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Keeping your head

Keeping your head
Published: Oct 01, 1984

Memoir of detention in Indonesia

Hersri Setiawan

Translated by Carmel Budiardjo

Hersri Setiawan, a writer, journalist and translator, was a tapol (political prisoner) in Indonesia for 13 years without trial following the military coup on October I, 1965. He was one of many Indonesian writers and journalists rounded up by Kopkamtib, the state security agency, because of their direct and indirect links with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). LEKRA, the Institute of People's Culture, of which he was a member, was banned at the same time along with many other community organisations.

He was born in Yogyakarta on May 3, 1939 and graduated from the University of Gajah Mada in 1960. For three years before graduating he taught in secondary schools in Yogyakarta and Semarang. In 1965 he served on the Secretariat of the Afro-Asian Writers Bureau in Sri Lanka.

The following memoir describes the conditions under which he lived during his early years of detention.

In 1971 he was moved from Jakarta to Buru prison island where he remained until his release. An indication of his outstanding spirit and academic ability is given by the fact that, despite the rigours of forced labour, he was able to compile a brief dictionary of the local language - and also studied the customs of the local Buru people.1

Like most former tapols his health has been seriously impaired by the harsh physical treatment and lack of medical care endured in prison. Despite this he has returned to writing and has contributed articles to various newspapers and journals. His re-entry into journalism has been difficult because most papers are reluctant to publish material by known ex-tapols.

Hersri is one of a small number of former political prisoners who have allowed some of their  writings to be published in English abroad.

This translation appeared initially in Index on Censorship (No. 3/1983) and a previous statement of Hersri's memoirs appeared in No. 311982.2

From the moment I sat at the interrogators' table on the first day of my arrest, the way was closed for me to pose as a rank-and-filer who did nothing but carry out instructions from above. On the table separating me from the interrogators were several photographs in which I could be clearly  seen: the opening of the Central Java LEKRA school, an Indonesian Embassy reception in Colombo, the meeting of the Executive Committee of the Asian African Writers Conference in  Denpasar, Bali. Goodness knows how they had got hold of them. Okay, I thought to myself, this simplifies all things quite a bit. They more or less knew who I was. What remained now was: whether I was involved in that bloody incident3, and the extent to which I played a part in creating the conditions for that incident.

So the interrogations proceeded along two lines. First, what were my views on politics and culture- I couldn't possibly lie about this. Lie, but be warned. Once you begin, you must keep it up to the end, and  to do this you need a good memory  because you are playing a role. This is the theory of lying. But is it possible to lie about theory? Lying can play no role in matters of theory. In the second place, getting confessions from me about my involvement. This is beyond  the boundaries of theory. In such things, it isn't the head that speaks: it's a question of the strength  of their gullets, how strong their muscles are, how many instruments of torture they have: pencils for the ears,  table­ legs  for  the  fingers, pincers for pulling out finger-nails, leather-belts or stingray-fish tails for the body, electric shock rings or batons for the penis or the clitoris, to mention but a few. For this kind of thing, unlike the first, they had no need of high- or middle-ranking officers. Corporals or people in civilian clothing would do, sometimes even people taken from the ranks of the tapols themselves! But whoever they were, whether they treated  you with smiles or ferocious glares, whether they tempted you with tasty food or used their kuntaw or karate skills on you, they were nothing better than mercenaries-of various kinds -and every act ion or word of theirs  followed the instructions from the producer and were taken from one and the same script: force them  to say, Yes!

This went on for days until they said it was 'finished for the time being'. And 'for the time being' was to go on for years and years, with 'investigation' after 'investigation', by the same team or a different one, in one area of jurisdiction or another. And we became familiar with that new term:  di-bon - 'on loan'- a term that sometimes meant the prisoner disappearing without trace.

Solitary confinement

When I was free of these preliminary investigations, I was put into a cell, a narrow room with a concrete floor and walls, no windows, no light, and a door the width of a large person, the upper part of which consisted of iron bars as thick as a big toe. These rest periods for me were busy times for the interrogators, analysing, drawing their conclusions, making ready for the next series of 'investigations'.

'How are things, Brother?' An officer on night duty stopped to inquire at my cell-door. He said 'Brother' in a flat tone with an expressionless face. Behind him stood several of his guards, hidden in the shadow thrown by the pale light of an electric light bulb hanging between the cells at the end of the corridor.

