Jul 22, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Rengat, 1949 (Part 1)

Dutch paratroopers massacred hundreds, perhaps thousands, in a Sumatran town during the Indonesian Revolution, yet nobody outside Rengat seems to know.

Anne-Lot Hoek

The band, trumpets and drums sound from afar as I walk towards the memorial service in the centre of Rengat, a small provincial town in central Sumatra. All kinds of people are lined up in front of a monument next to the wide, brown Indragiri River: officials dressed in ceremonial or military uniform, police officers, school children, teachers and veterans. The ceremony for the Rengat Event (Peristiwa Rengat) begins with several speeches about Agresi Militer Belanda, one of the major Dutch military offensives against the Republic of Indonesia during the Indonesian Revolution. The district head places a garland at the monument. After the service the whole crowd moves to the riverfront to spread flowers in the water. They allow me, a Dutch person, to do so as well. 

Seventy-one years ago, right after the Second World War, the nationalist Sukarno proclaimed Indonesian independence on 17 August 1945. A bloody guerrilla war erupted soon afterwards with former coloniser, the Netherlands.  One hundred and forty thousand Dutch troops arrived between 1945 and 1949 to restore ‘law and order.’ Almost an equal number of people died, leaving Indonesia in a state of civil war. The Rengat Event was an attack by paratroopers of the Dutch special forces (Korps Speciale Troepen) on Sumatran citizens. It took place on 5 January 1949, at the end of the ‘Second Police Action.’ According to Indonesian sources, almost 2000 people died, while Dutch documentation estimates around 80. Yet this violent story finds no place in the national memory of either country. 

In Holland, violence during the Indonesian Revolution has remained under-researched for decades, and then it was only shown from the Dutch perspective. In a Dutch television program, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte didn’t give any answers regarding the responsibility for Dutch war crimes.  The long struggle – an intense five years – was euphemistically presented to the public as a Dutch ‘police action.’ Violence was scaled down to just two series of small-scale actions. An official statement by the prime minister in 1969, after a brief three-month period of official archival research, labelled extreme violence during this war ‘incidental.’ Dutch historian Cees Fasseur’s report on this research was entitled Excessennota, a Memorandum on Excesses. It contained an inventory of ‘incidents.’ Recently, however, new research on the violence has come out in the Netherlands concluding that extreme violence by the Dutch army was ‘structural.’* 

So what happened in Rengat? And why did it get so out of hand? 

Red beaks

Panca Setyo Prihatin is a lecturer at the local university. His late father was the war veteran, Wasmad Rads. He picks me up at the airport of oil town Pekanbaru in central Sumatra. His father witnessed the attack that the Dutch called ‘Operation Mud’ (Operatie Modder). Its aim was to reoccupy the oil fields just north of Rengat and at nearby Air Molek. In his memoirs, Rads describes how it all started on that morning of 5 January 1949. He was walking down the street when he suddenly heard aeroplanes flying over. He called them ‘red beaks’ (cocor merah). They were P-51 Mustang fighter-bombers. They dropped bombs on the streets, the market square where people were shopping, and on civilian homes. ‘They were even shooting at people on the ground.’ Rads and his friend, Himron Saheman, also a republican soldier, hid in a hole in the riverbank. Later I speak with the now 90-year-old Himron. He tells me he wanted to shoot at the planes. ‘But Rads said, no we won’t survive that, we better hide.’ Panca shows me the hole – ‘the window of the river’ – that saved their lives. 

