WRITING ORAL MEMORIES

With these research field notes, I share the oral sources collected during my dissertation on contemporary Indonesian history as well as the questioning of their collection and use. Based on direct witnesses and actors’ testimonies, particularly those related to the different systems of incarceration developed by successive governments since 1942, this oral corpus represents a significant contribution in terms of data facing the lack of archives. How to make history with the oral sources, especially the traumatic ones, is one of the questions I would like to share here.

WHY I WORK WITH ORAL SOURCES

Indonesia

In Indonesia, after the assassination of six army generals in 1965, mass arrests and massacres were counted in thousands, but only a few of these facts have been studied in detail. The limited reference on these massive events tends to focus on the historical context rather than on the events themselves. To study them, one has to explore decades of sedimented propaganda, falsified history, and silences. On this page, I try to review the contribution of oral narratives to our understanding of these events. In terms of oral memory, obtaining reliable information about a given event requires an extraordinary level of cross-checking information with various people.

I question what could be called a “biased collective memory”. I have discovered that it is based practically on written documents that establish an official but false version of events: General Suharto’s new regime claimed that the communists had attempted a coup d’état that threatened national security. In reaction, he seized power and arrested all those involved in left-wing groups. In my work, I use written documents to establish a problematic but credible framework of events in relation to the creative work of memory and narrative that can be measured and verified. I rely on interviews to clarify details of events and enrich the historical context; I am particularly interested in the “creative work” of false memory.

For example, Gunawan repeatedly said that he had obtained several pieces of information from other people’s accounts. Gunawan was exiled to Buru Island for forced labor, so he did not witness the violence in some places. However, he heard these stories many times, which made him believe that he had experienced them, or at least that they were real. Gunawan is not alone. Many political prisoners have had the same experience, hearing stories that have become a kind of reality in imagining the victims of the regime. This kind of information is what we call “prison news”.

I am confronted with the incredibly demanding task of determining the most basic facts about these events and even the validity of mass arrests’ categorization. There is a great deal of confusion about who the political prisoners were, their backgrounds, how they were categorized, and the total number of political prisoners. It is also necessary to keep in mind that children, even under three, were among these prisoners, whom we might refer to as invisible victims. Oral history, in this case, can be seen as an exploration of the discrepancies between collective memory and individual narrative, even though most of the time it is difficult to distinguish between what is right and what is false.

In the Indonesian case, oral testimony takes on its full importance, as it is sometimes the sole source of information. More broadly, the direct witness is, in essence, the bearer of some truth. Beyond any speculation or historian’s analysis, she or he can affirm: “I was there, I saw, I heard”. Nevertheless, this unique, subjective point of view, subject to the uncertainties of context and individual psychology, means that oral testimony remains a fragile source, which the historian must handle prudently.

The direct witness can provide a precise, detailed account, which makes it possible to describe facts in temporal linearity. She or he can also provide a great deal of information on the context in which these facts took place, on different scales: personal and familial, sociological, etc.

Another interest of these narratives is that they provide insight into the psychological impact of living through the facts, unlike administrative records. The witness, therefore, complements other sources.

The individual narrative also makes it possible to draw the witness’s trajectory throughout his or her life. The individual trajectories, taken as a whole, reveal the power of history, which guide individuals in their choices, decisions, and even in their ways of acting and thinking.

Finally, from a practical point of view and personal enrichment, the collection of oral testimony requires a personal, human commitment on the part of the historian. It requires a relationship based on trust with the witness, a trust earned in the sincerity of his or her approach, devoid of any judgment or presupposition.

However, I am also facing difficulties during the process. Eyewitness stories are sometimes imprecise, biased, incomplete, exaggerated, imaginary, or completely false. The reasons for this are diverse, and the historian’s challenge is then to try to read the biases in the account, biases that also prove to be revealing: why does this person insist on a precise point, why is the story full of inaccuracies, unsaid things… What is the contribution of the role-playing of the witness, who puts himself back on the scene of history, which becomes his story?

Thus, individual psychology influences the narrative. The weight of the events recounted, as well as their legacy, positive or traumatic, is part of the process of the oral construction of the narrative. Therefore, it is necessary not only to listen to the story but also to decrypt its existence process.

In the case of trauma, the narrative is often impacted. Denial, forgetfulness, the impossibility of oral formulation, the construction of an imaginary fiction, self-censorship, guilt, victimization, or, on the contrary, self-valuation, is part of the psychological defense processes that human beings put in place to avoid mentally reliving traumatic events. The historian will then have to unravel the historical account of the trauma and its effects, which is not always possible when the witness is unique.

Finally, the witness can be subjected to all kinds of pressure: political and family pressure, collective guilt provoking memory, state propaganda, can silence individual words for years or even generations.

