Apr 22, 2024 Last Updated 1:12 AM, Apr 19, 2024

Christmas in a prison camp

The following excerpts are taken from a diary of letters kept by an Australian woman who lived in Java, Kalimantan and Bali for nine years. In this letter, written in January 1978, the author describes her visit to a detention camp for women political prisoners Just after Christmas 1977. The prisoners have since been released.

The letter begins with a description of the long drive from Semarang west to Pelantungan where the camp was located up in the mountains. The visit was arranged by a Dutch pastor, 'Co'. Fenton-Huie was accompanied by the pastor's wife, Phia, and a Dutch nursing sister, Truus. After abandoning their car which could not travel the last stretch of the rough rocky road, the women had to walk the final kilometres to the camp, which also held 40 delinquent boys. The visitors shared a simple Indonesian meal in the house of one of the guards before entering 'a large barracks-type hall' to witness the camp's Christmas concert.

Shirley Fenton-Huie

‘This is where the prisoners live’, we were told. We entered the hall, which was packed with row upon row of women on benches all their faces turned expectantly towards us. We were told there were three hundred and fifty women only now, as fifty had recently been released. Every eye in that close packed audience turned to watch us as we walked in. They were mostly dressed in kain ­kebaya (tight-fitting traditional Javanese skirt and blouse). All had their hair dressed in the traditional manner, swept back tightly from the forehead and arranged into a large bun at the nape of the neck. Exceptions were among the young prisoners, apparently in their twenties, who wore white blouses with dark accordion pleated skirts and had their hair bobbed, European style.

We were led to the front row and seated on rotan arm chairs facing the stage. We were to witness a Christmas concert and prayer meeting.

The stage was decorated with a Christmas tree on the left with flashing coloured lights and a replica of the Nativity scene on the left. Mary and the baby Jesus in a stable surrounded by sheep and cows and the Three Wise Men. Cut out letters in red and green were hung across the top with the traditional words: Selamat Hari Natal. Selamat Tahun Baru (Merry Christmas. Happy New Year).

Phia, Truus and I turned in our seats to look at the ranks of prisoners, hoping to greet them personally but found that two rows of quite different women separated them from us. These were the wives of the guards and most of them held babies on their laps. We kept turning and smiling back at the captive women, trying to pass on our thoughts. They all smiled back. The cheerful smiles had a devastating effect on me, however. I shed tears and had to turn away for shame…

We changed from our front row seats so that we could look directly at the prisoners although from a greater distance. The three of us were deeply moved as we looked at these beautifully composed and dignified faces. There is no simple way of explaining how we three felt. All thoughts of politics and religion aside, we had one great quality in common. That we were women.

A small miracle

What followed was a small miracle. As I sat there watching the charade on the stage, I suddenly felt a violent cramp in my stomach. I winced and thought, ‘Just the food we had a while ago. It will pass!’ After years of living in Third World countries I have a well developed set of antibodies and was confident they could cope with the problem. But the pains increased until I was forced to lie down on the bench. Finally, realising my stomach was about to reject the troublesome matter, I whispered to Phia, ‘I’m going to vomit! Can you get me outside!’ ‘I don't think you can’. She was apprehensive. ‘I don’t think they will let you out.’ She pointed to a group of prisoners behind a grill by the door, waiting their turn to go on the stage. Guards in civilian dress stood beside them. It was obvious that no personal contact with the prisoners was allowed.

‘I’ll have to go out’! Now!’ I struggled up and lurched towards the door. Hand over mouth. Desperate. ‘Cepat! Cepat! Mau muntah!’ (Quickly, I’m going to be sick). Startled, the guards gave way and I just made it to the gutter running along the edge of the verandah. In seconds I lost the full contents of my complaining stomach.
When the convulsions stopped I felt a cool, firm hand holding my forehead. ‘Mau minum’. (Would you like a drink). It was a soft female voice offering me a glass of water. ‘Terima kasih’ (Thank you). I sipped the fresh water, washing the sour taste from my mouth. I sat there for a while with this kind woman in attendance. Then the officer, in whose house we had eaten approached and said, ‘You must return to my house and rest.’ ‘No. no.’ I sounded afraid. ‘I don't want to be separated from my friends.’ ‘But you must lie down’, he said. ‘You can't stay here.’ I protested again and he said, ‘This next building is where the boys sleep. You must come and lie down there then.’ He was insistent.

