Sunday, October 21, 2012

Guns, Ghosts and Ghostbusters - a Typical Day at the Office

 “.... And then the ghost said, in perfect English, that she had come to Bandung from England in a shipping container full of recycled hangers”.
An uneducated, Indonesian sewing machine operator from the local village of Rancaekek working the night shift suddenly starts acting strange, speaking in a broad Geordie (North East of England) accent and promptly falls to the floor “because she got possessed by a ghost”. 
I’m not sure what to say to that story. 
Jeff, never one to mince his words, chimes in with “What a load of old bollocks”.
  “You don’t believe it Mr Jeff?” asks one of the Junior merchandisers. “It’s happen before.  Ask Didin, from HR.   One time, someone start to speak in Chinese.  They get possessed”.
“Did the Chinese ghost come in on one of my containers of fabric from Shanghai?” Jeff teases
“Mr Jeff,   have you been smuggling undeclared goods into your warehouse again?”  I joke.
Whilst most of the merchandisers and office staff come from towns and cities in West Java, our factory employs around 5000 workers from Rancaekek and other surrounding villages where old beliefs still exist strongly, side by side with Islam. Rancaekek itself appears in the “Guide to Netherlands India, 1903” in the following excerpt:
“From Bandoeng we reach picturesque Tjitjalengka in little more than an hour, from where the main road to Soemedang ......... leads through the extensive swamps of Rantja Ekek, the snipe-shooting place par excellence.  At the shooting matches held here once a year the best marksmen kill 150 snipes in a few hours”

To this day, every other shop in Rancaekek is selling snipe-rifles
Maybe we could do with some of those guns, and some “excellent” ghostbusters, here.  By now we have heard all of the rumours about supernatural goings-on in our factory and have been joined by a young woman, Fenti, who is apparently “cursed” by the ability to see, sense and hear ghosts.   I am disappointed to learn that my favourite toilet is haunted – the one that few people go to so that the toilet seat isn’t completely wet after someone has used the water jet to clean themselves (a couple of unprepared visits without my customary supply of toilet roll have left me embarrassingly none the wiser with regards to how people manage not to emerge with wet-bottomed trousers).  And in the boss’s office, ghosts apparently like to swivel on the chairs and lark around.  I look through the glass partition at Paul who is locked in serious concentration, poring over his usual spreadsheets, completely unaware of his mischievous roommates creating chaos around him in another dimension.  I can’t help but laugh.
“So what happens when someone is possessed?”
“Usually they take them to the clinic, but it need a few people to carry them because they are very heavy because they are possessed.  Or they will keep lying on the floor while everyone wait for someone who knows about this things to come to help. “ 
“You mean a Dukun?”
“Yes, how you know about Dukun?” Lina, a senior merchandiser, is surprised
“I heard that there are white Dukun (good Dukun) and bad Dukun (black Dukun), right?”
“Yes, kind of.  Although it’s not so simple as that.” replies Lina “But even Dukun can’t help Fenti to close her eyes to the ghosts.”
At this point, the Department Manager, Siana, a Chinese who was born in Indonesia, and who loves a good story or a bit of gossip, pipes up:
“My Oma, my Grandma, she was 95 when she died.  But she was very hard to die, you know.”  
“What do you mean?”
“The one I know...... she just can’t die and can’t die and then my Aunty and my Mum got the Christian priest to come to the house.  He said that my Grandma have something inside her.  Maybe when she was young she make something with the Dukun, the Black Dukun, or when she was a baby her parents did that – to make her more attractive, you know.  We don’t know anything before, so we can’t help her to remove it.“
“I’ve heard about this.... it’s called Susuk".
 “The one I know, they put needles into the skin.... and pieces of gold or something”
Photo from The Jakarta Press 21 Oct 2012