Faced with this fragility of oral testimony, I have to cross-reference individual accounts with other sources. The accumulation of testimonies makes it possible to cross-reference stories and validate or invalidate certain information or even entire testimonies. The reinterpretation of oral narratives through the prism of written sources, archives, audiovisual and photographic corpus is also necessary and informative work. In all cases, the long and patient collection of testimonies proves most of the time to be a unique and robust experience, which allows us to build bonds of trust, sometimes friendship, with people who open the curtain of the past through their own eyes.

A CAMP IN KEMARAU ISLAND

Kemarau Island, Palembang, South Sumatera

SUMMARY

The assassination of six army generals on 30 September 1965 gave the rise to the swell of the anti-communism movement. Members of any member group related to the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) were arrested, interrogated, imprisoned, or executed. Haji Achmad Rusdi (not his real name) is one of them. Rusdi’s testimony is very precious in the understanding of these events since he directly witnessed the torture and mass murders that took place. He was involved in carrying dead bodies and helping throw them into the river. As such, he is able to share first-hand information about these tragic events. The interview was conducted at his house and Kemarau Island.

BRIEF INTRODUCTION OF RUSDI

In 1966, Rusdi was arrested and imprisoned in Palembang, then sent to Kemarau Island without any trial. He was arrested for his involvement as the leader of ‘Barisan Tani Indonesia (BTI)’ or Peasants Front of Indonesia[i] in Palembang. For more than ten years (1966 – 1978), he lived in exile without any legal process was tortured in order to extort information about other BTI members. Later, he worked as a clerk for the army. Because of this, his friends accused him of being an informer working for the state apparatus and of having ‘sold’ his friends.

His first wife, Kadijah (not her real name), was also imprisoned in Kemarau Island. During imprisonment, they lost their child, who remained in Bangka with their family. After being released in 1977, he discovered that his wife, who got released three years earlier, married another man. Now, Rusdi continues working as a farmer and lives in Palembang, together with his second wife.

GENERAL ISSUE ON PULAU KEMARAU

Kemarau Island is a delta that lies in the middle of the Musi river. However, local people consider the Musi river as an ocean. So, they call the delta an island. The term ‘Kemarau’ means ‘dry.’ People in Palembang gave the island that name because it had never been flooded, even during the rainy season.

Geographically, the island is about five kilometers from the Ampera Bridge. The area of Pulau Kemarau is about 24 hectares wide. There were several colonial buildings when political prisoners arrived. However, the buildings were demolished as well as the camps for political prisoners.

After the events of 1965, the island was divided into two parts: upstream for the local people, who domiciled on the island, then downstream for political prisoners’ camps. People were not allowed to approach the camp. According to Rusdi, four posts with four guardians per each were ready to shoot every boat that came nearby less than 200 meters close to the shore. A double-layer fence surrounded the camp, which was guarded by the army or military police.

“There were two types of guards. Behind the wired fence, 100 meters by one hectare, it was handled by the Military Police Corps (CPM). The area outside of the fence was controlled by the infantry troops. There were four corners, and there were four guards.”

POLITICAL PRISONERS’ LIFE IN KEMARAU ISLANDS CAMP

The authorities sent several groups of political prisoners to Pulau Kemarau, and there were hundreds of people in each group. Rusdi was in the 16th group.

“We were part of the 16th group, and from Bengkulu was the 17th group. Well, I do not remember if the number in her (a friend) group was 18 or something. Nevertheless, there were a large number of people in her group.”

A report by ELSAM, an Indonesian NGO, and the Indonesian National Commission of Human Rights (Komnas HAM) wrote that hundreds of people were placed in a small cell of about 5 x 25 meters. It comes as no surprise that food became a great problem and led to conflict between prisoners. As Rusdi explains:

“We arrived in July 1966. In the beginning, we could eat twice a day, but it was only about 100 grams per each. The maximum was 100 grams, jackfruit cuisine, or Javanese people call it ‘sayur Gori,’ about two or three pieces. Sometimes, water spinach, two or three pieces. Then, there was no food. We just received water. After that, corn. Every noon. So, in 24 hours, we just ate once a day. We counted the corn, and it contained at least 25-30 pieces. Imagine, one corn was shared between six or seven people. Sometimes for ten people. I have counted, one line of corn contains 17 pieces.”

Rusdi says that they ate everything to survive, such as dead chickens and dead goats floating on the river, or monkeys and geckos.

“Only dead bodies that we did not eat. I ate many things, such as snakes, monkeys, rats. There was a guard from Asu. And the other one from Sekayu. They shot a monkey. Then, they gave me some so that I could eat. When I went back (to his barrack), I shared it with friends. We ate the monkey together. I cannot eat dogs and cats. I cannot eat them. I do not know why,” says Rusdi.