Grudgingly I agreed to move and with the kind woman holding my arm and accompanied by two guards I was led into a long room. It was furnished barely, with ten wooden double-bunk beds. Three or four boys, aged about twelve sat about reading or just staring at the ceiling.

They led me to a bed in the centre of the room. With the guards in attendance my kind woman settled me down and fussed over me gently. She rubbed my feet and took my pulse and offered me more water. She asked the usual nursing questions in Indonesian as the guards and boys looked on. Finally, satisfied apparently that all was in order the guards had a brief word with the boys and left. A boy with a comic book moved nearer and sat on the next bed. No sooner had the guards withdrawn than the woman said to me, ‘Are you feeling better now? Anything more I can do to help you?’

I glanced at the boy who had obviously been sent to overhear our conversation. ‘He doesn’t understand English,’ she said. ‘It’s quite all right.’ ‘Is he one of the delinquent boys? The anak nakal?’ ‘No’, she said looking at him tenderly. ‘Not anak nakal. Anak negara. A child of the state. A child of Indonesia.’ ‘What crimes are they sent here for?’

‘Oh, all sorts of crimes.’ She could have been saying all sorts of hobbies, or all sorts of sports. ‘They are thieves, vagrants, runaways, dope peddlars, pimps for their sisters. Some of them are murderers. They come from Yogyakarta. Life is very hard for the poor. They are victims of circumstances. Life is not easy for the poor.’

As the boy stared intently at his comic book she began to talk to me. It began when I told her that I had spent a lonely Christmas this year as all my four children were in other parts of the world.

No news in 11 years

‘I too have children,’ she said. ‘I have not seen or heard of them for eleven years. I was arrested in 1965. I have not seen my husband or children since that time. Through some prisoners I heard that he was killed’. ‘Was he a communist?’ ‘No. He was a trade unionist. I don’t know why I was arrested. I have never belonged to anything. I think they must have arrested me because of my husband.’ She told me that at first she was confined in a jail in Jakarta for five years, and six years ago was moved here, to Pelantungan. She was never charged with any crime. Never given counsel. Never brought to trial. Just kept here. She believed that her children are probably in the care of her brother. The oldest one is now twenty three. Her five year old baby is now sixteen.

In the last year, due to some relaxation of government restrictions, she received two stereotyped postcards, purporting to come from her family and was allowed to reply in the same regulated way. She felt no confidence that the postcards were delivered.

She told me there are over three hundred women in this prison ranging in age from eleven to seventy years. The eleven year old was in utero when her mother was arrested in 1965. Several other children were being breast fed at the time of their mothers’ arrest. The whole life of these children has been spent in jail, because they chose to stay with their mothers.

The women here are all educated. There are doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, technicians. Until recently there were two doctors at Pelantungan but they were removed, supposedly for release. This is doubtful, however, as ‘Co’ spoke of an intake of the same number into Bulu (women’s political prison) in Semarang at the same time, including two doctors. Conditions at Bulu are worse than at Pelantungan as the climate is hot and steamy and there are no provisions for gardening.

The removal of the two doctors had put a great strain on health facilities in the camp. ‘We have so many to look after. More than three hundred prisoners, the forty boys, the Commandant’s wife and family and the guards and their families.’

The guards returned twice to the room during the conversation and on each occasion the nurse reverted quickly and easily to trivia in Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian language). A nod from the comic reading boy, satisfied the guards that all was well.

‘We are afraid of the guards’, she said after the second check. ‘We are all afraid of the guards’. ‘Do they ill treat you. Hit you?’

‘It’s not that. That is nothing. We are afraid of their reports. If they give a bad report we will never be able to go home. We are not supposed to say we are afraid of them. That too will give us a bad report.’

Living conditions

At Pelantungan the day is as follows: rise at four thirty and go to cleaning, scrub out quarters, floors and walls, scrub and polish guards’ quarters.

‘I was told you live in those cottages opposite. With the lamps.’

‘No. That is where the guards and their families live. Our place is much further down and behind the hill. The rooms are like this one we are in now. But smaller. Much smaller.’

‘How many people to a room?’


‘How do you sleep?’

