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 2 million suspected communists were killed in purges in 1965 and 1966 under the dictatorship of former Indonesian president Suharto, who was ousted from power in 1998.
After being swept under the carpet for nearly 50 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-story 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 kilometer to a military post,” said 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 said. “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 organizations 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.
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 labor 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 civilization there,” Tumiso, now 73, said, adding that the island was at the time swampland and jungle.
Besides clearing forests with their bare hands to plant rice and cassava, 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 5m by 25m room.