Indonesians Lestari, 81, and Sri Suprapti Isnanto, 83, in Jakarta on Monday. The pair suffered with many others under general Suharto. Image Credit: AFP

Jakarta: At 72, Sri Sulistyawati still remembers the day when two Indonesian soldiers placed a wooden plank across her belly and used her body as a see-saw, before she fainted from the pain.

Her tale is a lost footnote in one of the last century’s bloodiest atrocities, when between 500,000 and two million suspected communists were killed in purges in 1965 and 1966 under general Suharto, who was toppled in 1998.

After being swept under the carpet for nearly fifty years, those atrocities were this year acknowledged for the first time by the government’s own human rights body, providing some solace to victims such as Sulistyawati, whose pain and disgrace have gone ignored for decades.

In an unprecedented move, Indonesia’s official human rights body Komnas HAM announced in July that it has found evidence of widespread gross human rights violations nationwide during the purges.

The report, based on a three-year investigation and the testimony of 349 witnesses, urged that military officers be brought to trial for crimes including murder, extermination, slavery, forced eviction, torture and mass rape.

The report demanded that the government issue an apology and compensate victims and their families — a move it said it intends to make despite resistance from retired military commanders and the nation’s largest Muslim body.

Sulistyawati lives in a two-storey nursing home in the Indonesian capital Jakarta with a dozen other survivors, mostly women aged between 70 to 90.

“They tied my arms and legs with a rope and dragged me on the ground with my face down for a kilometre to a military post,” recalled Sulistyawati, whose crime was being a journalist for a nationalist newspaper that backed the country’s first president, Sukarno.

“Two soldiers put a wooden plank on my belly, then got on each end and used my body as a see-saw,” she remembered. “I fainted from the unbearable pain and had internal bleeding.”

The purge had its roots in the tense Cold War politics that marked the final years of the reign of Suharto’s charismatic predecessor Sukarno.

He had fostered the outlawed Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) as a political force to balance the power of mass religious organisations and pro-Western generals.

This delicate balance collapsed in September 1965, with an abortive coup — which was swiftly blamed on the PKI. But some historians say the military orchestrated the putsch to tighten its grip on power and wipe out communism thriving in the nation.


‘Dreaming of my children’

After enduring four years of torture in detention that included electric shocks and nail-pulling for an alleged communist connection, in 1969 Lukas Tumiso landed in a prison labour camp on remote Buru island in eastern Indonesia.

He would stay there for the next 10 years, together with 10,000 other prisoners.

“On the island, we built our own prison, a bamboo hut where we slept at night. We also built our own civilisation there,” Tumiso, now 73, told AFP, adding that the island was at the time swampland and jungle.

Besides clearing forests with their bare hands to plant rice and cassavas, prisoners also built roads, dams and sewerage under strict military supervision, he added.

In one of the interviews with Komnas HAM, an unnamed survivor said he was jailed with hundreds of other prisoners in a cramped five by 25-metre room.

“It was a place where prisoners were slowly killed. Many only survived for a few months. About a dozen people died every night,” said the witness, who was jailed for 12 years on Kemarau island on Sumatra island with his wife.

After the Komnas HAM report was released, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ordered the country’s Attorney General Office to follow-up on the findings.

For victims such as Sulistyawati, a formal apology would provide some solace, even if it comes decades late.

“People must know that we were innocent, we did nothing wrong. Restore our good reputation, we are not human garbage,” she said.

For others such as 81-year-old Lestari, now toothless and hunched over with age, there is the hope that a public apology would help fulfil her dream of reuniting with her children.

In 1979, when she was released from 11 years in prison for being a women’s rights activist under the PKI’s umbrella, her five children refused to accept her.

“After I was released from prison I went straight to see my kids. But they refused to be with me. They were afraid of being labelled communists,” she said.

“In my dreams, I always see myself reunited with my children,” said Lestari, whose husband, one of the communist party’s leaders, died in his cell while awaiting an execution order, and whose four-year old daughter was killed when soldiers raided her home to arrest her.


Decades of discrimination

During Suharto’s rule people suspected of having had links with the PKI suffered decades of stigmatisation and discrimination. They were not allowed to become civil servants, teachers, or lawmakers.

After Suharto was toppled in 1998, a new government removed some anti-communist regulations. But spreading the ideology is still considered a crime.

Presidential advisor Albert Hasibuan said in April that Yudhoyono intended to make an apology to families and victims of past human rights abuses, including the anti-communist purges, before his second term ends in 2014.

But retired military commanders and organisations including the country’s largest Muslim body Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which has been allegedly implicated in the purges, have rejected any apology.

The NU’s deputy chairman Asad Said Ali said in August that the identity cards of former PKI suspects had been cleansed of their previous history.

“They must not ask more than they deserve. The mark has been removed from their ID cards, and some of their grandchildren have become lawmakers now.

“We can forgive them but we cannot forget. For us, this is a non-negotiable price: No apology or compensation.”