“Yes, but there is no pain – it is done by magic - and then she is like glowing” adds Lina. 
“She was 95, she take 3 days to die. A lot of pain.”
“But Dukun have many things they can do... they help many people....” defends Poryana.  My Guru you could say is a kind of “White Dukun” although we don’t call him that.  He is also very knowledgeable – he is more of an “Orang Pintar” – what we call “the clever one”.   We learn a lot from him.
Suspending my disbelief for a moment, I admit that I would like to find out more about the Dukun, maybe even meet one.      
“What?!  Not you as well!”  cries Jeff.       ”Anya thinks that the devil lives near Henny’s Kost!  Now you want to talk to devil worshippers.  You’re all a bunch of crazy bastards!”   he laughs as he wanders off to find someone to torment in the trims warehouse.                   
“I have never seen a ghost, or been to a Dukun.  But there are people who have a kind of extra sense.  I believe this.”  Lina rationalises.  
Most people in Indonesia that I have met would agree.   Siana tells me that Herni, from Tasikmalaya (to the East of Bandung towards Tjilacap and famous for being a spiritual place) can sense ghosts sometimes and that she is receptive to people’s auras and how they are feeling.   I remember my unease, something I couldn’t pinpoint when I first met Herni.  It was something to do with the way she held her head whilst looking at me, giving her an almost condescending or arrogant expression, as if she were looking at me from above.  I wonder whether she saw something in my aura, in how I was feeling perhaps that day, that made her so stand offish.  In any case, things quickly changed once we got to know each other:

Some light relief with Herni (above) and Siana (below) – everyone in the factory cannot believe how large some of the women in America must be to wear the clothes that we are now making for our new American customers!

Actually, we are not so different in the West.  We are superstitious and many of the traditions, customs and beliefs that help us to understand phenomena or give us hope have no basis in educated logic or scientific reasoning.   I wake up every 1st of the month and the first thing I say is “white rabbits” – I have no idea why, but this is how my Mum would wake me up as a child, for good luck in the month to come.   We accept things without question or much thought if they are in our culture and if they offer us the chance, however small, for a better life.  Even if such traditions are not within our own culture, we are often ready to adopt them for the same reasons.    I remember one day, around 6 months after we moved to the UK from HK, whilst driving through a West Country village, my Mother suddenly called out:
 “G…Good afternoon, Mr Magpie!  How’s your wife?” she stuttered, hurriedly waving her left hand, which had been resting on the gear stick, in the air.  Just as I was entertaining the possibility that my Mum might have gone slightly mad, my suspicion was confirmed almost immediately as she promptly spat in the direction of the sky beyond the windscreen, eyes combing the perfect blue mass as if waiting for something to appear from out of nowhere.  She then turned her head slightly and with one eye on the road and one eye on me, gave me her special smile:  expectant, excitable and childlike.  It was a look that reflected a mixture of pride, childish trickery and the itchy impatience of pending revelation.
With her almost imperceptible Dutch accent and perfect grammar (the kind one can only learn) she explained:  “I just saw a single magpie.   In England they say that seeing a lone magpie means bad luck.  It’s a superstition that originates from English folklore.  Magpies are supposed to mate for life, so if you see one on its own it means it’s lost its mate or it is alone in this world. There’s a saying that is supposed to tell the future.  It goes:
One for sorrow
Two for mirth
Three for a wedding
Four for a birth
Five for silver
Six for gold
Seven for a secret never to be told…………………

