Recently I sat down to learn about the mother of one of my parishoners as I have been asked to officiate at her funeral. I already knew that she was Dutch Indonesian like my uncle, something that I really hadn’t researched before, but what I didn’t ralize until he told me is that she and her parents had spent time in a prison camp under that Japanese conquest of Indonesia during the second World War.
That got me thinking. I really don’t know much about WW2 beyond the events that related either directly to the US forces or the British Military. That, of course, is understandable as one usually views such history from the perspective of the nation that is teaching it. So I did a quick Google search and came across this article, Traces of war: Dutch and Indonesian survivors, in which three men give their testimonies about struggle, abuse, endurance, horror, anger and revenge. In these articles the survivors are very candid about their experiences, yet there is much for us to learn about the nature of man, both in the abuse received at the hands of the Japanese as well as all the emotions that the survivors share were taking place and still take place in their hearts.
Below is the first of the three interviews followed by a few reflective comments of my ownd…
“During the Dutch period, my father was a forester on an enormous estate of some 25 by 30 miles. There were seven of us, and I was the sixth child. From age seven on, I lived with my grandfather. He was a nose, throat and ear specialist in Yogya. That’s why I could attend the Javanese school there. We didn’t use the Latin alphabet but Javanese script instead. The school had a three-year program. This is about as far as people belonging to the lower classes would get. You could only continue your education if you were descended from the kraton (the court of the sultan). So I went back to my parents and I assisted my father in his capacity as forester. Then the war started.
In June 1942, a Japanese soldier by the name of Kawakubu came to our village and asked my father if there were any people who could work, for wages, of course. My father then gave him my name. They first assigned me to help build a tunnel at Parangtritis, south of Yogya, on the coast. We didn’t get paid at all, however, and they told my father they’d kill him if he’d come to fetch me. Sure, the Japanese told us repeatedly: ‘We’ve come to free you from colonial oppression.’ But meanwhile they forced us to work for them!
We left from Gunung Kidul for Parangtritis with about 500 people. My estimate is that about 300 survived. It’s hard to be precise, for people were not buried but simply tossed into the sea. Some eight months later they shipped us out by the hundreds, including about 100 people belonging to the Gunung Kidul group. It turned out that they had taken us to Digul (in Irian Jaya, a former Dutch penal colony in what was then New Guinea) to cut trees for building a road and a prison. Compared to this place, Parangtritis had been pleasant. There at least we got a piece of cassava the size of my fist, and we could fetch water from a small mountain lake. In Digul, however, we were left to our own devices and so we had to forage for ourselves. For food, you had to look in the jungle. We ate leaves, and any snake you’d find was good for roasting.
That lasted for three months. They promised they’d give us a present if we did really well. So I started to work extra hard. But I got nothing. And nobody got anything. We dared not make any demands, either, for fear of being killed. Many of us died there, including a lot of my friends. Especially because of hunger, but also because of bad treatment.
I already said: there were about 100 of us from Gunung Kidul who went to Digul. When we left three months later, there were 75 of us left. I was not exactly in good shape anymore, and that was true for most of us. Many of them were ill, but I wasn’t. We were just skin and bones and we’d lost all strength. At first it took just four of us to drag a tree trunk, but toward the end it easily took 12 men to do so.
Finally, they told us we could go home. Everybody was elated. ‘Things are already going fine with your country,’ they told us. My parents received a batik cloth of the brand Becak, which I was alleged to have sent them, but I knew nothing about it. But about halfway, in the middle of the ocean, we began to ask ourselves: ‘Where on earth are they taking us this time?’ There was no land to be seen anywhere. The voyage took a month. Sometimes it was quite scary, with high waves, and several times the boat couldn’t continue because of engine failure. We finally arrived and got off the ship and that’s when we panicked: Where on earth were we? This wasn’t Indonesia, but then what country was it? This was certainly the case when we met people we couldn’t understand. After one week, I found out that we were in Burma. That’s what other romushas told us. And we asked them: ‘Where then is Burma?’ Well, they didn’t know, either.