One day, Rusdi caught a fish. However, a guard who was watching gave him advice: “Better not to eat that fish. If you eat it, you will not get full. Bring it to that store, exchange it with rice, or something else.” After that, Rusdi got permission to go to the closest shop. He got two cans of rice and some biscuits in exchange for the fish, which later he shared with other prisoners. It is interesting to study further the relationship between political prisoners and their guards and their level of emotional involvement. Certain guards developed sympathy for detainees. During that period, they faced the same problem: a lack of food. Another question is whether the violence that was taking place was coming from superior orders or from personal initiatives.

Rusdi – who was lucky enough to be employed by the guards, had a chance to go outside the camp. Sometimes, some friends also asked him to barter their clothes for other things.

“Sometimes, when we went out, some friends asked to barter their clothes for anything.”

He could also go to the shop to get some food, such as banana peel, sweet potatoes peel, et cetera. One day, he asked a lady in a shop to give away some fruit peel. However, when he opened his bag at the camp, there were fried bananas, sweet potatoes, fish, and other goods.

“It was the lady who gave it to us. She felt sorry for us. Then I shared the fruit skins with other friends who could stay inside (the camp). We just ate them raw.”

Faridi, a friend of Rusdi that I also interviewed, says that he heard that the political prisoners even ate grass. Rusdi testifies that many of them fell sick because they ate everything that they could find.

“So, at that time, I thought that our stomachs, our digestions, became thin. So, I throw away corn peel because my wife told me not to eat carelessly. However, other friends, they kept asking me to bring fruit peel. That is how they got diarrhea. If you got diarrhea (in the camp), it was hard.”

Malnutrition was common in the camp, which caused many deaths. Many dead bodies were dumped into the river, only one political prisoner, Mr. Duri, and his child buried on the island.

“It was Mr. Agumu. He saw the dead bodies. If we had not been close enough, we would not have noticed because there were just skin and bones left.”

The detainees also had skin problems. Many of them did not have enough clothes, so they could not change frequently. Plus, the room they lived in had a wooden wall infested with woodlice.

“Our clothes were full of, what was it, woodlice, we called it Japanese ants… They covered all of our bodies, so if we had wounds, they would gather there, bite (our wounds).”

Besides male prisoners, there were also female prisoners together with their children in Kemarau Island.  

“Every arrested woman brought everybody (their children) along with them. For my child, my child was still three months old, and we were not allowed to come together, so we left our child in Bangka Island at that time.”

The female prisoners were placed in a separate area from the male prisoners. So, Rusdi stayed apart from his wife. Even though they lived on the same island, it was not easy for them to contact each other, so he could not know her condition. The harsh conditions under which people were kept in Kemarau Island forced them to attempt anything to survive, which often led to conflict. Rusdi testifies that some female prisoners, who were members of the Indonesian Women’s Movement (Gerakan Wanita Indonesia or Gerwani)[ii], used to sacrifice others to save their own lives.

“Some friends from Gerwani made me feel disappointed. They were so selfish. They sacrificed other friends for their own benefit. For example, my wife used to boil water and gave it to me through the hole. Then, one of them reported her so that we could not see each other anymore.”

TORTURE

Sometimes, Rusdi had to work outside of the camp. That is how he also witnessed torture occurring outside of the island. One day, he saw a young man named Faisol, who is Faridi’s uncle:

“He was put into a sack, being tortured, then put into the sack again. Faisol, from inside of the sack, was saying: “Sir, please give me a cigarette, Sir.”

Rusdi adds that Faisol was still alive when he was put into the sack. Later, they dumped him into the river. Besides the military office, there was also a storehouse used as a torture room.

“In the Military Police Deatchement’s office (Denpom), there was one storehouse, a place of torture, a place of interrogation. There, when there was an interrogation… Next to it, there was a dormitory for Gerwani’s members. So, they started their motorbikes’ machines. Full gas. So, people would not hear them screaming while they were being tortured.”

There were several tools used during the torture process, such as a bicycle or motor bicycle chains. Rusdi himself has been subjected to torture:

“Bicycle chains, belt head, uh, rubber roll, I did not even know what condition of my back was in anymore. If I wanted to sleep, my friends took a banana leave, so that (my skin) would not patch up. Holes (on my back) by the belt head and bicycle’s chains looked like a railway (on my back).”

Gun straps and cigarettes were standard tools. Rusdi testifies that usually there was one interrogator and four officers surrounding him. Moreover, the interrogator would usually tap on the table to signal the executioners to beat Rusdi when he did not answer as they wanted.

