May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

I'm still here

I'm still here

Annie Pohlman

         Nowhere to run

'I'm still here,' Susiani told me very firmly on the day I met her. 'I should have died. But I'm still alive. I'm still here.'

Susiani is right. She easily could have died along with the hundreds of thousands of others who were killed in the months and years that followed the 1965 coup. But despite her injuries from repeated sessions of interrogation, as well as her years of incarceration in overcrowded and unsanitary detention facilities with little food, Susiani is still here.

Susiani's story is similar to those of thousands of other women detained during the mass arrests after the coup. Many women were captured or killed because they were members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), or one of its associated organisations, including the communist-aligned Indonesian Women's Movement, Gerwani. Many others were persecuted because they were relatives or associates of party members. Some were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and were caught up in the purges. Some women, like Susiani, were captured and imprisoned by the local military or police as 'guarantees' for fugitive relatives.

Susiani's husband, a member of the PKI, disappeared about a year before her arrest. In the first few months of her detention, she endured numerous interrogation sessions, during which she was intimidated, humiliated and finally physically tortured for information on the whereabouts of her husband. Susiani had no idea where her husband had gone - she never saw him again after he disappeared into hiding shortly after the coup. Not long after her husband's disappearence, Susiani's house was seized by the military and she and her children were evicted. Through a friend, Susiani managed to find another house to rent.

In the camp, sexual violence was regularly perpetrated against women detainees

But then she was arrested and taken to a nearby military post. When they arrived, Susiani saw that the soldiers' compound had been hastily converted into a detention centre where hundreds of people were confined in cramped and filthy cells. She shared a small room with several other women detainees. There was very little food and the supplies that some of the women had brought with them soon ran out.

In the camp, sexual violence was regularly perpetrated against women detainees.. The soldiers, policemen, guards and even the members of civilian militia groups who occasionally worked in detention facilities abused their position of power to rape, torture and harass women prisoners. Some women also explained how essential resources were used to coerce victims into sexual activities. For example, guards had access to food and other basic supplies, and used these resources to compel female detainees into performing sexual acts. As Susiani told me, 'There was no choice. We had to.'

Interrogation and rape

Not long after she arrived, Susiani was called for interrogation. This was to be the first of several times that she was escorted from her cell during the night and taken to a special room at the back of the compound. From her cell, she and the other women had heard screaming coming from the interrogation room. They had also seen detainees returned by the guards, severely beaten and unconscious. Some of the detainees taken for interrogation never came back. 'Every night we could hear them. My cell was near where they were tortured. I couldn't bear to hear them screaming.' Adding that she had witnessed the effects of repeated torture on another woman detainee, Susiani recalled, 'I saw what had happened to Nur, what they did to her … and I was terrified. I prayed, oh God, please God, keep me safe.'

Susiani's first interrogation set the pattern for what became an escalating sequence of violence. Her interrogators repeated the same questions over and over, sometimes cajoling, sometimes standing over her, shouting. The next night, after she was subjected to another round of questions and intimidation, her husband's younger brother was brought into the room. She discovered he, too, had been arrested as a 'guarantee' for her husband. Yelling at Susiani to tell them the whereabouts of her husband, the interrogators nearly beat her brother-in-law to death in front of her.

Susiani's interrogators became even more violent in the sessions that followed. The interrogations also became increasingly sexualised, both in the methods of intimidation and humiliation as well as in the forms of violence. On one occasion, Susiani remembered how her interrogator showed her photographs of men's genitals. She could not say why she had been forced to look at those pictures. She did not know if she were supposed to be able to identify individuals from pictures of their genitals, with the implication that she had had sexual relations with them, or whether they were being used simply to humiliate her. These recollections reflect a common theme in women's testimonies of their experiences of interrogation. Many women noted how female 'Communist sympathisers' were allegedly accustomed to sexual deviance and sexual violence. These accusations were, in turn, used by perpetrators to justify and motivate sexual assaults.

As time went on, Susiani's interrogation sessions became more violent. Near the end of her time at the command post she was interrogated by one of the most infamous torturers to emerge after the 1965 coup. Renowned for his sadism, the perpetrator had been captured after the coup for his membership of one of the PKI's associated organisations but had, in Susiani's words, 'betrayed' the party and 'changed sides'. During her interrogation with this notorious torturer, Susiani was nearly killed.

'Try to answer my question,' he asked slowly, 'please tell us, where is your husband?'

'I don't know. You can do whatever you want to me, I don't know.' He thought I was pretending, but I really and truly didn't know. And then he started to play with a whip.

'You're not afraid of this?' he said, playing with the whip.

'Why should I be afraid, if you're going to kill me anyway? Just kill me!'

'You're not afraid then? You're not afraid that there will be no-one to take care of your children?'

'Oh, my children have God. Someone will take care of them. They will be fine, so long as they still have relatives, so you can do whatever you want. Just kill me now, go ahead!'

Recalling the exchange, Susiani observed that her interrogator was really annoyed by her calmness. 'Perhaps he thought I was a simpleton, but obviously, I wasn't.' He grabbed her and demanded that she take off her clothes. She resisted, but he was too strong.

'And now will you confess or not?'

'Oh God,' is all I said…and then he pushed me over the chair.

'Do you know what this is?'

'Oh God, what are they going to do to me?' I thought. He picked up a broken bottle.

Susiani paused for a moment in telling her story, then said, 'to talk about this kind of thing, as a woman, it's strange, but, but because I didn't do anything wrong, he was wrong … it's difficult.'

'And then he put the bottle in "there". Even though I'd only recently given birth. Wah! In there! But still, I never thought of surrendering. Never! All I could manage to say was, "Oh God!" It hurt so much, what he did.'

The interrogator continued to rape Susiani with the broken bottle and she fainted. When she woke up, she was back in the women's cell and was bleeding profusely from her vagina. The bleeding continued despite the care of the other women in the cell. The other women begged some of the guards for medical assistance and, to their surprise, the guards took her to a local hospital. Once there, she was taken into the care of a doctor who Susiani believed saved her life. Not only did he treat her wounds and keep her in hospital until she recovered, he also intervened on her behalf. The doctor went to the command post and insisted that she be moved to a women's prison where, he hoped, she would be safe from torture.

The importance of sharing stories

Susiani's story is both common and unique. She is one of the thousands of women who resisted, acquiesced, negotiated, survived - or did not survive - in the face of the massacres and political detentions from 1965. In often adverse, seemingly unendurable conditions, women, men and children persevered. Forty-five years later, survivors like Susiani are telling their stories about the massacres and mass political detentions that changed the lives of millions. They reveal their experiences in remembrance of the dead and in recognition of the harm done to themselves and their families. For survivors like Susiani, telling her story is a way to demand acknowledgement of the crimes perpetrated against her.

In many ways, Susiani was lucky. As she told me, she could very easily have died in detention. Through much hard work and help from her family, she managed to rebuild a life for herself and her children. Now a grandmother, she is surrounded by her extended family. As I left her home after interviewing Susiani, she pointed to herself and said, 'Remember what I told you, it's important. I'm still here.'

Annie Pohlman ( is Program Leader for Southeast Asia at the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect at the University of Queensland which works for the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities in the Asia-Pacific region. Annie is currently finishing her PhD on women's experiences of the massacres of 1965-66.

Inside Indonesia 99: Jan-Mar 2010

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