PLUMBON, Indonesia (AP) — In a country pockmarked with hidden graves from one of the 20th century’s worst mass killings, the village of Plumbon has something that sets it apart: a monument that names some of those believed killed when the nationwide bloodletting engulfed this hamlet half a century ago.
Down a rutted track that passes a flimsy stall selling sugary tea, then penetrates into lush forest, the waist-high marker sits in the center of a rectangular clearing. An edge is broken off; locals blame that on children’s mischief.
It lists eight names: Moetiah, Soesatjo, Darsono, Sachroni, Joesoef, Soekandar, Doelkhamid, Soerono. And it adds that as many as 24 people could be buried here.
Erected in 2015 after activists persuaded villagers, religious leaders and local officials, the monument is a rare acknowledgement of the victims of Indonesia’s anti-communist massacres, which historians estimate killed half a million people. And yet, it also illustrates how thoroughly the history of that brutal period has been erased.
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Are those eight men, and victims of related atrocities, truly buried there? The fog of memory may have placed it in the wrong place entirely. Political expediency and the passing of time may prevent anyone from ever knowing for sure.
An abortive coup on Sept. 30, 1965, ignited a months-long bloodbath by soldiers, militias and Islamic groups. The military blamed communists for the coup attempt, and in a time of high Cold War tensions, the killing spree and mass incarcerations ensured that pro-Western general Suharto would sideline and ultimately replace President Sukarno, a socialist and anti-colonialist at odds with the U.S.
After decades of distorted victor’s history in which the events of 1965-66 were depicted as a heroic uprising, the government of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo this year permitted an unprecedented symposium that brought together survivors, the military and Islamic groups. Organizers had hoped to pave the way for reconciliation and justice. But there was a conservative backlash, followed by a possible death blow: A cabinet reshuffle installed a former military chief with a checkered human rights record to the ministry overseeing work to locate mass graves.
Even if reconciliation efforts are revived, old age whittles the ranks of witnesses every year. Facts blur and slip further from grasp.
Sabar, a frail, shrunken 83-year-old with milky eyes, can barely bring himself to remember.
In the mid-1960s, he was a member of the Peasants Front, one of the mass organizations of Indonesia’s Communist Party, the world’s third-largest at the time and a powerful player in the nation’s politics.
Sabar’s lips trembled as he recalled being arrested in October 1965. He was held in the Kawedanan, or offices, of the Kendal district government with at least six of the men named on the monument. Plumbon is part of the district in Central Java province.
To the jailers, “we were just animals. Maybe lower than that. And for us, they were the most violent devils,” Sabar said at his home in a village of traditional low-slung Javanese houses.
Sabar said he is certain only of the fate of one man on the monument: Soesatjo, whom he remembered as a Kendal district official and Communist Party member.
He said the killings occurred during the fasting month of Ramadan, which places them between late December 1965 and late January 1966. Sabar said guards would call out names of condemned prisoners at midday and isolate them until taking them away in the evening.
“I remember Soesatjo because he was the highest rank of the local administration jailed in Kawedanan,” he said. “I heard his name called out and saw him being isolated. Later, I heard from a guard that Soesatjo had been shot to death in Plumbon.”
Sabar recounted how before his own arrest he saw members of an Islamic militia kill the teenage son of a local Communist Party member by dragging him behind a jeep.
Yunantyo Adi, one of the activists behind the monument, believes all eight men named on it are buried there, but concedes there’s no proof unless the site is exhumed. The land is government-owned, and it’s unclear if and when officials will begin work to examine mass graves in Plumbon and elsewhere.
Adi said the bigger point of the monument is to serve as a symbol and draw attention to a crime against humanity for which no one has ever been called to account.
Few people alive witnessed the killings in Plumbon. One of them, Supar, is now toothless and aged beyond his 68 years.
“I never want to see it (the gravesite) again. Some people even say grass won’t grow there,” he said.
Interviewed at his spartanly furnished home while cradling a young relative, Supar said he was a naively curious 17-year-old at the time. He knew that an older friend with government ties was “going around doing things” in the aftermath of the abortive coup.
“I asked, ‘Can I go with you?’ ‘Just wait,’ he said. ‘Your time will come.’ And then my time came.”
It was 11 p.m. or later and raining heavily when 12 alleged communists were pulled from the truck that had delivered them to Plumbon. Their burial place had already been dug.
“They were told to sit down on the ground side by side. They prayed or recited whatever verse they knew,” Supar said.
“After the execution I was told to shine the flashlight. I couldn’t look so I turned my face away, but the soldier yelled at me, ‘Don’t look away!’ Those still moving, the soldiers shot them again.
“We buried the bodies, but it wasn’t perfect,” he said. “I heard that some people buried them properly the next day.”
Another witness, Sukar, lived in Plumbon, then a village of less than two dozen houses, at the time of the killings. He spoke to the AP while sitting on the ground where he remembers covering partially buried bodies.
He recalled his father-in-law, a government official and village leader, warning everyone to stay indoors one evening.
“My father-in-law told us, ‘All of you must stay at home tonight. If you go out of the house I will arrest you myself.'” Still, Sukar was able to see from his porch a small convoy of military jeeps and trucks pass by.
It’s not certain that Sukar and Supar remember the same event, but Sukar also remembered a rainy night. The next morning, his father-in-law told him to gather some men and “go bury the PKI,” the acronym for the Communist Party.
“I was scared. But I was also scared of my father-in-law,” Sukar said.
When he and three other men went to the spot, they were struck with horror.
“Blood was splattered around. The legs were sticking out of the dirt,” he said. “I couldn’t see their faces.”
Many who were spared execution still suffered wretched deaths. Sabar and another former prisoner, Eko Sutikno, said they were crammed into a fetid cell with 100 or so other alleged communists and fed only 60 to 70 corn kernels daily.
Whenever an inmate died, Sutikno said, they would cover up the body to get their food ration until the smell alerted the guards.
“I could feel the cavities between the bones in my hands,” said Sabar. “I was a live skeleton.”
In the decades of the Suharto “New Order” era that followed, the scale and ferocity of the killings were expunged from national consciousness. After Suharto’s ouster in 1998, another narrative began seeping into the national conversation, but slowly.
The creation of the Plumbon monument remains a rare act of compromise in a society where political and religious leaders still say even symbols of communism threaten social order.
Agus Widjojo, an organizer of the symposium on the massacres and the son of a general killed in the abortive 1965 coup, said progress on reconciliation will continue once the lackluster economy improves and the government can focus on other issues.
“We have reached an objective, and that is people came out to express and state what they think about the tragedy of 1965, whereas before nobody dares to say anything,” he said.
Sutikno, 75, who was imprisoned until 1979, said learning the truth is not about revenge. Those who tortured him are dead now or senile.
“I don’t know who was in the mass graves, but when I visited them, my heart grieved,” Sutikno said. “Why were they treated like that? They were human. They deserve to be buried properly.”
AP photographer Dita Alangkara and video journalist Andi Jatmiko contributed to this report.