Celebrating the Combat Cooks
Blurred monochrome photos of the Indonesian Revolution generally show training and fighting, meetings, celebrations, speeches, thrusting fists and strident banners.
Peer closer. What’s missing?
Were they all subservient homebodies while the gallant guys were out defending the new nation? Did females have no role during the four-year fight from the 1945 Proclamation to the 1949 withdrawal of the Dutch after two failed ‘police actions’ to recover their colony?
The truth is women played a major part but historians have overlooked their importance.
“Journalists have not been interested in my story,” said Moeljati, 85, a former member of the Laskar Putri (Women’s Army) in Surakarta, also known as Solo. She is one of five surviving veterans in the Central Java city.
“It seems that everyone has paid attention to the men and ignored us even though hundreds volunteered. We also served.
“I was still in school when I heard broadcasts by Bung (brother) Tomo that fired my spirit so much that I was determined to help kick out the Dutch. I didn’t hate them as individuals but I did hate what they were doing to my country.
“My main job was to go around shops, farms and houses collecting rice, sugar and other foods for the jungle kitchens that supplied the fighters. People gave willingly.”
Bung Tomo (Soetomo) was a revolutionary firebrand known for his emotional oratory on Radio Pembarontakan (Radio Rebellion) though Moeljati recalls it as Radio Tunggal (Radio One and Only).
Veterans’ homes are often shrines to the turbulent years of fighting for independence. But there are no medals on the walls of Moeljati’s house or awards on the cupboard and only a few faded documents and pictures in a file.
One is of her former colleague in the kitchens, Siti Hartinah. In 1947 she married a lieutenant-colonel called Soeharto who later become second president. Siti, known as Ibu Tien, died in 1996 aged 72. Many Laskar Putri wed soldiers after the war according to Moeljati though she claimed they had little interest in romance while serving.
“I was among the smallest and youngest of the volunteers,” she said. “There was no conflict among us whatever our age, background or religion. I suppose we were also looking for adventure.
“The men treated us with respect. We worked together like members of one family with a clear goal – to defeat the Dutch. Nothing else mattered.
“We didn’t get paid or have proper uniforms, just a red and white arm badge which we sewed ourselves along with shirts and trousers often made from sacking.
“We had parades every day and I was shown how to use rifles and revolvers. I scored top marks for shooting. I never fired at any Dutch soldiers – most were in tanks (probably armored vehicles) and when they came we hid. Would I have tried to kill? Mmm. Maybe.”
Towards the end of her life Soeharto’s wife was dubbed Ibu Ten Per Cent for allegedly creaming government contracts, but for the Laskar Putri there are no bad words: “She did not forget us and gave us houses and our children scholarships when she became First Lady,” said Moeljati.
Her friend Suwarti, 87, joined up because she wanted to be in the front line. Instead she was made a reservist and first-aid nurse treating guerrillas returning to hideouts after sorties against Dutch troops.
“We expected our camps to be attacked but that never happened,” she said. “I also worked filling sandbags for defence. Some women ran messages tucked in their sarongs because the Dutch did not suspect them.
In 1989 a memorial was built in Solo recognizing 114 women who served, though the number is believed to be much greater. The monolith needs a makeover; names are dropping off and the surrounds are cracking.
A photo from around 1946 shows women apparently marching with mock weapons, though Moeljati says she remembers an abundance of abandoned Japanese arms available which they called gun-gun.
The two women said they regretted the revolutionary fire had gone out and that the modern generation seemed not to know the sacrifices made to create the Republic. After the Dutch abandoned their lost cause Moeljati became a maths teacher and Suwarti a doctor’s assistant.
Last year a local hotel invited the veterans to a talk show on Kartini Day. They get involved in arisan (women’s welfare club) and take a lively interest in current affairs.
They were scathing about corruptors – “betrayers of the nation and cowards,” said Suwarti. Both women stressed that they were just humble individuals who had obeyed a call to service and proud they had done something to help build their country.
“Don’t call us heroes,” said Suwarti, “we’re not dead yet.”
While researching for his book Surabaya 1945: Sacred Territory Australian historian Dr Frank Palmos found that British and Dutch commanders could not understand how the revolutionaries got food and water to keep fighting.
“The heroine behind the scenes was a 42-year-old East Javanese woman known throughout Surabaya as Dar Mortir (real name Darijah Soerodikoesoemo),” he said.
“With scores of female helpers she successfully created 51 combat kitchens to support the independence fighters, starting out in a small way by creating her first kitchen during the first major clash against the British-Indian forces between 27 and 30 October.
“Bu Mortir’s role in the revolution was forgotten for 30 years until a chance finding of a manuscript she dictated to her nephew in 1972 was discovered in the underground archives of the Tugu Heroes’ Museum in Surabaya … but left unread, in the vaults until 2015.”
Palmos has translated the 11,000-word text into English with local writer Johannes Nugroho handling Javanese phrases. Palmos plans to present a copy of Ibu Dar Mortir: Combat Queen to Surabaya Mayor Tri Rismaharini next month [may].
(First published in The Jakarta Post 2 May 2017)