In Burma, life for a romusha was terrible. But compared to Digul it was better. I was fortunate to have a Syrian for my supervisor. He didn’t beat people, wasn’t cruel. However, there were Japanese there, too, and if we did anything wrong, they’d beat us up vigorously with their rubber truncheons. That was no joke. If you got beaten with that truncheon it would remove your skin when bouncing back, and that caused a lot of pain.
This is where I had to dig away dirt and stones for laying the track. Once I was smothered by an avalanche of earth. We were digging a tunnel when, all of a sudden, the walls caved in and I was buried. People were lying on top of me and underneath me. I was, therefore, not directly covered with earth and still had a bit of room to breathe. There had been quite a lot of us, maybe 50 or so, and only about seven survived. After two days and two nights, they dug me out, using a bulldozer. ‘I’m still alive, I’m still alive!’ I cried. But all those lying on top of me were dead. I immediately lost consciousness after this and I didn’t come to until a week later.
Whenever we’d come back from work to our barracks, I’d lie and think: How will I ever get home again? And where is home? I do not even know how to get there. Also, what am I going to eat? It was pure torture. There wasn’t anybody without edema: We were all swollen, but not because of our good health. When you pressed into our skin, little marks would remain. It was all moisture. Everybody was suffering hair loss, and later I heard that it had to do with malnutrition. Well, what do you expect, considering the food we got. What one man eats today, we had to share with the five of us.
During the day, while working, my thoughts went in all directions. I especially thought of my parents and my family. Would they still be alive, or had the Japanese maybe killed them already? And did the Japanese actually still rule Indonesia? It made it all more difficult. We often talked about our families, too. That made us quite emotional, and we cried. I really didn’t have any hope left that I’d ever get free. Whether or not I’d stay alive or be murdered was something I left up to God.
I had a friend called Selam, who came from the same village I did. He was so without any hope at all that he simply gave up one day and died. Eleven of us had left my village of Parangtritis as a romusha. Four were either beaten or kicked to death. One of them died in Digul, and then Selam died in Burma.
The five of us were very sad when he died. Whether we wept openly or not, we all wept in our hearts. We didn’t know either if or where he’d been buried, at sea or on land. He’d been wrapped in a cloth and the Japanese had taken him away in a truck. Following his death, the bond between the five of us only grew stronger. If you die here, then for all intents and purposes I will die here, too, that’s what the mood among us was. We’re all in this together. We tried to cheer up one another, especially by telling stories: Old Javanese histories and myths. One of us could tell stories from the Ramayana well, another about the history of the ancient kingdom of Demak (the first Islamic kingdom in 16th century Indonesia).
I think every one of us had something special, a force that helped us to survive. One of us got tied up by the Japanese one day and kept under water for over five hours. His head, too. But yet he survived! How, I couldn’t tell, that I do not know. But after that the mandurs (foremen) were afraid of him. There were five principles we clung to: honesty, obedience to Japanese rules, not being selfish, to conquer hunger with patience, and the belief that the five of us would return as one alive to our families. This came about after Selam’s death.
We spent exactly one year in Burma. One of my friends kept track by putting little stripes on his arm. We couldn’t bathe, so the stripes remained visible. One day, our Syrian foreman let it slip that we’d be going home in two weeks. He said: ‘Don’t tell the other mandurs I told you. But when you will all be back in your own country, then please let me know what has become of you.’
I didn’t quite trust this news, thinking: for all we know we’ll be killed now. However, after a month on board the boat, sometimes with high waves again, we arrived in Surabaya. From there, the five of us went back to Gunung Kidul. We tried to hitch a ride with trucks, but since we looked like a bunch of beggars or vagabonds nobody stopped. In the end, we began to walk: it took us 21 days.
When I arrived, everybody cried. They thought I’d been dead long since. I certainly looked quite different, because of the edema. During the first month, my family treated me a bit like a retiree, as it were. I was not allowed to work and they fed me very well.
The five of us, meanwhile, could think of nothing but revenge. We wanted to find that Kawakubu, the Japanese soldier who had enticed us to come along with his false pretenses, and we wanted to make him pay. However, just then Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX of Yogya decreed that people could not take justice into their own hands. Vengeance was forbidden. And the sultan possessed certain powers. He could be in more places than one at the same time, for example. And if he should get angry with you and wish you dead, then you’d die, just like that and all at once. We feared him and so we abandoned our notions of revenge.
