The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, March 04, 2013


Not imprisoned by the past

Despite three and a half years as a teenage prisoner Theo Nijland still prefers his birthplace to his homeland.  On his 23rd trip to Indonesia the Dutchman told his story of survival to Duncan Graham in Malang.
“I was born in Batavia in 1928.  My father was a senior public servant from Holland.  My mother was born in Indonesia of German and Chinese ancestry.
 “After my father was posted to Padang, I went to a Catholic school.  We had a lovely house, a car and a good life.
“When the Japanese invaded Malaya we weren’t that worried.  We thought we couldn’t lose.  We were too strong, that they couldn’t get past Singapore.  We relied on the British – what can I say?
“The first Japanese soldiers I saw arrived while we were having breakfast. They ordered us out, or be killed. There was no time to flee. They took our watches and money. They were very small men with very long guns, longer than them.  It was 7 April 1942.  I will never forget.
“Because I was small I went into a prison camp with my mother, younger brother and sister.  She was seven. The camp had been a school.  About 3,000 lived there, 30 or 40 to a room.
“We didn’t know what had happened to my father. He was in the KNIL (Dutch army).  They tried to fight but the Japanese were like ants, everywhere, too strong.
“After six months the Japanese realised I was 14 and I was moved far inland to the same camp as my older brother. We lived mainly on tapioca.  There was no protein.  If anyone caught getting food from outside we were all lined up and hit on the head with rifles.  I learned to duck to reduce the blow.
“I was slapped a lot. Only a few guards had feelings. We slept on wooden beds we made ourselves.  The fleas were terrible.  I had a tooth pulled with a spoonful of salt as painkiller. My brother has his appendix removed without anaesthetic.
“We smoked anything, mainly dead leaves using pages from Bibles to make cigarettes. We boiled banana skins. They were tasteless but filling. We ate rats and sometimes snakes – not so fantastic.
 “The food was sent to Japan. I worked on a chicken farm. The Japanese were terrified of disease.  So we rammed bamboo splinters into the skin under the birds’ wings.  This made them collapse and the Japanese thought they were sick.  That was our revenge.
“About a third of the prisoners died. On one day I remember there were 11 bodies.
“I wanted school, but people would only teach for food. I used to think: ‘Is this real?’ I didn’t cry – everyone was in the same position. We got some outside news.  I never gave up hope it would end.
“After the atom bombs were dropped the guards opened the gates.  We didn’t leave.  We were afraid of the Indonesians.  But there was no trouble. They were less fanatical in Sumatra, maybe because women are bosses in Minangkabau culture.
“We had no clothes, just a strip of cloth folded between our thighs so we took Japanese uniforms. I weighed less than 40 kilos
“They transported us to Penang and I eventually found my family by asking around. It was very emotional. We had all survived though my mother had been sick.
“We were very lucky, sure, sure.  Why?  Don’t ask me, I don’t know. Maybe my karma.  Religious?  No.
“We were repatriated to Holland.  My father never spoke about his experiences.  He’d been forced to work on the Pakanbaru railway. He was so ashamed.  My mother told a little.  She had a gold watch from her grandfather that she kept hidden from the Japanese.  That was clever.
“We’d lost all our other possessions. We’ve sought compensation from the Japanese and Dutch.  Nothing.
“In Holland I was two centimeters too short for military service.  I became a marine engineer.  I married Mary Severens in 1953 and we had two sons.
“In 1979, after 34 years in Holland I came back to show my wife the prison in Penang. They let us in.  That was a big mistake. I was so stupid. After that I had nightmares that I was could never get out.
“In Holland I spent three years learning Indonesian and now we return every year, to Medan, Jakarta, Bogor, Bali and now Malang.  We try to spend two or three months here. 
“In Holland there’s no respect.  You get ignored in shops or told: ‘Hey, old man, what you want?’ They won’t even bring you coffee. It’s almost impossible to have a friendly conversation – here it’s every day.  My grandchildren don’t want to know my story. They say: ‘We’re living now, not in the past’.
“Here people are kind. They care and go out of their way to be helpful.  Indonesians don’t seem to bear any animosity to the Dutch. We enjoy the food and lifestyle.
“I hate the Japanese.  I try not to hire Japanese cars, but in Indonesia that’s difficult.  I was once approached by a Japanese on a beach outside Surabaya to chat but I told him to f**k off.  My wife says I shouldn’t hate but that’s my feeling.
“We seldom mix with the Dutch here.  Many are married to younger local women and my wife doesn’t like that.
“I tell Indonesians that I was born here and feel happier here than in Holland.  I say I have a stronger feeling for Indonesia than anywhere else.  Look, my skin is brown. But they say: ‘No, you are still Dutch.’
“Mary is my age, 85 this year. The only effect from my prison life is that I can’t drink milk. The nightmares have now gone.  I forget where I’ve put my watch or today’s appointments, but I remember the hunger. And the fleas.
“What did I learn from those experiences? That we must care for each other.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 4 March 2013)


Phil Mahnken said...

Hi Duncan, That is a story worth recording with many insights and touching reflections. "My father never spoke about his experiences." I have known various East Indies-born people and they all invariably loved the country just as much as white Australians care about this country. In fact, they all cared more about Indonesian people and their lives than we have for our indigenous people (not a difficult feat). See a page on the late much loved Frank Coenders. BUT colonialism was and is extractive, exploitive, for-profit; it is military conquest and deprivation of sovereignty and life, whether carried out by Dutch, Japanese, Javanese or modern Australian mining companies. See brilliant article by Simon Kuper on "The End of Colonial Nostalgia" and the superb unclaimed Indies photo albums in the Tropenmuseum. Thanks for your ever interesting blog, Duncan. Phil Mahnken

Phil Mahnken said...

"The End of Colonial Nostalgia" by Simon Kuper. The unclaimed Indies photo albums in the Tropenmuseum.