Soldiers of the 1st Parachutists Company of the Corps Special Troops get ready for departure early in the morning at airfield Tjililitan (Jakarta) in a Dakota that will drop them above Jambi (Operation Magpie). Credit: Nederlands Instituut voor Militaire Historie (Netherlands Institute for Military History)
Soldiers of the 1st Parachutists Company of the Corps Special Troops get ready for departure early in the morning at airfield Tjililitan (Jakarta) in a Dakota that will drop them above Jambi (Operation Magpie) - Credit: Nederlands Instituut voor Militaire Historie (Netherlands Institute for Military History)

At around 11 in the morning, after the planes had left, 180 paratroopers landed in a neighbourhood of Rengat called Kampong Skip. Their leader, I learned from Dutch sources on the event, was Lieutenant Rudy de Mey. Military historian, Jaap de Moor, writes in his book Westerlings Oorlog (1999), about the military performance of the Dutch special forces, that De Mey faced ‘fierce resistance’ from the Indonesian army that was trying to flee Rengat. The Dutch paratroopers responded with gunfire. According to De Moor, this is how 80 people, the same number as in the Memorandum on Excesses, died, both civilians and combatants. He doesn’t indicate any deaths on the Dutch side. 

Little evidence is left in Kampong Skip. One resident identifies a place where there used to be a bullet hole in the wall, but they recently renovated the house. After the attack, they renamed the neighbourhood ‘Skip Sipayung,’ referring to the payung, or umbrellas, by which the parachutists came down. We also visit the pasanggrahan, the government guest house in the former ‘European quarter’ in the centre of town, where colonial civil servants used to work. It is one of the few old buildings left in Rengat. The floors are made with typical Dutch tiles, as is the roof. According to Rads in his memoirs, just up the river from here these civil servants, as well as 27 policemen, a guard and four prison guards, were lined up in an open field, executed and thrown into the river. 

‘Hollander man’

One of those executed civil servants was Tulus, the district head. At the commemoration in Rengat that day, I sit next to his daughters Nini Turaiza and Tuhilwi Tulus, and his granddaughter Naya. Tulus also had an older son, the famous revolutionary poet Chairil Anwar, who lived in Jakarta during the Dutch attack. ‘He was a very “Hollander” man; tall, big, smart,’ says Nini about her father while pointing her walking stick upwards. ‘He spoke the language fluently and looked up to the Dutch ratu [queen] Wilhelmina.’ As a former Dutch employee, her father didn’t flee. 

We walk to the former house of Nini and Tuhilwi by the riverbank. On the fifth of January 1949, Nini and Tuhilwi’s mother hid them and their other two sisters in this house. Dutch soldiers shot her father in front of the house, next to the river, together with his secretary Simatupang and two other civil servants. According to an eyewitness, the soldiers hesitated to kill Tulus, who was said to have been calm and brave. ‘That’s why they shot him in the back,’ says Nini. Later the soldiers returned to the house, where family members of Simatupang were also hiding. They had to line up, and Nini’s mother yelled: ‘Are you now going to shoot children?’ The next day, Dutch and Ambonese soldiers came again and asked the women to come with them to the army camp. ‘If you want to take me there, you will have to kill me first,’ her mother told them. When they left, she fled with the children to family elsewhere in town. Nini remembers running through a small street with perhaps 20 scattered bodies. Because most of the bodies were thrown into the river, it was not possible to give her father a proper funeral. ‘Life became difficult for my mother afterwards. She had to raise five children by herself.’ Up to my arrival Nini was very angry with the Dutch, she told me. She didn’t want to practise her knowledge of the Dutch language that she had learned as a young girl. ‘Ik wil niet Nederlands spreken’ (I don’t want to speak in Dutch), she often said to me. But after we started this conversation about a shared history, she began to wish me goodnight and good morning in Dutch. 

Through a local veterans organisation we meet another relative of a victim, Mrs Roslia. She lives in a simple kampung house, with chickens and children running around. Her family indicates she’s around 78. She was a young girl on 5 January 1949 and remembers hearing the bombing in the morning. Her father, a farmer, took his family in a small boat to the other side of the river, where it was safer. They saw two Republican soldiers in the water, waving for help. Her father went back and dragged the two soldiers on board. But he was shot by the Dutch. The family hid for three days and kept themselves alive with food from the forest and supplies by relatives. ‘Almost all kampung people fled to the forest,’ Mrs Roslia says. Later on they tried to find her father’s body, but didn’t succeed. Her brother told her he saw many bodies floating in the river. ‘They were face down: people tried to flip them over to see if they could recognise their relatives.’ Five of Roslia’s uncles lost their lives that day in the market. The family offers us rambutans and mangosteens. We eat quietly, listening to stories, and to the cascading rain. 

