Exiles Warsito, Sarkawi, Nardan, Tom Iljas at a cemetery in Stockholm.

Saudara Dalam Sejarah: Exposing the Story of Indonesia’s Forgotten Exiles

In the 1960s, Sukarno sent thousands of students to study abroad, including in China. After the 1965 anti-communist massacre, in which over 500,000 Indonesians were murdered, the new Suharto government accused those studying abroad of supporting Sukarno and revoked their passports and citizenships. Left stateless, such students were forced to seek asylum overseas and up to this day have largely remained persona non grata in Indonesia.

Significantly, one of the exiles was recently deported after trying to pray at a mass grave where his family is buried. Saudara Dalam Sejarah (My Dear Homeland), which premiered at the Rekoleksi Memori Film Festival in Jakarta on 5 December, tells the stories of eight such exiles. The festival was supported by Movies that Matter, an initiative of Amnesty International. Indonesia Expat caught up with the filmmakers of the documentary.

Filmmakers with the exiles in Germany - Yulia (Girl), Amerta (next to her), Goen (at the back)

Filmmakers Yulia (third from right), Amerta (second from right) and Goen (at the back) with the exiles in Germany.

The Crew

Yulia Evina Bhara (YEB) – Producer

Amerta Kusuma (AK) – Director, Producer, Sound

Goen Guy Gunawan (GGG) – Cameraman

You recently had some trouble while filming in Padang, West Sumatra. Can you tell me about it?

YEB: We went to Padang with Tom Iljas, an exile from Sweden who visited Indonesia last year. While there, we went to visit his father’s grave – he was one of the victims of the 1965 tragedy. We found that a stall had been built on the mass grave. We asked the stall owner’s permission to pray there, but he refused. Soon after we left the mass grave, we were arrested by plain-clothed police officers and Tom Iljas was deported “for disrupting security”. 

The current government seems reluctant to revisit the past. Why do you think this is?

YEB: The perpetrators of the 1965 tragedy are still in power and don’t want to disclose what actually took place. Unfortunately, it seems that the new government doesn’t want to talk about 1965 either.

AK: It is not easy to raise awareness about what happened in 1965 these days. Events about the period – such as the session about the 1965 tragedy at last year’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival – are being banned by the government.

What inspired you to make Saudara Dalam Sejarah?

AK: I have known Tom Iljas – one of the exiles currently living in Sweden – since 2004. I knew that he wasn’t able to come back to Indonesia for a long time. He was sent by Sukarno to study in China so that he could come back to Indonesia to build the country. But the New Order regime accused him of being a member of PKI (Indonesia Communist Party) and took away his passport. His story inspired me to make this film.

YEB: The idea to produce Saudara Dalam Sejarah was born in 2013 after Tom Iljas came to Jakarta and told us that Indonesians who had been exiled in 1965 held a gathering at the end of each September at the grave of their exiled friend in Sweden. We ended up going to Europe – Sweden, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands – for three weeks to shoot in September 2014.

What did you notice about the attitudes and lifestyles of the exiles you interviewed in Europe?

AK: We met exiles between the ages of 70 and 85. I was extremely impressed with how connected with Indonesia they still are. They still love their homeland. Many of them have worked as labourers and live humble lives.

Warjo (left), Tom Iljas (middle) and Nardan (right).

Indonesian exiles Warjo (left), Tom Iljas (middle) and Nardan (right).

YEB: All the exiles we met live modestly – they all have had to work hard to survive. The wonderful thing is they are always looking for updates about Indonesia and discuss the political situation in the country. They are so eager to read books from Indonesia that they allocate a portion of their money each month specifically to buy books. In Amsterdam, Bung Sarmadji’s apartment is full of books about Indonesia; his little apartment is like a library.

GGG: While all the exiles we interviewed are now retired, it is obvious that they have had to work hard all their lives. They are now content with a modest existence. They have family and friends in Europe, but their hearts remain in Indonesia.

Is there still a lot of sadness about what happened in 1965 among the people who have been exiled from Indonesia?

YEB: I felt a lot of sadness and longing. Actually, sometimes I felt as if I was back in Indonesia when I entered some of their homes in Europe. Even the song lists in their cars are all Indonesian songs. These people were the best of the best, and excelled in their fields of study. This is why they were sent by Sukarno to study in China. They were meant to do big things upon their return to Indonesia. What a huge loss for our country.

Even though the people we interviewed live far from Indonesia, some of them are still afraid to talk about what happened in 1965. Intimidation still exists and the trauma is still there, even after the fall of Suharto. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to find any women willing to be filmed.

Warsito (left) and Tom Iljas (right).

Warsito (left) and Tom Iljas (right).

AK: The saddest thing for me is that they still have the desire to die in Indonesia. They still think of Indonesia as their homeland.

GGG: Most of the exiles we met are still traumatized by the events of 1965. Some of them still worry about their families in Indonesia to the extent that they don’t even want to visit the country. They worry that if they visit Indonesia, their families will be harassed by the government.

What do you think is the current level of awareness and understanding of the events that took place in Indonesia in 1965?

YEB: While a large part of Indonesia’s younger generation is curious about the past, some don’t even know who Suharto was. Even after 50 years, this tragedy has never been properly acknowledged. Indonesia can only learn from the past after it addresses what actually happened. We hope to contribute to this process through Saudara Dalam Sejarah.

AK: For over three decades, under the Suharto administration, we were forced to learn their version of what took place. We were taught that the 1965 coup was perpetrated by the PKI. There was nothing about human rights violations in our history books. We are planning to screen the film in a number of other cities – especially at universities and schools – in 2016.

GGG: Many people have been indoctrinated by the Suharto regime. This information has been passed on to the younger generation. We need to make sure that today’s youth can access the real history.

Do you think it is important to hold events such as Rekoleksi Memori in Indonesia?

YEB: Many human rights violations have taken place since 1965: Tanjung Priok, Talang Sari, Trisakti, Semanggi I & II, Marsinah, Udin, Wasior and many more. Human rights abuses are still continuing.

Rekoleksi Memori is an attempt to recall the past by collecting individual memories in order to eliminate the violence of the New Order hegemony. It is important that today’s youth is exposed to what has taken place to ensure that it doesn’t happen again in the future. Rekoleksi Memori is a step in this direction.

AK: A great deal of Indonesia’s youth do not know their own history. It’s a sad reality. Rekoleksi Memori aimed to educate young people about the sad events of 1965. The most important message behind the festival is that violence should never be used, even if people have different ideologies or perceptions.

GGG: I wish that Jokowi was brave enough to talk about this issue and apologize on behalf of the Indonesian government.

If you would like to organize a screening of Saudara Dalam Sejarah, contact Yulia Evina Bhara at partisipasiindonesia@gmail.com

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When she isn't travelling around Asia, Alice enjoys spending time with her golden retriever, Gerard.


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