My look must have betrayed my fears, so she went on to explain further:
 “A magpie perched on top of a roof is said to portend a death, or some other misfortune, for its inhabitants.  So, in order to drive away the bad luck of seeing a lone magpie, some people spit at the Magpie and some people salute him.  Years ago, they would tip their hats and salute because they hoped that being respectful to the magpie would encourage him not to pass on bad fortune”.   She was obviously proud of her new local knowledge.  We shared with her useful information like how to play Mallet’s Mallet (“look at each other and say blurrrg!”) and she taught us crazy English customs such as spitting at magpies.    I asked her why she used both of these methods to fend off bad luck.  She told me that they seemed so contradictory that she didn’t know which one would work.
We don’t think deeply about our own customs – but I think that this one, which has now become part of our family’s tradition, contains a deeper significance and moral lesson with regards to human behaviour and the dilemma of how to deal with life’s challenges, than is apparent at first consideration.    Unfortunately, standing up to, recognising and saluting misfortune, fear and hardships stoically is not that easy to do.    In my past, I admit that I have tended to spit at misfortune (often self-created), attacking it and defending myself at times without much grace, thus causing the process to repeat itself.   Since I started reading about the Magpie itself not so long ago, the significance of this creature as shadow guide or totem animal has increasingly held relevance for me as I try to navigate my way, striving constantly for something better, to be better,  in the various aspects of my life:
“The magpie animal totem is a strong, silent wisdom.  It invites us to sing and create with all the beauty in one’s heart, and then to fight like hell for what’s rightfully ours, for what’s there for the taking, for what is within reach.  Magpie isn’t concerned with the odds, magpie will “give it a go” at all costs, for [it] knows the prize is great.  This animal totem is about thriving, not just surviving day to day..... People with this animal as totem will often manifest traits similar to the animal itself.... Those with this totem are usually eclectic and able to draw on a variety of resources to assist them in their pursuits. Being able to adapt to different situations in a spontaneous way is one of the magpie’s strongest attributes. Those with this totem often find that their interests are varied which make master ship of any one thing difficult, although not impossible..... Since magpies are opportunists, those with this animal totem should pay attention to subtle omens that appear in their life, then act accordingly so opportunities are not missed. The magpie asks us to wake up and be conscious in every area of our life....... Magpie is an animal that comes into our lives to tell us that it's okay to have irrational fears.[it] helps us confront that which we irrationally fear, and does so in a gentle and compassionate manner.............Magically, magpies are thought to be able to connect to the realm of faery.  It is thought that they can guide those that wish to explore the faery worlds into that part of the spirit world.  They are seen as openers of doorways and gateways to change and transformation  (Sarah Messina – animal communicator)
“What would you ask the Dukun?” Lina interrupts my thoughts.
“Oh, just for a blessing.....” I lie.
Later on, I ask Luki about whether he could set up a meeting with a Dukun for me. A few days later he says that his friend has recommended one in Banten, on the outskirts of Jakarta. I do a search on google and find:
“The dukun is the very epitome of the Kejawen or Kebatinan belief system indigenous to Java. Beneath the thin superficial practice of Islam, very strong and ancient beliefs of animism, ancestor worship and shamanism run through the people of the Nusantara. Most Javanese are Muslim, so they are not supposed to dabble in other supernatural practices. When personal family crisis arrives, people will often consult a Dukun, behind closed doors........ Banyuwangi has long been known as one of the most powerful centers of black magic in Indonesia, along with Banten in West Java and the island of Lombok.”
I bring up the small, yet important, point about Banten being a place known for Black magic.  He replies    “iaaaa black Dukun.  If white Dukun you must doing something like fasting.... black Dukun only buy something or give money”.   Oh my God.    
“But isn’t black Dukun what happened to Chris’ parents?” I point out. 
 “iaaa black Dukun go to Ghosts and white Dukun go to al Quran.  Parents Chris have problem coz somebody ask Dukun to make them like that.   What you want from Dukun?  You not make somebody bad, so still can go to black Dukun yaaa”. 
I am confused and I am suddenly thinking about golden needles and excruciating pain in the stomach – what if I offend him or something got lost in translation?  A thousand pairs of lucky red underpants wouldn’t be able to fix that.   I just want some blessing, maybe some more opportunity in my career, to get better sales, a nice animal to sit on my desk and get people to buy from me, the chance for a family.   I want to stop driving myself mad with fear of the future.    
“Just some blessing and luck, for my job maybe” I moderate. 
“I ask to my friend again yaaa... if not, why we not go to my village in Sukabumi...there have a white Dukun there”.   
“Yes, I think a nice white Dukun that you know in your own village to whom I could ask nice things ,  not curses, would be better” I say with sarcasm that escapes him.   “And I could do with fasting anyway...  too much nasi goreng!”.   
“You are only a little bit wide now, you not fat, it nevermind”  he says in all seriousness.  “Okay, I will ask my uncle in my village.  He is a white Dukun”. 
Oh dear god, give me strength.   “Your uncle is a white Dukun and you wanted me to go to a Black Dukun?!” 
“iaaaaa he can do it... if you want only blessing and luck, aja.  He only doing who he know, like family.  But if you come with me, yaaa I think it’s nevermind.   He not want money but we can bring cigarettes”.   
I suddenly remember something that Luki once told me about his Uncle and so I ask “Isn’t your Uncle the one who “borrowed” your university money that your father had saved and never gave it back?” (meaning that Luki has had less chance to succeed in a career thus far).  “No it’s my aunt’s husband, not my father’s brother.”     
I decide to go for it.  Is exploring the possibility of a spiritual world of Dukun spells, medicinal remedies and blessings any more crazy than spitting at, talking to, or believing oneself to be under the guidance of, magpies?