‘Not pretty!’

Did the Dutch authorities not know about this when they afterwards listed Rengat as merely an ‘incident’? Before visiting Sumatra I went to the National Archive in The Hague. I discovered that they did know, but then chose to look the other way. The Memorandum on Excesses stated that Dutch authorities ordered not one but two internal investigations into the Rengat attack. 

One was a civil investigation after complaints by local civil servants. The ‘resident’ – the highest Dutch civil authority in the area in 1949 – had characterised the military behaviour in a letter to his superiors in Jakarta as ‘more than criminal’: 400 people had been ‘shot from behind their writing tables.’ The responsible Dutch prosecutor in the district of Riau, however, dismissed the case in his civil report as a situation that simply got out of hand. Written in pencil next to the resident’s statement was: ‘exclusively whining by old nags.’ The prosecutor complained that he suffered from a ‘mid-ear infection’ and was too ‘disabled’ to go to Rengat to see for himself. Based on information from a local civil servant, he put the death toll among ‘non-combatants’ at 84, with another 36 ‘combatants’. This list of 120 names includes bupati Tulus. With these 36 ‘combatants’ he meant the 27 policemen and five guards that Rads had mentioned in his book as being executed, and an additional four soldiers belonging to the Republican army. The prosecutor stated in his conclusion that ‘around 80’ people died in the ‘ill-fated course of events’, but that biased informants had ‘grossly exaggerated’ this number. It was this reduced number that consistently appeared in Dutch officials statements since then.

The military also conducted an investigation. General Simon Spoor, the top Dutch commander in Indonesia, ordered an investigation because he was displeased about what he had heard. The dossier contains no less than 22 eyewitness accounts from Indonesian residents of Kampong Skip, and correspondence between Dutch officials. The stories were gruesome. A woman said her husband was killed and her 24-year-old daughter raped. A man said his sixteen-year-old pregnant daughter died from a bullet, while his house was looted. There is a story of people being driven into the river and killed by machineguns, one of a woman and the baby under her arm being shot, and one of a father killed together with his three young sons. Afterwards, residents were forced to throw the dead bodies into the river. Much shooting appeared to have been random. The village head said bullets were flying through the bamboo houses. The soldiers, meanwhile, said they had been specifically looking for ‘combatants’ like policemen. Ironically, many of these had worked for the Dutch before the war, some for decades. 

The military dossier also contained Dutch sources confirming the violence. An Ambonese intelligence officer with the Dutch army described how a group of around 100 people, who were hiding in holes in the riverbank and under the wharf, including women and children, were shot by Dutch soldiers. ‘I saw the bodies drift away.’ A colonial officer who was sent to inspect the ‘European quarter’ confirmed he saw traces and even pools of blood. Seeing the floating bodies in the river, ‘even a woman with a child at her arm,’ he wrote that he suspected an execution had taken place, but that it had been conducted by the Republican army. 

However, there was no follow-up to this military investigation. The Memorandum on Excesses did not even mention the eyewitness reports.

Curiously, it was an article in the public domain that attracted the attention of the prime minister. It appeared in a Singaporean newspaper right after the event. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs brought this to the attention of Prime Minister Drees. The minister of overseas territories, who saw it as well, responded with: ‘Noticed. Not pretty!’ We do not know whether either undertook any further action. The article stated that more than a thousand people had been killed in Rengat. The Dutch let ‘Indonesians kill Indonesians’ – this referred to the Ambonese soldiers in the Dutch colonial army. The Memorandum on Excesses did not mention the description given in this newspaper article. 

