PLUMBON, Indonesia — In a country pockmarked with hidden graves from one of the 20th century’s worst mass killings, the village of Plumbon has something that sets it apart: a monument that names some of those believed killed when the nationwide bloodletting engulfed this hamlet half a century ago.
Down a rutted track that passes a flimsy stall selling sugary tea, then penetrates into lush forest, the waist-high marker sits in the center of a rectangular clearing. An edge is broken off; locals blame that on children’s mischief.
It lists eight names: Moetiah, Soesatjo, Darsono, Sachroni, Joesoef, Soekandar, Doelkhamid, Soerono. And it adds that as many as 24 people could be buried here.
Erected in 2015 after activists persuaded villagers, religious leaders and local officials, the monument is a rare acknowledgement of the victims of Indonesia’s anti-communist massacres, which historians estimate killed half a million people. And yet, it also illustrates how thoroughly that history has been erased.
Are those eight men, and victims of related atrocities, truly buried there? The fog of memory may have placed it in the wrong place entirely. Political expediency and the passing of time may prevent anyone from ever knowing for sure.
An abortive coup on Sept. 30, 1965, ignited a months-long bloodbath by soldiers, militias and Islamic groups. The killing spree and mass incarcerations ensured that pro-Western general Suharto would sideline and ultimately replace President Sukarno, a socialist and anti-colonialist at odds with the U.S.
After decades of distorted victor’s history in which the events of 1965-66 were depicted as a heroic uprising, the government this year permitted an unprecedented symposium that brought together survivors, the military and Islamic groups. Organizers had hoped to pave the way for reconciliation and justice. But there was a conservative backlash, followed by a possible death blow: A cabinet reshuffle installed a former military chief with a checkered human rights record to the ministry overseeing work to locate mass graves.
Old age, meanwhile, whittles the ranks of witnesses. Facts blur and slip further from grasp.
Sabar, a frail, shrunken 83-year-old with milky eyes, can barely bring himself to remember. In the mid-1960s, he belonged to one of the mass organizations of Indonesia’s Communist Party.
Sabar’s lips trembled as he recalled being arrested in October 1965. He was held in the Kawedanan, or offices, of the Kendal district government with at least six of the men named on the monument. Plumbon is part of the district in Central Java province.
Sabar said he is certain only of the execution of one man on the monument: Soesatjo.
Yunantyo Adi, one of the activists behind the monument, believes all eight men named on it are buried there, but concedes there’s no proof unless the site is exhumed. Its bigger point, he said, is to serve as a symbol and draw attention to unprosecuted crimes against humanity.
Few people alive witnessed the killings in Plumbon. One of them, Supar, is now toothless and aged beyond his 68 years.
“I never want to see it (the gravesite) again. Some people even say grass won’t grow there,” he said.
He said it was 11 p.m. or later and raining heavily when 12 alleged communists were pulled from the truck that had delivered them to Plumbon. Their burial place had already been dug.
“They were told to sit down on the ground side by side. They prayed or recited whatever verse they knew,” Supar said.
“After the execution I was told to shine the flashlight. I couldn’t look so I turned my face away, but the soldier yelled at me, ‘Don’t look away!’ Those still moving, the soldiers shot them again.
“We buried the bodies, but it wasn’t perfect,” he said. “I heard that some people buried them properly the next day.”
Another witness, Sukar, lived in Plumbon, then a village of less than two dozen houses, at the time of the killings. He spoke to the AP while sitting on the ground where he remembers covering partially buried bodies the morning after mass killings.
“Blood was splattered around. The legs were sticking out of the dirt,” he said.
For decades, the scale and ferocity of the killings were expunged from national consciousness. The narrative has changed only slowly since Suharto’s 1998 ouster.
Agus Widjojo, an organizer of the symposium on the massacres and the son of a general killed in the abortive 1965 coup, said progress on reconciliation will continue once the lackluster economy improves.
“We have reached an objective, and that is people came out to express and state what they think about the tragedy of 1965, whereas before nobody dares to say anything,” he said.
Story: Stephen Wright, Niniek Karmini