  • Any of various birds of the family Corvidae found worldwide, having a long graduated tail and black, blue or green plumage with white markings and noted for their chattering call. 
·    A Curious, resourceful and adaptable bird that has a reputation for taking anything that it can carry away.  It is particularly attracted to bright or shiny objects.
  • One who compulsively collects or hoards, especially small objects that may or may not have been discarded by others.  (The Free Dictionary)

  • Female magpies are strong and …..  assertive.  (Sarah Messina)




Monday, October 15, 2012

Taking a Stand: Cabaret, cigarettes, a smile and some lucky red underpants

I am standing at the intersection of Jl Galunggung (formerly Galoengoenglaan) and Jl Pelajar Pejuang (formerly Tangkoeban Prahoe-laan) at the Eastern edge of what the map in my hand tells me was once the Karees women and children’s camp. 

Where the gedek (bamboo and barbed wire) fence would have been (indicated on the map by a dark line), now a high wall with barbed wire in the same position serves to keep people out rather than in.

A short walk along the street, I stop to talk to a man who is clearing out the back of his red jeep, in front of an old house that obviously hasn’t been renovated for decades.  It turns out that he has a Great Uncle and a Grandfather who were Dutch.  I ask him whether this is the Karees area.  His mother approaches and starts to speak to me in Dutch.  I understand that she is telling me that Karees is “achter”, “behind”, as she points North.  I am confused.  I thought this road, and the roads I have walked along to get here – Jalan Windu (Windoestraat), Jalan Gatot Subroto (Papandajanlaan) - were within the site of the camp.  But when they offer to drive me to Karees as the whole family is going out “for therapy” anyway (in Indonesia that means reflexology rather than psychotherapy!),  I don’t hesitate to join them and we all pile into the small jeep, three children, a young couple, Eyvonne (the mother), and myself.  Once in the car, she switches to speaking broken English (thankfully) with the odd Dutch and Indonesian word thrown in which I am pleased to discover I am able to guess successfully.   I mention the camp specifically.  “Oh yes”, she says.   Eyvonne points out as we pass, on Jalan Windu, a long, one storey building, painted white and green – apparently this is the former Japanese “base camp building”.    It seems that indeed I might have been in the right place after all.  I wonder then why she says nothing more of the civilian camp and why we finally exit the area at its North Western edge.  I decide not to try to control the situation for once, but rather let it evolve and see what happens.   I learn that this family has lived in their house since they moved to Bandung in 1948, three years after the end of the war and a year before the final handover of territory by the Dutch.  

The large bungalow home of Eyvonne and family on Jl Galunggung

Some examples of houses in Karees camp area – my Mother remembers the houses in the camp in which they were interned as being “really tall” with high ceilings and with garages on the side;  in a kind of “huge estate where you had to walk very far to get from one place to another”–Karees with its large bungalows and wide tree lined streets certainly fits this description

We suddenly come to a stop, the back of the jeep opens and Eyvonne, gently holding me by my elbow, helps me onto the street, telling me to take care of my bag and watch out for pickpockets.  I say goodbye to little Michelle, her two older brothers and their parents, thanking them for the lift to who-knows-where. Eyvonne guides me further down the street, past and between stationary motorbikes and a pavement full of pedestrians gathered around some kaki limas - literally “Five feet”, a term that describes the ubiquitous, mobile, self-contained food stalls on three wheels, the other two “feet” provided by the stall owner who pushes the kaki lima along the road at the beginning and end of each day.  I am hugging my notebook and pen, my camera and phone, hastily gathered to make the descent onto this busy street. We stop at the entrance to an unmarked, small “gang” or alley, quietly sitting in between two boisterous shop fronts.   

