THE DEAD ARE MANY © Duncan Graham 2005
We can only hope that a later race of people who have no need for battle remember how it used to be – and tell their children.
(Netherlands War Graves Foundation)
The scene is so peaceful it’s difficult to know how it used to be. The gardens are lovingly manicured. The frangipanis are in bloom and sprinkle their blossom in the little breeze that helps soften Surabaya’s sultry heat. Large lilies stir easily in the ponds. Only the headstones are stationary.
Thousands of white crosses sprout from the level lawns. Many with round carved ends indicate that beneath lie a woman’s bones. Some crucifixes are tiny. Here lies a child, there lie many. Not all have names, just the single word ‘Onbekend’. Tombs of unknown victims. Some contain many remains – ‘Verzamelgraf Ngawi’.
Plain Buddhist headstones are scattered amongst the crosses. The Muslim dead, former infantrymen, lie in an adjacent plot under plain headboards.
Although all the years of the Japanese occupation and the war of Independence are represented in this cemetery, the last three months of 1945 are the most common dates recorded.
For this was the chaotic period 60 years ago when the Allies sought to liberate prisoners of the defeated Japanese, and the Revolutionaries fought to prevent the Dutch returning.
The British backed the Dutch and bombarded the city from the air and sea. Indian troops battled freedom fighters. The Battle of Surabaya was underway and all sides suffered terribly.
There are no flags flying from the poles above the 5,000 dead in Surabaya’s Kembang Kuning cemetery, though the majority who rest here were once Dutch. The old political and nationalistic hatreds whose harvest lies under the green sward have long turned to dust along with their victims.
Surabaya has many Heroes’ Cemeteries where more than 6,000 young Nationalists lie. Few know the Dutch also share the sadness of those terrible times and that there are people who still remember and wish to pay their respects.
When the Japanese invaded in 1941 the Royal Dutch East-Indian Army (KNIL) had a fighting force of 120,000. Most of the officers were European. The rank and file were from Java, Ambon and Manado.
In the brief fighting which followed about 3,000 soldiers on the Dutch side were killed. About 900 sailors perished in the Battle of the Java Sea. The Japanese took 37,000 KNIL soldiers prisoner but released most of the local troops.
The Dutch men were put to work on military projects and around 3,000 died, many on the notorious railway between Burma and Thailand. Women and children were housed in camps where many died from malnutrition, disease and brutality.
In the fighting for Independence which followed the Japanese defeat at least 1,000 Dutch soldiers were killed.
Fast forward to the present. On most days an individual, a family, a group of friends arrive from Europe to fulfil their commitment to the past at one of the seven Dutch war cemeteries on Java.
Ancol (near Jakarta) has the graves of hundreds of men and women executed by the Japanese; in Menteng Pulo (Jakarta) are buried the remains of those who didn’t survive the camps, and the ashes of 700 Dutch prisoners who died in Japan.
The Pandu cemetery in Bandung is near the Leuwigajah graveyard at Cimahi. Dutch soldiers who died in Sumatra were reburied here. At Semarang in Central Java are the Kalibanteng and Candi war cemeteries – the latter for the military, the former for prisoners of war.
All are maintained by the Netherlands War Graves Foundation “to ensure that the victims and this piece of history will always be remembered.” The work is carried out by Indonesians – the victors tending the graves of the vanquished.
Surabaya historian Eddy Samson often helps Dutch people who make the pilgrimage to East Java to pay homage to an ancestor. Samson and ten friends have formed ‘Team 11’ to preserve the cultural history of the East Java capital. They also repair smashed stonework and shattered headstones.
“Although the graves in the war cemetery are well marked and good records kept, that’s not the case with the resting places of those who died during peacetime,” he said
“In the old cemetery at Peneleh (in central Surabaya) which was closed in 1900 many graves have been desecrated. The marble has been chipped off for sale and the tombs have been robbed for any valuables that may have been buried with the corpse.
“Although the land is still owned by the Dutch it’s not maintained. It’s not so bad in the new cemetery although vandalism has occurred. But finding your way around is difficult.”
Outside the fence that protects the war graves, foreign visitors are intimidated by gangs of men who demand money for whisking a few imagined leaves away from the burial plot. It’s not a smart idea to go there unaccompanied. The general cemetery is also a popular place to find prostitutes.
Inside the war graves area and among the neat white markers, order prevails. Access is controlled and ‘tips’ are banned.
“Only in the war cemetery are the graves safe, and those who died can rest in peace,” said Samson.
(For more information contact the Dutch organisation YPKIB in Surabaya at firstname.lastname@example.org )
(First published in The Jakarta Post 29 October 2005)