and Rights, for a trauma-healing program,” says Pipit, 33, whose parents were among the victims of the crackdown.
Kiper members have also pushed to meet with government officials, and in April this year they got the chance to meet with officials from district officials in Yogyakarta.
“Through that meeting, the [local] governments eventually learned about the victims’ existence and have offered assistance. They said they could provide funds for us,” Pipit says. “But for us to be able to access those funds, they require that we establish ourselves as a chartered organization first.”
And that’s what Kiper is working on at the moment.
“Today we invited a lawyer to explain to our members the importance of being chartered. So you can see that with every meeting, our members have something new to learn,” Pipit says.
She adds that for all the stigma that still continues to surround anyone remotely linked, even falsely, to the PKI, Kiper has not elicited any negative responses from the local community.
“Most of the challenges come from the members themselves, especially in engaging their families to join us. Some are afraid to tell the truth to their families, so their families don’t know about Kiper. Some have children who don’t care one bit,” Pipit says.
Bring a light
Recent developments have given encouraging indications that Indonesia may finally be ready to tackle that dark period of its history and make amends to the victims, if not bring the perpetrators to justice.
The National Commission for Human Rights, or Komnas HAM, published a landmark report in 2012 in which, for the first time, it officially acknowledged that the 1965-1966 anti-communist pogrom constituted a gross violation of human rights. However, its repeated attempts since then to get the Attorney General’s Office to launch an inquiry have met with rejection.
Critics have long doubted that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will do anything meaningful in terms of addressing this past atrocity, pointing out that his father-in-law was the late Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, the Army general who spearheaded the killings and arrests.
The year 2012 also saw the release of the Academy Award-nominated documentary “The Act of Killing” by the US director Joshua Oppenheimer, which described the atrocities through the eyes of the killers. Oppenheimer released a follow-up this year, “The Look of Silence,” told this time by a survivor of the purge.
And in July this year, Indonesia voted for Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo as president, picking a leader who, for the first time since Suharto’s fall in 1998, has no ties to the late dictator.
Joko, with his close links to Sukarno’s daughter, Megawati Soekarnoputri, has been seized on as the right person to call for an inquiry into the purge.
“I’m hoping Joko can bring us a light to ease our past burdens,” Christina says. “While I’m not 100 percent certain that he’ll be able to reveal this nation’s dark past, I hope the next government will at least recognize the victims of 1965.”
Sri says she no longer harbors any anger.
“I want nothing but the government’s willingness to recognize our existence as part of the history of this nation. For people like us, having our names cleared is worth more than money,” she says. JG