“This is Karees” Eyvonne declares as she motions for me to enter.
“This is Karees?”
“Yes, this is Karees”.                                                     

I decide to trust her and after saying my goodbyes, I venture down the anonymous alleyway which leads on to yet more alleyways.  On either side, the walls of the houses, made disproportionately high by the narrow path, encroach like the ominous shifting partitions of a fantasy maze, as if laughing at my already challenged sense of direction. 
Kaki Lima at rest                   Labyrinth of tiny alleyways

I follow the path, blinkered, as it snakes around a roughly-plastered wall on which are hung numerous small cages, the calls of the birds the only sound to break the unnatural silence until a motorbike leans and twists past me.   Two storey structures give way to miniature bungalows, like toy houses, and suddenly I feel as though I have grown from tiny to enormous within seconds.
I hastily follow a young schoolgirl as she disappears around a corner.  The path opens out onto a bridge over a small Kali (river) along which crowded makeshift dwellings have organically sprung up around a few more permanent concrete structures.  The almost stagnant, refuse-strewn Kali is wide enough to bring me back into proportion.   
It becomes clear what Eyvonne was showing me.   This is an inner city Kampung.  A ghetto.  I wonder just how aware she is of the parallel that she has drawn:

In total, approximately 6000 women and children had to be found a place for in the houses in Karees, once a desirable part of Bandung”.  Anak Bandung (literally “Child of Bandung”) was born in the Karees camp in 1942.  He contributed sections of his mother’s diary to a website, a collection of stories and accounts, created by the BBC, entitled ”The People’s War”.   His mother, Nel, later goes on to describe Karees quite differently, reflecting its transformation after two years of overcrowding, where even the one-family, one-room policy had had to concede space in the face of ever increasing numbers of internees:  “[1944] We ..... all gathered to wait for transportation from the Karees ghetto to the Kota Paris camp.”  
The once beautiful, large houses, set on wide streets and shaded by mature trees, now housed up to 30 people.  Over time in both Karees and Tjihapit camps (the latter where houses were smaller and much more densely compacted), a breakdown in public services, amenities and sanitation, coupled with overcrowding would render the onset of disease inevitable, most notably amoebic dysentery which became one of the most common causes of death for both POWs and civilian internees during the war.   This was just one aspect of a gradual deterioration of conditions that was to continue inexorably until after the end of the war.   My mother vividly remembers a woman walking up the street (in either the 1st or 2nd camp).  A guard came up to her and hit her across the face with something that he carried in his hand.  She then “had diarrhoea in her pants”. Mum’s initial reasoning was that it was “because the lady was so scared”. 
Fear of the Japanese, for adults and children alike, was all pervading, yet sickness and hunger would eventually become concerns so large and so immediate that they would often eclipse the fear of both the Japanese and the more amenable Heihos (Indonesian guards, recruited by the Japanese to perform most of the security and enforcement tasks within the civilian camps).  As time went on, the methods and plans devised on a daily basis in order to procure medicine or food became more and more bold and risky, and the punishments if caught became increasingly severe.
At first however, there was a certain amount of “freedom” and supply within the “protection” camps in Bandung, even after the gedek fence was constructed sometime around the end of 1942 / beginning of 1943.  A limited amount of money was allowed to be brought into the camps (although later on it was to be required that this was “deposited” in a Japanese controlled “bank”) and additional food could be purchased, at grossly inflated rates, at the “shop” (in the sparsest sense of the word);  Some cooking equipment had also initially been allowed to be brought in.   
Later, trying to grow vegetables in the garden to supplement the ever decreasing rations of unpalatable, rubbery bread and clear soup (little more than water) from the communal kitchens, was tolerated to a certain extent.  And so, whilst gas and cooking equipment were still available (albeit by that time nasconded to avoid the Japanese confiscating it for their own use or to fulfil quotas for the collection of much needed iron and other materials), the internees were often able to secretly cook additional food, either procured through, or under, the gedek or scavenged amongst the wildlife in the gardens. “We ate anything that moved”, Mum recalls.  “Nothing was wasted”.  
