THE ELEPHANT GOES TO WAR…THIS STORY SHOWS THAT THE WAR IN THE DUTCH EAST INDIES WAS A DIRTY WAR.
Earlier a piece was written about the battalion Andjing Nica, now I am writing about the KNIL brigade Gadjah Merah. Writing about this means that I write simultaneously about perpetrators and victims who they were all at the same time. Politically too, this has always been a tricky subject that people would rather not have known about. For a long time the position “if you don’t talk about it then it isn’t there” has persisted.
READ AND JUDGE FOR YOURSELF.
I have tried to make this as neutral as possible.Former resistance member Charles Destrée (88) lives in a village just outside Paris. On the table at the retired graphic artist is a large box that he has specially removed from the attic and on which is written “Indonesia” with a pen.
It is Destrée’s archive of his years as a war volunteer in the Dutch East Indies during the war of independence. He went there by boat in 1946 and returned to the Netherlands in 1948, after which he immediately left for France. One of his photo albums contains previously unpublished gruesome photos. We see killed Indonesians in a row, one with a shot face. Surrounded by kampong residents. Another photo shows a prisoner being taken away, a Dutch KNIL soldier walking next to him. On the back of one of the photos you can read: “Bali, photos of unknown origin, reprisals” ? In one of his letters to the home front, he describes what can be seen in the photos: “War crimes committed by the Dutch”.
It is a remarkable discovery. Never before had anything been published in the Netherlands about war crimes in Bali. A 1995 scientific publication by Canadian historian Geoffrey Robinson that dwelt on this dark episode did not stir anything.
Vrij Nederland spoke with Destrée, and also with former KNIL sergeant Feddy Poeteray and Royal Netherlands Army veteran Goos Blok. The latter confirm that crimes were committed in Bali and took part in it themselves. These new revelations come at a painful time for the Dutch government, because next week Prime Minister Rutte will go on a trade mission to Indonesia. The Dutch government recently apologized for the abuses in South Sulawesi.
But the question is how long that box can remain closed. In the summer of 2012, De Volkskrant published publications of alleged summary executions at the South Sumatran village of Gedong Tataan, after which the NRC followed with a confession from a veteran that the crime had been committed by Dutch people. Newspaper Trouw last September revealed that resistance hero Jan Vermeulen, in the years 1946-1948 of the Indonesian War of Independence, sub-lieutenant of the commander of the Special Troops Raymond Westerling, executed summary executions.
It now appears that everything has happened in Bali that daylight cannot tolerate.
Charles Destrée was part of the 4th (later 8th) Battalion of the Stoottroepen Regiment on the island of Bali and worked as a driver and as a draftsman for the military information service. He was full of ideals. “We wanted to free the people from the extremists, just as we were liberated by the Canadians. We came to help the people. “His letters home, which he kept, show that he was having a great time:” I take the movie car to the beach almost every day and stay there all day. I swim, chat, draw and read there, half shadow in the shadows”. From time to time with the Indonesian ‘extremists’ who were in the mountains, he got something along when he went on patrol: “Those extremists are not very brave. They shoot for a while, but if we get too close they will run away. I still find it incomprehensible how I have ever been able to participate in something like this”.
After a few months in Bali, Destrée and his comrades began to see more and more similarities between the Dutch military in Indonesia and the situation in the Netherlands during World War II. In his letters home, he compared the Balinese who worked with the Dutch with NSB members (National Socialist Movement who worked with the Nazi’s) “They help the Dutch and so they are good,” he said. But the Indonesians are fighting for their independence, just like the resistance in Holland did. “And also:” Muffs that set houses on fire appealed to “Command is command” as justification. But if our boys set fire to a kampong, how is it? “Is there right to be found, except the right of the strongest? “
Destrée and many of his comrades in arms were polder boys from the Kop van Noord-Holland, without any tropical experience. They knew nothing about the internal relations and understood little about the war they had ended up in. The men who were part of the Royal Dutch East Indies Army (KNIL), which had been used for years to suppress rebellions against Dutch authority, were a completely different battle. For them, the Dutch East Indies was more than a colony, it was their country and their home that had to be defended tooth and nail. The KNIL unit Gadja Merah was stationed in Bali, or the “Red Elephant Brigade”. It mainly consisted of traumatized former prisoners of war who had worked on the infamous Burmese railway and had to pick up arms immediately after the war.
The elephant was used at the railroad to drag heavy tree trunks, the color red stood for the much blood that had been shed there. Although the men were severely debilitated physically and mentally, most of them wanted to fight. Almost everyone had lost relatives as a result of the horrific massacres during the Bersiap period, the chaotic months after World War II, when Indonesian nationalists went around murderous and plundering, making thousands of victims, especially Dutch and Dutch Indos.
