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Holland's Black Page
By: Dheera Sujan

On August 17th 1945, just as the brutal war in the Pacific was coming to an end, Sukarno, the nationalist leader of the East Indies, declared his country's independence and severed the connections of four centuries of Dutch rule.

The Dutch had ruled Indonesia since the 16th century when the powerful East India Company controlled almost all the trade of the East. Generations of Dutch planter and mining families lived lives of luxury and oversaw the transfer of a wealth of natural resources to the Netherlands. Tea, coffee, spices, textiles, petroleum and minerals were just some of the bounty that the Netherlands drew off from its Asian colony. With the Japanese surrender, Sukarno seized his chance and declared the days of Dutch dominance over.

Harsh response
The Dutch government responded by sending troops to the Indies in what would become known as "the Police Actions". The words "colonial war" were avoided because the Dutch refused to acknowledge that it was a conflict between two states, regarding it as an internal problem. There were two major Police Actions spread over a three year period during which 120,000 young Dutch men were sent on a mission to bring "order and peace" to the Indies. What actually happened under that mandate would come out only decades later, and would haunt the conscience of the Netherlands for years to come.

Gus Blok was conscripted into the army and shipped off to a land unlike anything he'd ever seen before. He's a big man, with a handshake that can pulverize those of less hearty individuals. "We were there, admiring the beautiful nature, the beautiful women, but we were not thinking about morality . . . that happened when we were back." And then this big man dissolves in floods of tears. It soon becomes clear that any discussion of his time in Indonesia pulls him out to an emotional ledge. He sips water with trembling hands, his voice breaking often or slipping into a horrified whisper as he talks of the things he saw and did while he was there. "I didn't shoot them, but I tortured them and I beat them up. I put them in the sun till they fell down. I was never told to do it -- you just grow into it. Isn't it terrible? They didn't tell me to torture people, that was my own doing. I wanted to do my job well."

Modern resonance
Such stories have a particular resonance today with the scandals of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners in American custody. But while the Iraq tortures were made public almost immediately, men such as Gus Blok have lived with their deeds for more than 50 years. Initially when the Dutch soldiers returned home, they couldn't speak of their actions to anyone.

"People in Holland would have been very shocked [if we had revealed] what happened over there," says another former veteran, Maarten Schaafsma. He was 19 and idealistic when he volunteered for action in Indonesia. He went in search of adventure but ended up doing and seeing things that have tormented him in the years since. He says that when he and his comrades came back, their priority was to work to rebuild their country and its war-shattered economy "so we put it away in our thoughts, our time in Indonesia -- but you can't put it away. I do think of that time every day."

The Dutch were finally forced by the US-led international community to the negotiating table and had to concede Indonesian independence. Stef Scagliola has extensively researched the Police Actions. According to her, unlike the war against the Nazis, the conflict in Indonesia "brought no elements of heroism and pride. This was a lost war; a lot of people thought it as a senseless war, so the best way was to be silent about it."

And that silence lasted for a good two decades. Until a former conscript called Joop Hueting went on a national current affairs programme and told his story. "They beat a freedom fighter to pieces . . . they bound his ankles and hung him head-down and let his head beat on the tiles of the cement floor until blood came out of his mouth, his nose, his ears."

Out of the bag
It was a story that was all too familiar to the veterans of the Police Actions, but its effect on mainstream society in the Netherlands was explosive. Finally the long blackout on truth was ended. While some veterans condemned Hueting's testimony and even threatened his life for speaking out, for many others the dam had been broken. Stories of guilt and shame began to leak into the public forum. However, while many soldiers agreed that the Police Actions had been a brutal war of colonialization, and apologized for their role in it, there were others who denied any wrongdoing. They angrily defended their actions, saying they were following orders and fighting for their country.

Even as recently as the 80s when historian Lou de Jong wrote about this period in Dutch history using the words "misdaaden" and "misdrijven" -- war crimes and wrong doings - there was such a public outcry that he was forced to replace them with the officially sanctioned term "excessen" (excesses). According to military historian Dr Petra Groen, the term "war crime" is too connected to the acts of the Nazis and therefore too emotionally loaded to use in the context of the Dutch in Indonesia. "After the interview of Joop Hueting, there was a parliamentary inquiry into Dutch war crimes in Indonesia, and they concluded -- and that's the official army point of view till now --that there were war crimes committed by ordinary soldiers, but they were incidents, there was no structural excessive violence."

No apology Since then, Indonesia has continued to be the blind spot of a nation that has a reputation for being blunt and straight speaking. The Netherlands has never issued an official apology to Indonesia for the violence. However on an individual level, there has been an effort at atonement. Gus Blok has gone back to Indonesia to visit the place where he was stationed and made a public apology to the assembled villagers. He breaks down as he talks of their applause after his speech. Maarten Schaafsma gathered the signatures of other veterans and officially offered them to the Indonesian Embassy. However according to Joop Hueting, the government itself should have been more forthcoming about its past war guilt. Many believe -- and this is a belief shared by Mr Hueting - that an ideal opportunity would have been the official visit of Queen Beatrix to Indonesia on the 50th anniversary of the country's independence. The visit was the topic of a heated public debate for months beforehand and finally it was decided that the Queen wouldn't attend the ceremonies on the day itself, but would make an appearance a few days after the event. That gesture and her carefully worded speech made it quite clear that no official apology would be forthcoming.

Joop Hueting is still almost apoplectic when he recalls the event nine years ago. "I wrote [to the newspapers] that we should give a big present to show our sorrow and regret to the Indonesian people -- give 'The Nightwatch', give a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh." In fact the Queen presented the Indonesian people with a Friesian cow. "A cow," splutters Mr Hueting. "Very rude. That's part of the Dutch soul, this rudeness."

As the shameful pictures from Abu Ghraib emerge, the stories of these old veterans are even more poignant. And one can't help wondering about the young men and women who have been involved in these acts in Iraq, whether they were backed by higher authorities or not. Will they also, decades from now, sit in their armchairs and try to tell a story that still weighs heavy on their hearts? Will their final image also be that of a group of old people, alone with their shame and their grief?


© 2004, SOUNDPRINT Media Center, Inc.