Because of all these experiences a person changes, naturally. Before I left, I had experienced nothing, let alone such a bitter experience as this. That changes the way you think entirely. I tend to think a lot more about things nowadays. I’ve learned to control myself. Anger only makes things worse. Through self-control you are actually able to prevent a situation from getting worse, from ever getting as bad as it was then.
I still dream a lot about those days, especially about the work we did: dragging stones, that sort of thing. And about that voyage across the sea. Those high waves. That results in a nightmare once in a while, and then I find myself screaming out loud. Whenever that happens, my wife has to wake me up. Then she says: ‘Better have something to drink first, and then tell me what that dream was all about.’ My gosh, to think that after 50 years I’m still dreaming about that!
I still think about it a lot and I often talk about it with my children and grandchildren. At first they could not believe I had experienced such cruelty. They simply could not comprehend it. They couldn’t until they had read books from the library.
I tell them these things so that they will treat other people well, not oppress or hurt them. Yes, and that includes the Japanese as well. Especially by reading Javanese books, I came to the realization that those dark emotions are no good. We are all brothers. Hostility among people only makes us weaker. And in the end, all that evil has still resulted in something good where Indonesia is concerned: our independence. Without it, we would never have become independent.”
As you can imagine reading such accounts makes me feel like my life has been relatively free of suffering, injustice, and heart-wrenching tragedy. In fact, I feel somewhat guilty for the ease 0f life that I have experienced that is truly a gift of grace, or maybe it is simply a reminder that I am soft and could never endure such hardships. Still, there are three ways that this article impacted me: As a member of humanity, as a follower of Christ and as a Shepherd of God’s people.
- As I contemplate humanity I know that extreme and continual suffering has been something I have only read about, seen pictures of and watched either in re-creation through the medium of film or real-life YouTube footage. The truth is I can only empathize, but experiential knowledge is far from me. Sure, I can tell you of times in my life (primarily youth) when I was picked on, ostracized or had a switchblade pressed against my chest, but it just doesn’t compare. The reality is that there are hundreds and thousands, if not more, who have and presently are experiencing the kind of suffering and abuse that I cannot even imagine. There is also true evil in the heart of oppressors who begin to see their prisoners as nothing more than animals to be used to accomplish their own ends of building roads, tunnels, structures and the like, and to push them to the point of death. It is hard to comprehend. It is shameful, but it is the result of sin that is rampant in mankind who doesn’t know God.
- As a follower of Christ I read this account with horror, but also with an open heart to the reality of suffering that non-believers have also had to endure throughout history and in our contemporary context. We talk much of the persecution of the church, and we should, but we must also remember that suffering is experienced by all and our compassion should be directed to those who don’t know the Lord just as much as to those who do. We naturally want to hear about the endurance of believers and the ways in which Christ gave them strength to endure such hardships – and He does and has. Still, there is a resilience that is compelling from these testimonies of those who don’t know Christ. I am compelled to consider how they processed their suffering, the places in their hearts that the suffering took them and the methods or resolve that they established simply to help them day by day, hour by hour. Here is the covenant that the five men established:
“There were five principles we clung to: honesty, obedience to Japanese rules, not being selfish, to conquer hunger with patience, and the belief that the five of us would return as one alive to our families.”
- As a Shepherd of God’s people I am reminded that I need to be very careful to not judge a person by what I see before me, especially those who are older and have lived long lives. Just like my life has been full of experiences, so those under my care may have had past lives that they just don’t talk about, but are full of struggle, endurance, affliction, abuse and heart wrenching tragedy. I am reminded that I have a lot to learn about people, to be willing to listen to their counsel as well as realize that they may have much more to offer than I can even comprehend.
I have been the recipient of God’s goodness and grace. Yet, He never promises that His grace will be free from struggle, abuse and great trial. In fact, some of the greatest ways He grows us is through difficult trial. I have to remember that His grace is always good, each and every day.