Dutch state apologizes for 1947 Indonesia massacre
RAWAGEDE, Indonesia—After six decades of waiting, relatives of men killed in a notorious massacre during Indonesia's bitter struggle for independence finally got what they wanted: an official apology from the Dutch state.
Tjeerd de Zwaan, ambassador to Indonesia, apologized on his country's behalf Friday before hundreds of villagers in Rawagede, scene of the Dec. 9, 1947 killings of up to 430 boys and young men by Dutch troops.
The crowd, tense with emotion, erupted in cheers and applause.
Tears rolled down the cheeks of surviving widows, now in their late 80s and early 90s, some of whom had doubted they would ever hear those words.
"It makes me feel my struggle for justice was not useless," said Cawi binti Baisa, who was 20 when her husband of two years headed to the rice paddy in the morning never to return.
Dutch troops clinging to their retreating colonial empire arrived in Rawagede just before dawn 64 years ago and opened fire, sending sleepy residents scattering from their homes in panic.
The soldiers were looking for resistance leader Lukas Kustario, known for ambushing Dutch bases. When villagers said they didn't know where he was, nearly all the men were rounded up and taken to the fields.
Squatting in rows, with both hands placed on the backs of their heads, they were shot one by one.
The apology -- more than six decades later -- followed a landmark ruling by a Dutch court in September that said the state was responsible for the massacre.
Their lawyer, Liesbeth Zegveld, said her firm has already received euro20,000 ($27,000) for each of the 10 plaintiffs, three of whom have since died. The money will be transferred to the widows as soon as they have all opened their own bank accounts.
The presence of de Zwaan at the annual commemoration held at Rawagede Hero Cemetery -- where many of the victims were buried in a mass grave -- caused a huge, emotional stir.
Big white tents shielded people from the blazing tropical sun.
"Today, Dec. 9," the ambassador began, "we remember the members of your families and those of your fellow villagers who died 64 years ago through the actions of the Dutch military."
"On behalf of the Dutch government, I apologize for the tragedy that took place."
Several women involved in the case -- their faces lined with heavy wrinkles and their eyes milky with cataracts -- said the apology was much more important than whatever money they eventually get.
What they most wanted was closure.
Wanti binti Sariman was nine months pregnant with her second child when her 26-year-old husband, Tarman, was taken to a field with other men. She found his body in the last of three rows of corpses.
"I was so shocked to see him lying there with the other men," she said. "It had been raining. Their blood was mixed with the water, creating red pools all around them.
"I can't get that image out of my head," she said. "I still have nightmares about it."
Some men escaped by hiding in the swamps and plantations, she said, but they were chased down by dogs and shot.
"It was horrific. But I've come to accept it. That was our destiny," the widow said as she wiped away her tears. "And of course, we have to forgive the troops who killed our men."
The other women around her nodded.
"It's true," said Lasmi binti Kasilan, who miscarried after her seventh month of pregnancy when she learned of her husband's death.
"We never wanted vengeance. We wanted an apology and compensation, and in the end, we got it."
The Dutch government has never prosecuted any soldiers for the massacre, despite a U.N. report condemning the attack as "deliberate and ruthless" as early as 1948.
A 1968 Dutch report acknowledged "violent excesses" in Indonesia but argued that Dutch troops were conducting a "police action" often incited by guerrilla warfare and terror attacks.
Former Foreign Minister Ben Bot expressed deep regret for offenses by Dutch forces throughout Indonesia in 1947, but the government had never formally apologized to relatives in Rawagede.
Associated Press writer Mike Corder contributed to this story from The Hague, Netherlands.