The Dutch women refused to accept the status that had been dictated to them by the derision and seemingly arbitrary policies of the Japanese.  They found ways to make the best of things, to keep up their spirits as well as hold on to their old perceptions of self-worth.   A famous singer, Corrie Vonk, caught up in the chaos of war whilst on a tour and placed in Tjihapit camp, would organise cabaret performances and everyone would enjoy the skits and jokes (in Dutch) directed at the on-looking, oblivious, Japanese whilst also light-heartedly mocking their own lives within the camp.  A small rebellion and bittersweet revenge that in reality served as a reminder only to themselves that they would fight like hell to survive, by whatever means they could, and would not be beaten.    
Mum remembers that Tikus, with some other women, set up a small market stall in a garage - an early incarnation of the systems of trading that were to become a central part of life and survival within the camps all over Java.  A gramophone would play in the background during the “garage sales”, providing a welcome, familiar relief for everyone.  Those people who had been living in Bandung prior to internment were lucky enough to have been able to bring more items of value which could be traded for other luxuries such as books, shoes and children’s toys.   Soon however, as money became in shorter supply, as multiple house moves were made and as conditions worsened, belongings were lost, anything made of wood was used for fuel, and simple garments and fabric became one of the most valuable commodities.  A shortage of cotton and material on the outside meant that where garments weren’t cannibalised for other clothes or used as dressings for wounds, they were traded with those on the outside for food.  Tikus had been prescient by taking into camp a good supply of sheets.  By the final year of the war, in Kamp Makassar (their final camp in which Mum says they were interned for the longest duration) the terms of trade reflected the desperate needs on either side of the gedek and an example below is listed by the author, Shirley Fenton Huie, in her book “The Forotten Ones”:
1 egg = 1 handkerchief
Hand of bananas = 3 baby nappies
10 eggs = old blouse
Packet of dried meat = length of material
A disproportionate term of trade is magnified in the impressions of Lottie (Mum) whose memory maintains that Tikus traded a piece of jewellery that she had kept hidden all that time, a sentimental item she had had for many years,  for just one egg for her girls.  Whether indeed it was just one egg, or whether it was more than one egg, makes little difference:  After checking the colour of the hand appearing from underneath the gedek (where a hole in the earth afforded some space) to ensure that it was Indonesian and not Japanese, she was having to let go of one more piece of her past, trading it for the opportunity to continue living in an increasingly harrowing present and to look ever more exclusively towards an uncertain future.
Sitting many months earlier, in a camp in Bandung, with no news of progress in a war continuing on the outside, how would it have been possible to judge how much you could afford to indulge in a past by now almost completely wiped from record, how much you needed to live in the present in order to survive until tomorrow, and how much you ought to save of yourselves and of your meagre possessions in order to prepare for the future.  For children and women alike, the unknown would have created the greatest fear:   Where are we going?  How long are we going to be here?  Is there a plan to all of this?  What will we do when our money and jewellery, and other items we have to trade, run out?  When is this all going to end? 
“It was much worse for the mothers” says Mum.   “The most important part of how the kids bore it, both then and afterwards, was their mother.  Tikus was very switched on and took many risks for us – she always did everything she possibly could to make sure we had the best chance of survival”.
Imitating the resourcefulness of their own mother, Henny and Lottie would scavenge for cigarette butts left by the Japanese along the roads or thrown into front gardens and would, from these, make “new” cigarettes for Tikus to enjoy.    “It was the mothers who worried about shoes, clothes, disease, how to feed us and keep the rats away” Mum continues.  “Like in any poor district, you are thrown together with other kids, you play together.  You are not going to worry about space or bicker with the family in the next room about chores or about who might not be pulling their weight.  You are not going to worry about protecting what possessions you have, about not having shoes that fit you anymore.   I can’t really remember wearing shoes.  But that didn’t worry me so much.  We also weren’t old enough to appreciate what freedom really meant.  We knew what was happening, but it didn’t worry me too much as long as I had something to do and someone to play with ........... At least that’s how it was at the beginning”. 
“By that time though, we had started to learn, through our own experience, that when it came to the Japanese we had to shut up and play ball” Hendy adds.  

