After six decades of waiting, relatives of men killed in a notorious massacre during Indonesia’s bitter struggle for independence finally got what they wanted: an official apology from the Netherlands.
Dutch ambassador to Indonesia Tjeerd de Zwaan made the announcement before hundreds of villagers in Rawagede, scene of the Dec. 9, 1947, execution-style killings of up to 430 boys and young men by Dutch troops.
The crowd, tense with emotion, erupted in cheers and applause.
Tears rolled down the cheeks of surviving widows, now in their late 80s and early 90s, some of whom had started to doubt they would ever hear those words.
“It makes me feel my struggle for justice was not useless,” said Cawi binti Baisa, who was 20 when her husband of two years headed to the rice paddy in the morning, never to return.
Dutch troops clinging to their retreating colonial empire arrived in Rawagede just before dawn 64 years ago and opened fire, sending sleepy residents scattering from their homes in panic.
The soldiers were looking for resistance leader Lukas Kustario, known for ambushing Dutch bases. When villagers said they didn’t know where he was, nearly all the men were rounded up and taken to the fields.
Squatting in rows, with both hands placed on the backs of their heads, they were shot one by one.
The ceremony was held at the Rawagede Hero Cemetery, where many of the victims were buried in a mass grave. Big white tents were erected to provide relief from the blazing tropical sun.
“Today, Dec. 9, we remember the members of your families and those of your fellow villagers who died 64 years ago through the actions of the Dutch military,” De Zwaan said. “On behalf of the Dutch government, I apologize for the tragedy that took place.”
The apology followed a landmark ruling by a Dutch court in September that said the state was responsible for the massacre.
It agreed to pay 20,000 euros (US$26,600) compensation to each of the nine plaintiffs, three of whom have since died, their lawyer, Liesbeth Zegveld, said.
It wasn’t immediately clear when that would happen.
Several women involved in the case — their skin heavily wrinkled and eyes milky with cataracts — said while the money would be welcome, that wasn’t what was most important.
They wanted closure.
Wanti binti Sariman was nine months pregnant with her second child when her 26-year-old husband, Tarman, was taken to a field with about 60 other men.
She later found his body in the last of three rows of corpses.
“I was so shocked to see him lying there with the other men,” she said. “It had been raining. Their blood was mixed with the water, creating red pools all around them.”
“I can’t get that image out of my head,” she added. “I still have nightmares about it.”
Some men managed to escape, hiding in the swamps and plantations, she said.
However, they were eventually chased down by dogs and shot.
“It was horrific. But I’ve come to accept it. That was our destiny,” the widow said as she wiped away her tears. “And of course, we have to forgive the troops who killed our men.”