May 20, 2024 Last Updated 3:06 AM, May 20, 2024

Survival through slavery

Survival through slavery

Taufik Ahmad

        Prisoners gathered after finishing work, not long before their release
        Anwar Abbas

The Moncongloe rehabilitation camp was located on the isolated border of the Maros and Gowa districts in South Sulawesi. Surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by surveillance posts, the camp consisted of five barracks - one for women - a mosque and a church, a clinic, a cooperative and an airfield. It was here that suspected communists who survived the killings of 1965-66 spent the best part of their adult lives, working as slaves for the military in the jungle.

Killing and capture

In South Sulawesi, the killings began in the capital Makassar when Dr Soenarso, a medical practitioner who provided services to the city's poor, was attacked at his practice on 5 October 1965. Over the next five days, a campaign of looting and destruction was waged against the local Chinese and Javanese populations who were associated with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). The campaign was conducted by members of a number of groups including Pemuda Ansor, Pemuda Pancasila, Muhammadiyah, Masyumi and the United Indonesian Muslim Party which was the direct descendant of the old Muslim Association of colonial times. The violence continued into November and December, when mobs attacked and looted Chinese shops.

Thousands of members of the PKI and its affiliated organisations like the labour union SOBSI, the cultural group LEKRA and the Peasants' Front - along with many others simply accused of being communists - were killed in district of Bone and in other places like Luwu and Wajo. In Bone, at the end of 1965, an angry mob killed the head of the communist labour organisation SOBSI, then attacked the school building where members of the PKI were being held, murdering those inside. They then proceeded to the prison and the police station where other PKI members had sought shelter. Among the victims at the prison were the provincial party head, Andi Mappa, and the secretary general, Igo Garnida Heri Erianto. In early November, the US Embassy reported that Muslim mobs broke into a detention camp and killed 200 PKI prisoners. Around 100 Javanese were also killed at the prison at Watampone, most of them workers from the Arasoe sugar factory who had been billeted at the prison because their barracks had yet to be constructed. Their bodies were later interred in a mass grave in Kampung Kajolo. Many more were kidnapped and never seen again.

In Bantaeng, the head of the local PKI branch M. Ali Yusuf was forced from his prison cell by members of Muhammadiyah, led by Usman Maesa and Suaib Naba M. Ali Yusuf. He was taken to the mosque and killed. Later that evening, the same group murdered Abdul Rahman Holi, the owner of an abbatoir who had provided financial support for PKI activities, in his home. Not long after, at the market, the head of the local labour union was stabbed repeatedly until he died. The head of the communist youth wing, H. Amran, died the same way in a police cell at the hands of Pemuda Ansor. Another member of the youth wing called Dusung, who had managed to stay hidden in his village, was killed around the same time.

There were also mass killings on the borders of Wajo and Sidrap districts, this time of local farmers, many of whom were registered as members of the Indonesian Farmers' Front (BTI). The farmers tried to save themselves by hiding in their relatives' houses or fleeing from the district, leaving all their possessions at home. A Javanese transmigrant settlement in Luwu was also targeted. The military responded to the violence by rounding up anyone suspected of being a communist, ostensibly for their own safety. Some of those arrested had positions in the PKI or its associated organisations. But others had no PKI connections.

By the end of October 1965, the Kodim 1408 office in Makassar was filled with political prisoners. Cells six metres long and four metres wide were used to house 19 people, and still the numbers continued to grow. By early March 1966, there were 9,765 people being held in shocking conditions at local military and police posts throughout the province before they were eventually transferred to actual prisons.

Military slaves

At the end of 1969 - over four years after the initial arrests - the camp at Moncongloe was completed and some 859 men and 52 women had been brought there from prisons all over South and Southeast Sulawesi. 846 of the prisoners lived in the camp itself while others were distributed among members of the military, working as live-in domestic servants for no pay, ostensibly in return for personal 'guidance' from their masters.

Those who lived in the camp itself were each allocated a hectare of virgin forest land which they were forced to cultivate. Few of the prisoners had any farming experience, as they were mostly white-collar professionals but in just one year they transformed 460 hectares of forest into productive farmland where they grew cassava and maize. Three years later, when Moncongloe was officially reclassified as a rehabilitation camp, prisoners were forced to hand over three quarters of the land they had cultivated to the military officers in charge of the camp. They were also forced to form corvee labour teams to work the officers' land, to harvest bamboo and timber, which they processed to make posts and plywood and other building materials, and to collect rocks for construction.

Prisoners were forced to form corvee labour teams

With the advent of the corvee teams came new and harsh forms of regimentation. The prisoners were forced to assemble at six every morning, where they were inspected and counted before collecting their equipment and leaving for work. Apart from a short break for lunch at mid-day, they worked without stopping until six in the evening. They then had to reassemble at seven to be inspected and counted again. In addition to agricultural tasks, they were forced to build military housing and offices and to work on military and development projects far from the camp, including the 15 kilometres of highway between Daya and Moncongloe. The teams worked six days a week, leaving only one out of seven days to till the land they were allowed to cultivate for their own subsistence.

At times the only way that prisoners could survive was by getting close to particular officials, giving them gifts from the forest and learning about their hobbies and anticipating their needs. But at other times, prisoners exercised their limited powers of resistence. The easiest way to do this was to go slow at work or to surreptitiously damage the farmland or livestock belonging to the officers. A common form of covert resistance was to kill baby livestock that the political prisoners would otherwise have to tend. One of the former prisoners I talked to, called Anwar Abbas, worked with another prisoner who had veterinary qualifications to do this without being detected. Anwar would kill the baby goats and then Untung the veterinarian would fake their cause of death. Other prisoners stole pumpkins from the gardens of officers who were particularly disliked when the officers left the camp for recreation leave in Makassar. Such actions carried great risks, and were generally restricted to former PKI activists, who found that the skills they had learned in their party work were very valuable in planning them. But the level of surveillance and control meant that direct resistance was impossible even for the most militant.

Freed but not free

All but 42 of the prisoners were released by 1978, after almost a decade of forced labour in the Moncongloe camp. The 42 'ideological cadres' who were taken to Nanga-Nanga, near Kendari in Southeast Sulawesi, were released a year later. Many of the former internees were chronically ill with malaria, bronchitis or liver problems, or suffering physical disability. One of them developed a serious mental illness after being released from the camp. While the military no longer controlled their daily lives, they were required to report to local authorities every week.

The social stigma the former prisoners endured meant they were no longer able to live freely in their own communities. Instead, they were forced to live in isolation on the edge of the forest, to change their identities or start anew somewhere else. As they were banned from government positions and most private sector jobs, most ended up finding employment as construction workers and manual labourers, moving from place to place. Many moved to Makassar because they couldn't return to their hometowns. Many of the former prisoners were already old. They had to begin again with nothing, as their belongings had been confiscated. They lived in rented houses or rooms, with no guarantees for their future, forever marginalised by the stigma of being 'people from an unhealthy environment'.

Taufik Ahmad ( is a graduate the History Masters program at Hasanuddin University.

Inside Indonesia 99: Jan-Mar 2010

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