'How are what things?' I replied, remaining seated in the corner of my cell.

'Up on your feet!' barked one of the guards. The powerful ray of a three-battery torch pierced my face. The lieutenant waves his hand, and the torch was switched off.

'How are you, Brother?' he asked, for the second time.

'You can see for yourself.  A cell without a light, and nothing to sleep on.  I'm even forbidden to make contact with my family and ask them for a sleeping-mat or a tooth­brush. I'm being kept in strict isolation... As far as I know, only dead people are kept in isolation. The homeless, living on the streets, need something to sleep on even if it's nothing more than  a sheet of newspaper.'

'Newspapers are strictly forbidden for you,' he said, still emotionless. 'And so are writing implements and sharp objects. But in due course, such things will be permitted. Certain kinds of reading material.'

'What kind? And when?'

'Religious books.  As for when, I'll ask the Team.' About a month later, some things did change. They agreed to fix a light bulb ... provided I pay for it myself. I at last began to get parcels from my family, handed on by an official: everyday needs, food and drink, cigarettes (without the wrapping), tobacco and corn or kawung leaves, (because cigarette paper was forbidden), the Bible and the Koran. All books were passed on after being  stamped: 'Censored: Intel. Assistant'. A few days later, I discovered a way of sending messages home.  I returned a book after making holes on one of the pages with a needle:  braille. (Morse code was too much like the world of intelligence. I thought!) 'Religious books are too general.  Send something else.' And so it happened. They started arriving on parcel days, one after the other, the biographies of martyrs: Brother Redemptius of Aceh,Joan of Arc of Orleans, and  Hasan-Husein of Karbela. Later, I received Rock of Ages translated by Marcel Beding, a book about the early days of the Church. They were all stories full of cruelty, drenched in blood.  But without a single tear being shed. The pleasure I got from reflecting on the parables in the Bible turned to enthusiasm for the way those who defended truth calmly bore their sufferings.

Forced labour

Three months later I was still being held in a cell on my own. I was allowed out to fetch my food and take a bath only at special times so as to prevent me making contact with other detained friends.  But I was now allowed to do corvee. I heard this word for the first time. It must be a French word, I thought. Corvee? What did it mean? It was explained to  me  by an older tapol, old enough not  to  be mistrusted by the guards who sent him out  'on corvee' as a servant for the Camp Commander, at the man's home as well as in his office. This tapol explained it like this:

'Well, it means working outside, cutting grass, cleaning drains, repairing roads , and, well, anything they tell you to do. Being corvee'd, that's what they call it.' That was his explanation. 'Do you get paid for it?' I asked. Pak Slamet, the old man, shook with laughter. I cut his laughter abruptly. 'Our forefathers when  they  were  sent  to Digul4, they were  detained by  the  Dutch - not  their own flesh and blood-and yet they got properly paid if they agreed to do the thing they were told to do.' The old man laughed again. His legs were covered with lumps. He had yaws.

'But we're not in Digul.' His guarded reply caught me unawares and silenced me. I said nothing. I reflected for a long time. I was learning from him. Later I was to discover he had been one of Captain Riyadi's men. Demobilised by Hatta, he had joined the Military Reserve Corps and had been sent to Kalimantan. Then he returned to Java to become a coolie in Klewer Market, Solo, until he started his career as a tapol.

Whatever it meant, I was happy doing corvee. Though I wasn't paid for it, this being Jakarta and not Digul. It gave me a chance to get away from the confines of my cell, and from the feast of silence. I could bathe in the sun's rays to my heart's content, doing something physical and sweating a lot. And when the sweat on-my naked body was fanned by the wind...how refreshing it felt! And besides, I could see the flowers and the bushes, beautiful women, and kids with flabby cheeks. And army officers in their flashy cars went past, sporting stars on their chests, as grass-cutters, moving slowly, sidled to the edge of the road, bearing their life's burdens on their shoulders. I could see the world as a whole, not just a slice, through the width of my cell door...