‘We have double bunks like these, but a little bigger. We sleep five persons to a bed. The doors are locked from the outside. We may not lock the doors on the inside. When our cleaning is finished we eat rice and then go to our work. Sewing or gardening. Some prisoners are allowed to go to the nearest market and sell their vegetables. They use the money to buy things for us such as tea, sugar and dried fish. Guards always go with them and of course they have to be paid.’

I guessed that only a small proportion of this extra food reached the prisoners as their general appearance and health appeared to be well below that of the guards’ wives. They were all much thinner and had an exhausted appearance. In spite of their brown skin tones, their eyes all showed a bluish tinge below the eyes.

The group of women who particularly interested me were the choir group. Most appeared to be in their twenties and they looked the wrong age for arrest in 1965. I asked my friend about them and she said they were students who had only been imprisoned for a few years. She didn’t know why they were here. They were all bouncy and alert and looked much healthier than the long term prisoners.

Recent new regulations now allow them to listen to the radio. No news reports, just music. But it was very welcome.

‘Do you know what has happened in the world since 1965?’

‘No. What has happened?’

‘The war in Vietnam is over.’

‘What war?’ She was puzzled. How could I explain it to her. It now seemed so long ago. I told her of the moon explorers, satellites, the new American president, the death of Mao Tse Tung, but there was really no way to talk of these matters to a woman cut off from family, friends and the world for over a decade.

‘Have you visited other prisons like this?’ she asked suddenly. ‘Have you been to Buru?’

I told her no, but repeated what I had heard about this prison island, mainly from an article I had read in the magazine Asiaweek.

‘I’m going to Jakarta in a few days. Tell me where you think your children are and I will visit them and tell them you are well.’ She considered this seriously for a while and then said, ‘No. I don't want you to go there. I don’t want my children to be hurt. I want them to have a happy life. I want a good report. I want to go home. I’m afraid that if you go there I may get a bad report. Then I will never go home.’

This was the second time she had said that. Maybe I will never go home. Every other consideration was secondary to this intense desire of a mother. To go home to her children.

On my left arm I wear a number of bangles. Mementos of different places I have visited. Sliding one from my arm I said, ‘What you have told me is very disturbing. But please know that people in the outside world know that you are here. People in England, Europe, America, and Australia. They are trying to get you out of here. They are trying, but they are not trying hard enough. Next week I am going to Australia and I will tell them about you. We will all try much harder to get you out of here. We want you to be back with your children.’ I wanted to reassure her. Not to let her lose hope. I passed her the bangle and asked her to wear it until she was released. I asked her to hold it whenever she felt there was no light at the end of the tunnel. Something tangible to remind her she was not forgotten by the world.

No terminal point, no escape

In ordinary jails, a prisoner sentenced to whatever number of years for breaking and entering, at least knows when his incarceration will end. He can count the months and days. But for these women there was no terminal point. Nothing to aim for. No point in time on which to fix hope. Nothing. Just interminable incarceration, old age, sickness and death.

Many women have died here, she told me. They have died and are buried far from family and relatives. Alone, forgotten and unremembered in death.

She was about to take the bangle when the guards entered suddenly. Terrified she slipped it under her leg. I felt her fear and trembling as she laid her hand on my already cooled forehead. The guards looked suspiciously at us and questioningly at the boy. He shrugged his shoulders and this appeared to satisfy them. They now suggested that perhaps I was well enough to return. I begged another glass of water and said I would go back soon. When they had gone my friend quickly slipped the bangle up her arm, under the tightly fitting kebaya (blouse).

I told her my name and address which she traced carefully on the sheet with her finger. I wanted her to know that if she ever got out, she could come to me. Could I write to her, or send a parcel? ‘Of course’, she said simply. ‘But I will never get your letter or parcel. The Commandant will keep them. He will keep anything you send here. We have no paper or pencils. We cannot write.’

Educated people cut off from reading and writing is cruelty.

‘Now, you must go back,’ she said firmly. ‘They will be suspicious.’

She rubbed the bangle under her flowered sleeve and pressed my hand warmly. I then asked a stupid question. ‘Doesn’t anyone ever try to escape?’ ‘Oh, no!’, she smiled. ‘Why don’t we escape? Because there is nowhere to escape to. We could not endanger our family and friends. There is nowhere to go. We must just wait. And hope for a good report. I am just a victim of circumstance. That is all.’

I returned to the hall and watched the last hour of the concert.

Inside Indonesia 3: Jul-Sep 1985{jcomments on}

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