A historical perspective of wartime life in colonial Indonesia based on family accounts.
Batavia had once been known throughout the world as the Amsterdam of the East. With its city-wide labyrinth of canals, drawbridges, cobblestone streets, trams, harbors, and European cultural awareness Batavia was now adding to this romantic exotic moniker and focused on becoming a world class city; one that could attract people by boasting opportunity, success, and lifestyle.
The ever increasing population required infra-structure. Civil servants from the Netherlands were offered incentives to pack-up and move to the Indies.
The promise of a life in the tropics was hard to resist. With unrest in Europe becoming more and more likely, a chance to escape and start again was appealing. People flooded into the Indies throughout the 1930’s.
By the turn of the decade the world was bracing for war.
In Europe, Germany had mobilized and by the end of 1940 Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, and the Netherlands had fallen.
In Asia, Japan had invaded China and was systematically moving its forces south through Burma, Indo-China, Malaysia, and Singapore.
The goal was oil…and that belonged to the Dutch East Indies.
On December 8th 1941 Japan attacked multiple targets that flanked its objective. The most famous being Pearl Harbor.
Life in the Indies, under Dutch colonial rule, was about to be turned upside down.
The writing was on the wall as the outer islands began to fall to Japanese rule in January and February of 1942. Oil was the prize but it was cloaked in a veil of liberation from colonial oppression. This veil was quickly lifted however as South East Asia quickly learned that they had simply swapped one form of oppression for another, far more sinister, version.
The colonial rule of the French, English, and Dutch was at an end.
In March of 1942 the Japanese invading forces landed at Tanjung Priuk harbor in Batavia. This is the same point of debarkation that families, full of wonder and hope for a better future, had once arrived.
Within weeks the systematic internment of Dutch civilians was underway.
Blavotsky Park, on the south western corner of Koningsplein (Merdeka Square), acted as a staging area from where people would be shuttled to camps. Some were trucked to the army barracks on Matramanweg while completion of one of the largest camps continued.
In 1943 my family and thousands of others entered through the gates of Tjideng.
The innocence and the adventure of living in the tropics now turned to survival and it would never turn back.
Overcrowding, blazing heat, disease, hunger, cruelty, and tenko (bowing to the emperor) would make up the day to day routine of the men, women, and children divided among camps throughout the Indies.
Clutching small portions of dignity and hope were straws worth grasping. For four years surviving was paramount followed closely by reunification with loved ones and a return to normalcy.
Many innocent lives were lost during these years.
A death rate in excess of 30% was recorded for those interned. Malaria and beri-beri acting as silent assassins while the brutality of the commanders and guards acted in stark contrast but with the same result.
The Commander at Tjideng, a man who would howl at the full moon and beat women and children mercilessly, was the first to be found guilty of war crimes following the wars conclusion. He was hung.
After years of captivity it would be the irony of war, and this one in particular, that would be the most confounding.
Following the surrender in August of 1945 the Japanese switched roles. In a cruel act of fate the interns could not leave the camps even though the gates were open.
The Indies was now in a revolutionary war and the safest place to be was behind the relative protection of the walls that had just moments early held people captive; the prison becoming the fortress. For nearly five more years the Nationalists fought for a free and independent state.
In the years that followed 1945 the Indies was in a state of turmoil and chaos; the Dutch attempting to reclaim its territory while the Indonesian Nationalists declared independence and laid the foundations for its future.
In total the country was at war for nearly nine years.
When it emerged, it was the Republic of Indonesia. The Indies became a lost era but for those that lived through Tempo Doeloe, the depression, and the war, the Indies became a defining passage of time.
Living in the Indies ultimately meant a struggle to survive. Surviving the Indies was like losing a love…a gut wrenching void that, for some, could never be filled.