The books came flooding in and out. Not just one at a time but sometimes four or five together. And the variety increased as well. Novels and comic- strip historical romances. This was all possible because of perhaps money or the guards liked reading this kind of stuff, or both. But in any case, my coded messages reached their destination and the 'Censored' stamp was always slammed on straight away. So I asked for Leon Uris's Exodus which I had been reading and hadn't finished when I was arrested. Besides their meticulousness and their ability to resist money, I also doubted their understanding of English. It was very easy to confuse the name Exodus written bold on the cover with Moses' exodus from Egypt in the Old Testament. So Leon Uris became my companion in the cell for several days. I was not bothered by his Zionist spirit nor his glorification of US-Israeli ties. In prison, you learn from everything. A prisoner can create crossword puzzles on the floor of his cell from the sun's rays piercing through the window bars. They say that Sukarno learnt hypnotism from the ants that came crawling in rows, searching for crumbs in his cell I had to make a point of learning from everyone, anywhere, about anything. For those who want knowledge, prison and exile provide extraordinarily rich opportunities. So Leon Uris gave me many ideas: about how to hold on to one's determination, about how to keep the spirits up, and, more  important, how to organise any  major task...

About a year later, I was released from solitary. Ah, as if imprisonment is not endless... Now,  everything I did throughout the day was regulated by the sound of bells, and as part  of a group. We had to shit and bath and wash our clothes in thirty minutes, in two bathrooms and two toilets. Ten minutes to collect our food and drink. Sixty minutes for morning exercises and sunning ourselves. There were six other tapols in my cell. Every morning by seven o'clock, a plastic bag full of urine hung from the bar of the cell door. For a while, there were eleven  of us which meant that we could only sleep sitting on our haunches...

I grasped at every available moment, I stole time, for reading, when others were busy playing dominoes, Chinese checkers or bridge, or after they had gone to sleep around nine o'clock...


Two things happened which possibly I alone of all tapols experienced. It was around the end of 1969 or the beginning of 1970. New waves of arrests of G30S/PKI5 remnants had taken place after kompros (illegal PKI networks) had been destroyed in Java, especially in Blitar. Wide-ranging purges were also going on inside the government apparatus, civilian as well as military. This naturally meant that the work of the interrogation teams was stepped up. They recruited non-commissioned officers to augment their intelligence staff, and for this purpose they ran six­ month courses in intelligence for which study material was needed.  Perhaps the Army at the time had no such material, or if they did have it, it was not drawn together in a scientific fashion. A middle-ranking officer, one of the men who had interrogated me, asked for my services. I was given an American book on intelligence. (Unfortunately, I can remember neither the title, the name of the author, the publishers nor the date of publication.) I was required to translate several chapters into Indonesian. A desk, a chair and a typewriter were placed at my disposal in a room on the fourth floor. No one but officers ever came into this silent room. The walls were undecorated save for some large-scale maps of Indonesia, Java and Jakarta. All the cupboards where documents were kept were locked up. I was required to work every day on the translation, from nine in the morning until the afternoon; then after having a bath and taking a meal, I had to work on again until the officer on night duty came round for the final inspection at eleven o'clock. My midday meal was brought to me in the room: an officer's ration! Although I accepted and carried out  this  'confidence', my heart was troubled by thousands of questions: Would  this  mean that  in their evaluation of my  interrogation, I would rank positively as someone suitable to be asked  to 'collaborate'? Was the officer who had given me this task, a man with a cool head, capable of differentiating between one's attitudes and one's political practice, between individuals and organisations? Was I seen in their eyes as someone who only knew about literature and play-writing? Was this part of their technique of indirectly sussing me out?  (Would I perhaps pass on passages from the book to the 'outside'?) Or was it simply pragmatism plus business acumen on the part of the officer?  A way of making the fullest possible use of someone without paying him a cent apart from giving him an occasional bunch of fruit or a few fried bananas? In any case, I always took these special treats back to my cellmates as a way of cutting short their questions about what I was doing. Moreover, working in that room made me feel like being at the gates of hell and I completely lost my appetite...

After a month or so, my 'book-corvee' came to an end. I was put back into my cell day and night, sometimes doing the normal corvee duty with the others: cleaning drains, sweeping the courtyard, repairing the road, cleaning the toilets, and so on. But not long afterwards, I had to return to my own profession: book-corvee. The commander of the military policy unit where I was detained was a second lieutenant with a bachelor's degree who was still attending lectures at university: he was in his last year and he wanted to prepare a paper for his master's degree. His position as police commander was apparently too 'uneventful' and he was looking for something more 'exciting': he wanted to become a logistics officer.