More than a thousand

Back to Rengat. The memorial monument is a white obelisk. A plaque has 186 names engraved on it. At the top it reads ‘about 1500 people’ died. Wasmad Rads, Himron Saheman, and local historian SE Susilowadi, who all wrote about the event, even claim in their books that several thousand people died. These numbers differ greatly from the Dutch sources. There are a few possible explanations in the archival material for this discrepancy. The Dutch assistant to the resident stated in a letter to Dutch authorities that many people were afraid to testify for fear of revenge by Dutch troops who were still around. Another Dutch civil servant stated that many people who were killed in Rengat were not registered as residents in the town, because they came from elsewhere. 

Kampong Skip was the focus of investigations, but it seems other areas were affected as well. In Kampong Simpanglima we meet 77-year-old Mrs Rubina, daughter of another victim. As a young girl she and her parents heard the bombs fall on the town. She makes the sound of paratroopers landing – the ‘balloons’ whooshed and popped. They started shooting with machineguns and people were running and hiding. Soldiers came by the house and shot her father, a farmer. ‘He had a small bullet hole in the front in his chest, but at the back the whole body was exploded,’ she says. To me, this indicates the illegal use of ‘dumdum’ bullets. The soldiers, she insists, were not Ambonese. They were white Dutchmen. ‘One was fat and tall.’ She claims almost all her neighbours died. Bodies were lying everywhere, even of small children. 

After it became quiet in town, Rubina walked around and saw many dead bodies in the market, on the streets, and in front of the post office. Dead nurses lay in front of the hospital. In the Dutch police report included in the military dossier there is an account of 15-year-old Yatinah, a nurse who refused to have intercourse with the soldiers and was killed. Her name also appears on the Dutch death list, and on the monument in Rengat. According to Rubina, the many bodies in the river floated so close together that ‘they formed a field.’ She thinks there were ‘more than a thousand.’ People couldn’t eat fish from the river for a long time. Rubina says her family bought a fish that contained a human finger. Her story is later confirmed to us by 89-year-old Mr (Encik) Masfar. He saw ‘around 1600’ bodies floating in the river. They stretched from the town centre to as far as he could see. He felt dizzy and sick from the smell. ‘Bodies got caught up in floating trees.’ Some were wearing military uniforms, he said, but most were naked. 

Later on, back in Holland, KITLV historian Bart Luttikhuis and I compare the death list of 186 on the Rengat monument with the one containing 120 in the Dutch police report. Only 36 names are the same in both. If we assume both lists are correct, we arrive at a total number of 270 deaths. However, the small amount of overlap suggests that neither list is complete. A satisfactory conclusion concerning the number of deaths now seems impossible. What is certain is that the number is high, and that the lives of far more than 80 people were greatly affected. 

Out of hand?

Why did it get so out of hand? And did it get out of hand, as the prosecutor concluded, or was this type of behaviour by the special forces and their paratroopers within the line of expectation? It seems that good military leadership was lacking during the attack on Rengat. The resident complained in his report about bad organisation and under-qualified people in charge. Dutch sociologists Hendrix and Van Doorn indicated already in a book in 1970 that mass violence by these forces during the Indonesian Revolution was ‘structural’ rather than ‘incidental.’ Military historian De Moor underlines that killing was their job: they were a counter-insurgency unit. De Moor concludes that ‘executions and liquidation of prisoners often happened’ during operations by the special forces: they were ‘standard procedure.’ The archival material I have seen confirms this, and shows that Rengat was not an exception during the ‘police actions’ on Sumatra. Just before the attack on Rengat, the same paratroopers had committed extreme violence in the nearby town of Jambi as well. In the same archival file of the military investigation in Rengat is a statement by a Dutch war photographer describing how the troops experienced no resistance during the landing in Jambi yet fired like crazy. Their work ‘degraded into looting and destruction.’ Hospital personnel were placed against a wall, and a ‘European soldier with a jungle carbine’ shot three young guys wearing Red Cross armbands. ‘When they were lying on the ground they were still moving, whereupon another soldier with a pistol gave them a headshot.’ 