The Gadja Merah units, where Moluccan soldiers served in addition to the former prisoners of war, took their task seriously to bring order and peace and to resurrect the Dutch East Indies from before the war. Destrée did not understand the KNIL people. “A dead one for every biels, those people said about their time on the Burma railway.” By which they meant that they had suffered badly. “And then we came with the Hunger Winter and the Gestapo, that was no fun either. So it did not botter at all, we spoke a different language.”
After the first troops landed on the beach in March 1946, three months before the arrival of Destrée – the Dutch army expected little resistance from the Balinese, according to Robinson’s research. But after a quiet first month, the problems started. Dutch officers reported, “This once peaceful island is now being hit by a terror of revolutionary youth, threatening to cause total disruption of the once well-structured Balinese social system.” The military responded inexorably. Hundreds of insurgents were shot and thousands captured. Those who resisted were stabbed, beheaded or burned with house and fire.
Eyewitness accounts that Robinson did not include in his book show that the Dutch set fire to kampongs and shot the fleeing population.From the very first skirmishes, the Dutch army command was divided about the strategy to be followed in Bali. The highest soldier on the island was a certain colonel Ter Meulen, who himself had been in German labor camps. He called for the violence to be stopped because he believed that there had been “Nazi practices against which the civilized world has fought in recent years.”
He reported to his superiors that in the first week of April 1946, 52 Balinese had already been killed and many injured. The fatalities included “many insignificant insurgents and even a mother and child unrelated to the resistance.” But Ter Meulen’s appeal made little impression on his commissioned officers, according to documents that Vrij Nederland inspected at the National Archives. KNIL captain Van Oldenborgh informed the headquarters in Denpasar that the enemy had to be hit hard “with all available means”. According to Van Oldenborgh, the aim of the actions should always be “that we want to inflict losses on the counterparty”.
He suggested using Piper Cub and B-25 fighters. “The last plane in particular has a huge moral impression due to its speed and armament.”The planes were indeed deployed, resulting in riddled villages. In November of that year, nearly a hundred resistance fighters were bombed in a single day.In combat situations, the Gadja Merah kicked off. The boys from the Netherlands came behind this. They were shocked by the ferocity of the KNIL soldiers. Destrée wrote to his parents: “They go for it by having a very big face and if they are many, going hard and cruel.
Prisoners are often abused by them. As an apology, it is argued that their women and daughters are raped by the extremists. “A Destrée buddy who spoke to the UN but wants to remain anonymous also struggled with the KNIL units crackdown. “I found them sadistic. People were abused during interrogations. Once I nearly shot a guy from the intelligence service. It was hitting so hard on a group of prisoners that I could no longer see it”.
There were also Stoottroepers who admired the Gadja Merah.Former Stoottroeper Karel Keuls, who served with Destrée in Bali, tells the UN that he found them “fantastic guys” who had to “fight a rotten war against the guerrillas”. According to Keuls, they were improving the real work.
One day a couple of “Stooters” came to Destrée, to “watch corpses”. They said, “there have been a lot of deaths.” But Destrée didn’t come. That was not for him. “Later I got one of the boys photos I still have in my photo album.” In a letter to his parents, he wrote: “Tabanan, October 8, 1946: Recently there was a fight with the extremists, fifty kilometers here from. Eight Balinese lost their lives and four Japs. It was established that the population had fed the extremists. The twelve dead were lined up and the kampong residents were forced to look at the mutilated bodies. What do you expect to achieve with this? “
Dutch soldiers shot extremists on the spot in a kampong. Their relatives, women and children were forced to surround it. The villagers were punished for feeding those extremists. “Destrée was shocked by the events at the time, but he did not question his superiors. “I felt jointly responsible for the Dutch doing things like this. But you had to eat and drink and sleep and serve you. The army command knew about it, I assumed it would take action, but it didn’t happen. “
Torture was also carried out in Bali during military intelligence interrogations. Royal Netherlands Army veteran and retired teacher Goos Blok was one of the people who took part in the torture practices during those interrogations. UN speaks to him at home in his study, where he also prepares the lessons of Dutch and English which he gives to new immigrants twice a week. Blok arrived in Bali in December 1947, a year and a half after Destrée. He had learned Malay on the boat. That is why he was assigned to the intelligence service and ended up at the outpost of Mengwi, where he was surrounded by KNIL soldiers from the Gadja Merah. On his first day he saw colleagues working a Balinese with a water hose. “It was shoved down that man’s throat and filled with water.”