“Then, (they) put on the table (he puts his hands on the table), with a pistol strap…until my bones were broken, here. My muscles broke. I wiped on my shirt and pants, like this, I wiped my blood to let my friends know. Then, at that time, my hand…there were four people, army who were watching me, one who had the Bren machine gun, he was smoking, he was CPM, his name is Ringgo-ringgo. He burned me with his cigarettes, Jambu cigarettes. I kept silent. Thus, the guy with the Bren machine gun from CPM, he smoked with a pipe. He put it in my hand. “Oh, this guy is ok with the fire, uh! Then, he took his Bren machine gun, he held it, and he hit me here, with his gun strap.”

The torture was so brutal until Rusdi’s arms were swollen and could not fit into his clothes anymore. Blood covered his body. He could not drink by himself, so some friends had to help him and drop some water into his mouth.

“Hmm, the most painful was being beaten with the rubber roll. I was beaten a lot with that. If it was belt head or bicycle chains, I just felt ‘ugh’… However, rubber roll, which police officers often used, wow, I could feel the pain until deep in my bonemarrow.”

The pain usually stayed for about one week. Detainees heard that sulfur could help cure the wounds. So, they took some sulfur from matches and ate it before the officers called them for interrogation.

“The pains usually would not stay for more than one week. What was the medicine? We ate sulfur from matches. Whenever we were going to be interrogated, we took it. We ate it. I did not know for sure, but some friends said it was efficient.”

Female prisoners also suffered from torture. Rusdi’s first wife was seven months pregnant when she got arrested. Although she did not engage with any political party or association, the officers threatened to murder her husband if she refused to talk and sign the investigation report.

“He (the interrogator) told my wife, “If you do not want to confess, this will be the last night you’ll see your husband.” Then, he showed her a stainless iron and threatened to beat her with it. The person who interrogated us was the same, a prosecutor. His name is Kasim. He is from Bugis.”

Even though she was pregnant, the interrogator tortured her with the gun strap. Alwi, another civilian who was present at the interview, adds that the interrogators used chairs to torture people. They placed the victim’s fingers under a chair while they sat on it.

THE REVENGE NIGHT OF OCTOBER

According to Rusdi, many prisoners died of hunger. However, many of them also were assassinated during three nights called “the revenge night of October” by the guards, referring to the so-called attempted coup d’état on 30 September 1965. It was started on 29 September and ended on 1 October. They called the prisoners during the night and murdered them one by one.

“At that time, we did not know anything about “The Revenge of October.” From 11 p.m. on, they turned off the lights, then one of the officers opened the door, called a name (detainee). He did not come back either. They called out another person, and he did not come back. It was 2 o’clock in the night, and we still did not understand where they took him. Then, the second night, it started again. I remember there was Adam, a guy from Lampung. He was working in a hospital. They called his name. (We heard) his scream. He was not shot. He was beaten, here, with a piece of iron. We started to realize. They listed all detainees in camps on 28 in the afternoon. If I am not mistaken, we were more than 200. About 260 or 270 at that time. It seems that those —who were on the list— used to be members of the PKI and the People’s Youth (Pemuda Rakyat).”

Rusdi adds:

“We built coffins or ringgo ringgo, that is how local people call it, we put them there. So, after 9 o’clock in the night, the officer would come in: “Who wants to help to carry?” I raised my hand quickly. My friends said: “Why do you want to help to carry?” I answered that it was better to carry than to be carried. Then, we carried the dead bodies to the boat, then dumped them into the river. Inside the boat, we found some irons prepared already in the “H” shape or “U” shape from the rest of Ampera Bridge’s construction. We tied them (the dead bodies) with barbed wire and tied them to the iron pieces with wire. From the Gerong river, from Mariana, there was a traffic light. From there, above two blocks of wood, there were dead bodies piled with iron plates. From there, the boat turned back, we carried the woodblocks, dumped the pile of dead bodies by pushing them into the river.”

Furthermore, Rusdi testifies that people also dumped dead bodies into the river from the Ampera Bridge. They were detainees from local prisons and CPM’s office. Alwi, who was a young teenager at that time, saw a pile of dead bodies thrown at the Kamboja Cemetery, and another pile at a hospital, waiting to be carried somewhere. Rusdi adds that he was transferred from Bangka Island with about 200 prisoners. In the end, there were only 20 survivors, including him.


[i] BTI was a peasant mass organization founded in 1945. The organization struggled for land reform in Indonesia, which led them to often collaborate with the PKI.

[ii] Gerwani was a women’s organization founded as Gerakan Wanita Indonesia Sedar or Gerwis (Movement of Conscious Indonesian Women) on 4 June 1950. It supported gender equality, labor rights, anti-imperialism, and feminism. It was known for its strong rejection against polygamy. Gerwani became the largest women’s organization in the 1950s in Indonesia and had a close affiliation with the PKI. In 1954, it changed its name to Gerwani.