In Java, uncovering the memories and mass graves of 1965

Mohammed Ridlo visited several sites in Central Java, believed to be mass graves of victims who died in 1965, when more than half a million suspected communists and sympathizers were killed.

Senin, 24 Okt 2016 14:14 WIB

Many executions took place at the Plengkung Bridge above the Cikawung River, Central Java. (Photo: M

Many executions took place at the Plengkung Bridge above the Cikawung River, Central Java. (Photo: Muhamad Ridlo)



For years it was taboo to even speak about it. These days the massacre of 1965-66 are still a deeply sensitive subject in Indonesia.

Sparked by a failed coup that was blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) the incident led to a witch-hunt for suspected communist sympathizers across the country. At least half a million people were killed.

KBR journalist Mohammed Ridlo visited several sites, believed to be mass graves of the victims in Central Java.

** A warning that this feature contains some disturbing content.



It began with an attempted coup against President Sukarno on September 30, 1965.

Military generals, calling themselves the September 30 Movement, captured and killed six generals.

The coup failed but it was quickly blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party, or the PKI, and in the months that followed suspected communists were hunted down and killed.

Rubidi Mangun Sudarmo, a political figure in the area was chosen by the military to be a commander in Cilacap, Central Java.

As commander Rubidi arrested and interrogated scores of PKI members and sympathizers, and also witnessed them being executed.

It’s here at the Plengkung Bridge above the Cikawung River that many of the executions took place, says Rubidi.

“About 22 people were brought here. Shortly after that 11 more people came. So there was a total of 33 people. Another time there was 40. I saw that as well.”

Rubidi says the prisoners’ hands were tied and they were told to kneel by the riverbank.

After that the soldiers shot them one by one in the back of the neck and kicked them into the river.

So many people were killed during that time, says Rubidi, that the river was filled with corpses.

But Rubidi claims he was never directly responsible.

“They asked me to take one but I refused and said, ‘that’s the army duty’. I did not want to shoot. I never shot nor hit anyone,” claimed Rubidi.

Besides the river sits the old JA Watie rubber plantation.

Kirno, who used to work at the plantation has vivid memories of that time.

He recalls his boss asking him to dig a hole one day. Only later did he realize he was digging a mass grave for suspected communists, and a Gerwani member and her son.

Gerwani was a women’s organization closely associated with the PKI.

“The story was that the Gerwani woman did not want to be separated from her son,” recalled Kirno.

“They wanted to take her son but she refused. She said, ‘No, dead or alive he is with me.’ I don’t know whether the son was shot or what happened.”

Kirno takes me through the plantation to one of the five mass graves he dug. All the mass graves, he says, are marked with croton plants.

Kirno doesn’t know how many bodies are held inside. He just remembers hearing the sound of loud gunfire – he lived just 500 meters away.

Local resident Jumar says he believes there are several mass graves in the area.

He recalls looking for firewood on the plantation one day when he saw traces of the graves.

“I remember there was a plot of land nearby called Tanah Kafir,” said Jumar.

“It was not far from the bamboo grove. I think that’s the location. I saw three holes there.”

Jumar remembers hearing the gunfire on several nights too, and noticed the next morning the holes had been covered over.

Another laborer on the plantation, Radim, says he was the one tasked with burying the bodies.

He was just 20 years old at the time.

“At that time there were 10 friends along with me. It was about 1 or 2 in the morning. But I didn’t dare to look, I just covered the hole,” Radim recalls.

More than five decades later, Radim says he is still haunted by those bloody years, a dark chapter in Indonesia’s history.

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