Blok soon also participated. He beat up prisoners, put them in the blazing sun, and used the power of a field telephone to torture them. “I gave them the electrodes of the phone in their hand and then I turned to generate electricity. And then they were shaking. “Despite the atrocities, the outpost where Blok was sitting had an almost friendly atmosphere. There was no fear of extremist attacks. Blok and his men occasionally went on patrol to pick up resistance fighters or double spies. On one of those trips, a civilian who had fled was shot in the buttock. He was trapped wounded in a chasm. The officer of the group said to Blok, “Shoot him. It’s so hard for the Red Cross to get him out of the chasm. “Blok refused. When someone else did, he kept his mouth shut. Blok: “The report said: shot on the run. Scandalous! Especially when it turned out that his act of resistance consisted in that he had refused to pay taxes. I now suffer from that. I should have protected that man. “
Former Gadja-Merah sergeant Feddy Poeteray (90) agrees that violence was used, including the type of incidents Destrée described in his letters and which can be seen in the photos. “We had only been given one task by General Spoor and Queen Wilhelmina, and that was to protect the colony. That innocent civilian casualties were not preventable. “
Poeteray’s house breathes the atmosphere of the old Indies: he opens the door in a tie-dyed robe and the rice for lunch has already risen. In the bookcase are black and white photos of ancestors, a red elephant and his Gadja Merah emblems. Like many of his fellow fighters, Poeteray had suffered severe hardships on the Burmese railway. Feelings of revenge played a major role in him. His grandmother and aunt had been maimed, murdered and thrown into a well during Bersiap times. “We were very motivated to fight. We found that striving for freedom a nag. It had to end soon. “
After their stay in Bali, Poeteray, Destrée and their units were transferred to Sumatra, where Poeteray ended up in the intelligence service. It was also very difficult there. However, unlike Blok, Poeteray does not feel sorry for the victims. According to him, it were often double spies who betrayed the Dutch. “Those defenseless and poorly armed boys from Holland were tortured and thrown into the river. I’ve seen the bodies, with severed legs, outstretched eyes, cut-off pubic parts.
You had to clean up the perpetrators immediately, those were the orders we received from the headquarters in Palembang. I would say to such a guy, “Go pee for a moment” and then I would shoot him in the back of his neck and he would drop dead right away. “Shooting a little boy who had blown up a bridge on the orders of his father, too, went too far”. My Dutch sergeant ordered me to shoot the shivering boy, but I refused and walked away.” Later he was dismayed to see that the child had been killed. “What did he know about that war. It was a rotten time. But if you said, “I’m going to be a soldier,” you had to bear the consequences. Including the atrocities on both sides. That is part of a war. “The cruelty is that Poeteray, after arriving in the Netherlands, was put aside by the government like many of his fellow fighters and even had to fight for years to prove his Dutch citizenship.
Goos Blok is still ashamed of his performance at the time. In the 1980s, he and his wife went to Bali to apologize in a local church for what he had done to the people. He garnered great applause, but the visit did not lead to real relief. “I continue to find it incomprehensible how I have ever been able to participate in something like this.”
For Charles Destrée, who is proud of his time in Indonesia – “we have certainly been able to help people” – it is important that these facts come to light after seventy years”. Crimes against humanity have been committed there in Bali. And the Dutch state must be accountable for that.
Two thousand dead Balinese,Canadian historian Geoffrey Robinson wrote The Dark Side of Paradise: Political Violence in Bali in 1995, which was never published in the Netherlands. He discusses extensively the struggle between the Dutch and the Indonesians in the years 1946-1949. His research showed that many violence in Bali – even after independence – originated in the racist and oppressive colonial system of the Dutch. Out of dissatisfaction, well-trained Balinese set up their own resistance movement. Robinson: “The big mistake of the Dutch was that they thought they would only fight against the” extremists “of Java and that the Balinese people would be on their side.”
Two thousand Balinese were killed during the Indonesian struggle for independence in Bali. For his book, Robinson was the first to speak to Balinese eyewitnesses to the Dutch massacres, but also to Dutch officers. He also consulted our archives. He is pleased that the discussion about the dirty war in Indonesia is now being resumed. “When I did my research, the atmosphere here was very defensive. Historians were not at all interested in negative stories about Dutch behavior in their former colony”.
To his surprise, little attention is paid to this black page.
THE ELEPHANT GOES TO WAR…THIS STORY SHOWS THAT THE WAR IN THE DUTCH EAST INDIES WAS A DIRTY WAR.