I seized upon this opportunity to ask for as much reading material as possible. I purposely included some titles that I knew he would not be able to find except in my own library: the babad as well as Javanese and Malay classical works. And since in terms of his own needs he had no alternative, he allowed me to receive these books from home. I could ask for them quite openly without having to send coded messages.

I finished this second book-corvee in about a month and a half. Then, about a month later, there was a sweep in all our cells. It happened in the middle of the day when we were all out on corvee cleaning the drains and repairing roads that had been worn down by heavy rains. When we returned to our cells, we found them in utter confusion: the sleeping mats had been rolled away all over the place, our clothes had been piled in a heap all mixed up and left unfolded. Not a single one of my books was left, not even the comic strips. Even the slips of paper and stubs of pencils we used to write down our domino and rummy scores had gone. The 'protection' I had been getting from the intel staff officer and the police officer had ended. But what I felt far more deeply was the verdict of my fellow tapols. Not a word was said, only flashes in their eyes, looks on their faces, and occasionally whispers among them, but I understood it all only too acutely: It's all because of you! You and your books!  A load of rubbish!

For the next few days, it was as if we were in a state of cold war. I too was caught up in the same stream, behaving like cattle whose values are determined by their owner. Everything was done in conformity with the patterns and times fixed: eating, drinking, sleeping, bathing, and even shitting. I didn't know whether to do anything to thaw the tension or to let it thaw on its own, as the days and nights followed each other, ebbing and flowing. A time would surely come when I would have to say to them: we are political prisoners, not a bunch of criminals who are being tortured and imprisoned because we tried to satisfy our stomachs. As I waited for the time to come, all I could do was plod along the path of my own age, counting the steps already taken and considering what might happen.

Eventually the moment I had waited for came but it passed too quickly for me to say anything. At seven that morning, a guard came with an order from his commander that I was to move. There was no point asking where, the question would not have been answered. Ten minutes, all the time under the watchful eye of the guard, was enough to get myself ready and shake hands with my cellmates who showed the warmth of their feelings in their eyes. But it was not enough to talk, except to Pak Slamet, the older tapol who was allowed a greater degree of freedom. I whispered a message to him for the others:  tapols must always be ready to die at any moment. Not just eat and sleep. He nodded, understanding.

Setiawan3An Indonesian tapol is reunited with his family on release

Solitary again

As a new inmate in Salemba camp, I had to go through a further period of isolation. Another ten months, making altogether thirteen months in isolation. The first three months I spent in Block D and the rest in Block E which was for military criminals. In that block not only were my clothes finished off-everything except for the pants and singlet that constantly clung to my body - but also my body fat and flesh. The food sent from home twice a week never reached me. I only knew about it months later, after I was moved to other blocks (F and I), not long before I was transferred to Buru. Here in particular, as well as from my long period of detention and then exile, I learnt to understand better the relationship between the individual and the collective, and together with that, formed a better understanding of solidarity and consciousness. I saw too the consequences of the organisational hierarchy from the old days, built on a combination of feudal and bourgeois values and patterns. Almost every  moment, I was to hear of major problems exploding over such things as a leaf of tobacco, a piece of soap, a portion of spinach, or of people fawning on the people in charge of the blocks, or hiding behind criminals for protection, or reporting on each other to the camp officials. At such times, I felt the truth of the Javanese saying: too many words lead to the gates of hell. Because of all this, I who had always been a man of few words grew quieter than ever. Up to a point I had to be on guard against everyone else, because caution was the only way of protecting yourself against misfortune.     


1. See his A Language from Buru: Wayapo-Indonesian Wordlist, edited by John U. Wolff, Indonesia (Cornell University), No. 34, October 1982.

2. Index on Censorship, 39C Highbury Place, London N5 1QP, U.K.

3. 30 September 1965 affair, when six generals were murdered and the blame was placed on the PKI.

4. Digul, in Dutch New Guinea, where hundreds of nationalist and communist  detainees were exiled in the 1920s.

5. G30S, the abbreviation for the 30 September affair, (see note 3).

Inside Indonesia 3: Oct - Dec 1984

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