Another explanation might be that the paratroopers were exhausted and possibly drugged when they landed in Rengat. Before ‘the hitching-on for the jump’ in the aeroplane, ‘three soldiers collapsed,’ their commanding officer, Captain W.D.H. Eekhout wrote to military officials after the events in Rengat. They were exhausted after performing three jumps within a three week period: Yogyakarta, Jambi and Rengat. Eekhout therefore prescribed Benzedrine tablets to his men. This drug had been widely used in the Second World War and later in the Vietnam War. Comparable to speed, it was intended ‘to repel exhaustion.’ To make matters worse, the paratroopers first accidentally landed in rice paddies outside of Skip that were flooded at the time. They nearly choked in the mud. ‘The action was therefore rightly named Operation Mud,’ Eekhout wrote. 

Perhaps the culture of the special forces played a role as well. The lieutenant in charge, Rudy de Mey, had a close personal relationship with the notorious Captain Raymond Westerling, former commander of the special forces and responsible for killing thousands of Indonesians in South Sulawesi. Swiss-Dutch historian Rémy Limpach points out in his article ‘Business as usual’ that military authorities categorised these killings as great accomplishments and an example to others. Westerling described himself in his memoirs, openly published in the Netherlands in 1952, as a ‘fair monarch,’ an eastern-style ‘Robin Hood,’ defender of the common people, bringer of order and peace. He gave a biblical aura to the mission he had to carry out. The ‘DNA’ he transferred to fellow-paratroopers such as De Mey was built around one conviction: the Indonesian people were to be liberated by using mass violence against other Indonesians. He was the Jacob who separated the black sheep from the white. Westerling had such a high esteem for De Mey that from September 1947 he let him command the special actions (such as Rengat). Browsing through De Moor’s book, you can see how time and again De Mey’s ‘cleansings’ caused the Dutch authorities moral dilemmas. Separating the sheep seems to have been a mission impossible. But in the end, there was only one redeemer who made enough headlines to carry him into the history books: Westerling himself. Like a martyr, he was proudly willing to become the scapegoat for everything that went wrong in Indonesia. 

Back in Pekanbaru, before I take the plane back to the Netherlands, Panca and I stand before the grave of his father, Wasmad Rads, who died in 2014. After the attack on Rengat, the Dutch held him captive for half a year and tortured him. ‘The Dutch come too late,’ Panca says to me, referring to my visit. His father was not embittered. But, Panca told me, he would have liked to look back at history together with Dutch people, not in anger, but just to say: ‘This is what actually happened to me.’ Why has this not happened? And why did neither the Netherlands nor Indonesia include Rengat in their history books? That is a question for the next article. 

*Swiss-Dutch historian Rémy Limpach’s dissertation at the University of Bern concluded in September 2015 that Dutch military behaviour was structural. Dutch KITLV director Gert Oostindie confirmed this statement with KITLV research in his 2015 book Soldaat in Indonesia 1945-1950 (Soldier in Indonesia 1945-1950). In 2014 Colonial Counterinsurgency and Mass Violence was published, edited by Bart Luttikhuis and Dirk Moses with contributions of Dutch historians such as Remco Raben, Peter Romijn and Stef Scagliola. 

Anne-Lot Hoek (annelot@annelothoek.com) is a Dutch journalist who studied History at the University of Amsterdam. She is writing a book on Bali during the Indonesian independence war of 1945-1950. Her website is www.annelothoek.nl. This article, which appeared in a shorter version in Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad earlier in 2016, is the first of a two-part series

Inside Indonesia 125: Jul-Sep 2016{jcomments on}


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