In Indonesia, a cemetery is synonymous with spookiness. I never thought that a cemetery could be a place filled with history accompanied by a serene green atmosphere.
The Dutch Honorary Tombs of Ancol and Menteng Pulo shocked me – in a good way.
It was a blazing hot morning. I decided to beat the gruesome Jakarta traffic with a Gojek, all the way to Taman Impian Jaya Ancol. My Gojek driver told me that he had passed this Dutch War Cemetery several times but he never realised it was open to the public.
It’s the smallest and first-ever Dutch War Cemetery in Indonesia and was established on September 14, 1946. Initially a swamp, the Japanese brought their prisoners here to be shot or beheaded. The British heard about an execution site outside of what was once called Batavia; they had run into an Indonesian monk who allegedly witnessed that execution. Soon, the Dutch took over; digging for remains in 1946.
I strolled along a pathway surrounded by 2,000 burials of Dutch and Indonesian, as well as British and Australian war victims. I noticed the word Geëxecuteerde, meaning executed, was chiseled on many tombstones. Those tombstones marked the unidentifiable victims of war, while those who were identified had their name, date of birth, and date and location of death engraved on their grave markers.
Director of the Netherlands War Graves Foundation (Oorlogsgravenstichting or OGS) in Indonesia, Robbert van de Rijdt, took me on a tour. He said he used to do many tours at weekends but eventually he trained guides from tourist organisations, like Jakarta Good Guide, to give tours for Indonesian and foreign tourists.
“We find it important to give Indonesians a role in this process. I get the impression that the younger generation has a higher curiosity level about their roots nowadays. Yet, many Indonesians still don’t have the slightest clue that these cemeteries are open seven days a week, from 7am to 5pm, free of charge,” said Robbert.
Born in Tomohon, Indonesia, this Dutch ex-naval officer was filled with enthusiasm as he told me about our ancestors’ common history.
“Twenty-two war cemeteries were created in Indonesia after the Japanese occupation ended on August 15, 1945. We’ve buried 25,000 war victims, comprising 80 percent civilians and 20 percent military personnel, mostly killed fighting the Japanese, alongside getting captured and held in the Japanese concentration camps. Not to mention the many Indonesian and Dutch people who died throughout the chaotic years of 1945–1949.
“In the 1960s, the Indonesian president requested the organisation to reduce the number of cemeteries and only concentrate on Java, so we closed down the 15 erevelds in Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and Papua. Positively, an agreement formed, in 1970, which allowed the seven erevelds in Java to remain. We had all victims transported to these erevelds we now have in Java; two in Jakarta, two in Bandung, two in Semarang and one in Surabaya,” he explained.
Nicky Ali joined me on the tour. He’s interested in becoming a volunteer. It was his first time visiting and he couldn’t stop saying how impressive it was. “The maintenance is beautiful. I am proud of the Dutch government that they respect the victims this way. I think it’s for a good cause,” he said.
Eventually, we headed to Menteng Pulo – the most visited of the gravesites in Jakarta.
It was almost noon. The city smog was taking over the afternoon sunlight. Trees made this ereveld a green oasis in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Casablanca. This was more spacious compared to the one I’d visited earlier.
With 4,000 war victims laid to rest in a space that was once surrounded by palm trees, it’s now circled by tall skyscrapers. The tombstones are organised according to the four beliefs of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism. There’s even a non-active Simultaankerk, a multi-denominational place of worship acting as a gathering spot, along with a special place called Columbarium, designed to display the urns of 756 Dutch military personnel who died in Japan and were later transported here by the Japanese.
“We thought of new approaches to create awareness through social media; Facebook on Ereveld Menteng Pulo and Instagram @Ereveld_in_Indonesia. We want everyone, especially Indonesians, to feel welcome. Ultimately, this area is your country – this is your land, you are more than welcome to visit,” said Robbert.
Out of 16,000 visitors in 2018, 13,000 were Indonesians. A striking number of young people in the Netherlands are unaware of this part of their history. Olga, a Dutch tourist, happened to visit her long-time friend in Jakarta and was brought to Menteng Pulo.
“Yes, this is my first time here. You can get a good impression of the war’s aftermath as you can see thousands of soldiers and civilians laid to rest.
“I have four children and if I have the chance to take them here, I will. They showed great interest when I told them stories about the wars in Indonesia. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure they knew nothing since school history lessons were mainly based on Europe. Even I was told stories by my friend whose family endured the Japanese occupation,” said Olga.
Every year, a group from the Netherlands pays their respects to their deceased families, killed during the war in Indonesia. Robbert explained that he gets emails from people trying to find their long-lost family members.
“We have 180,000 war victims’ data in our books of war victims’ records. People browse on our website to check whether their family member is a war victim and where they were buried, although sometimes, it’s not entirely registered,” said Robbert.
Once, a family in Tomohon reached out to Robbert about their father who was killed by the Japanese in 1943. “Naturally, I searched his name on the website. Turns out he’s a war victim but the data stated that the location of his remains was unknown. The family explained they knew where he was interred. So, I offered them a space in one of the erevelds, since he’s entitled to be there, yet it was up to the family where he should be buried. Eventually, the remains were transported to Jakarta – we even found a bullet to his head!” said Robbert.
To everyone’s surprise, Olga excitedly said, “I have an uncle who died in Indonesia during the 1940s. There’s a high chance that he is buried in Menteng Pulo,” as she searched through the books.
We continued the tour to see the tombstone making process. I spoke to one of the makers, Suyanto. He was smoothing a 1.8-metre cross made out of iron, cement, and sand before it would be painted white. These crosses were originally made of teak wood, but six years ago it came to Robbert’s attention that termites were destroying them. A concrete cross can last up to 20 years and gets re-painted in six years.
“One cross takes a week to be completed, in a month there could be 18 crosses so that would be 216 crosses made in a year,” said Suyanto.
The tour ended by relaxing at a gazebo, overlooking this hidden green space in Jakarta. Robbert told us that “maintaining these cemeteries can hopefully show the new generations that we should all learn from history and not repeat the same mistakes, especially from what wars have to tell us.”
The Dutch war cemeteries in Indonesia reflect a piece of Dutch and Indonesian history. By maintaining them, the victims and their stories will always be remembered, and this part of history can receive the recognition it deserves. Far-away family members in the Netherlands can even order flowers to be laid at their family graves and a photo sent to them to ensure their sacrifice isn’t forgotten.