Drawing at Karees by Corrie Van Grondelle (playing on stilts was a favourite game) - courtesy of
 Kids riding bikes in Karees camp area 2012
As I walk around the current Karees ghetto, people come out and say hello to me.  “Halo!” I reply as I hold up my camera to ask if I can take a photograph.  For the most part they are more than obliging.  One lady invites me into her relatively well to do home to show me her ”home industry”.  She proudly holds up a jacket that she has made which has a logo on it – it seems that this is a real business, running out of a tiny front room with a few sewing machines.  I promise that I would come back to give her the photographs.  She has no email of course.  Number 173 on what-street-I-don’t-know.  Will I ever remember how to get back here?
Outside, I am struck by the brightness of colour that pops out at me from clothes drying on washing lines, from flowers growing out of grey concrete walls, from the odd brightly painted facade – almost like a contrast wall in a modern home, a design feature! As if it were an intentional slap in the face of a grey and uncertain life, as if someone were taking a stand.
I stop to review some of the many photos that I have taken so far.  As it turns out, I am not capturing their poverty at all - I am photographing their abundance.  From the kids waving at me from outside their Mediterranean-blue front door, to the person whose bright red underpants are hanging overhead, just like the photographs themselves, the people are colourful and full of optimism and resolve, in contrast to a colourless backdrop:  the circumstances in which they find themselves living.
 “Ke mana?”  “Where are you going?” people on both sides of the kali call out to me.
It’s a difficult question to answer.  How can I explain that I am here by anything other than an accident?  How can I explain that I am here to take photographs of their lives in relative poverty?  I say, as I always do, “tidak tahu......jalan jalan”  “I don’t know... just walking around”.   I ask where the way out is, as if I have fallen down a pothole and reappeared within this strange little neighbourhood.  I can’t see the outside from this labyrinthine ghetto, so how can I find my way out?
Mum recently told me something over skype that I find curious: she said that they could see over the gedek fence from the house in which they lived.   “We could see over it and onto the outside, despite an attempt on the part of the Japs to black out all of the windows on the 2nd floor because they didn’t want us to see the men being tortured and executed.” 
“The men?”  I asked, confused. 
“Yes, the men, they were being clubbed with something and then thrown into a ditch.”  
“But you were in a women and children’s camp – there were no men.”  I questioned.
“ I only know what I saw and I definitely saw that.” 
As far as I know, there were no two storey houses in either of the camps and so, just like the karees ghetto, it would have been impossible to see one’s way out.  It just doesn’t make sense.  This also seems to contradict what Mum said about living in bungalows.  However, as Hendy, the older of the two, had once pointed out “we were shunted from pillar to post, so it is likely that our memories are from various places we stayed in”.  
“Well, you must be remembering it wrong, Mum” I say curtly, as immediate regret hangs thickly over the silence.
The difficulty of trying to piece it all together in time and location based on mere glimpses of memory from 7 decades ago and a couple of nameless addresses is starting to become apparent.  I feel desperately frustrated, disappointed also with myself.  I begin to consider that perhaps all of this might be designed merely as a distraction from my own life, a big, selfish search for meaning and waste of time that is stirring in others a dark, long-slumbering beast that would be best left alone.
“Terus” a young man says.  I am transported back to the ghetto and see that he is pointing ahead, past the bridge and towards an uphill path. I walk up and through onto a perpendicular road and, once outside, I look back to see a small sign on the post of a painted wooden entrance gate telling me exactly where I am.  
Just at that moment, as if in reply once again to my thoughts, I receive a text message:
 “Hi L, how your day?  Smile coz u are only one in this world who make world colourfull”.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Live Together, Die Together

This photo, taken sometime in 1942,  is the last photograph we have before Tikus (aged 29), Henny (aged 8) and Lottie (aged 6) were interned.  It was taken to send to Hans who was already in prison camp. 
There are no more photos after that time until 1946.  It is as if those years didn’t exist – for a long time banished from memory as well as from record.  This was how many survivors of the Japanese camps managed to cope after the war.  They blocked it out and “just got on with it”.  My family rarely spoke of the camp years, which has meant that many of their memories are now related to me to a certain extent still through the eyes, and with the understanding, of children.  Uninfluenced by anything written later by other camp internees, their stories in many cases lack a context and rationalization that only the adults might have been aware of.    Thus, any reconstruction of events is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, each piece, each memory is well defined in its image yet many pieces are missing, making it impossible to see the overall picture from these pieces alone.  However, this also means that their stories and explanations capture, in a raw and immediate way, those confusing and seemingly irrational years, providing a true insight into how it would have been for a child growing up as a prisoner of the Japanese.     
Different events made different impressions and so the accounts at times differ or are unique to one sister or to the other.   Henny once saw a Dutch woman leaving her home, carrying a lamp in one hand, a lampshade in the other and a ceramic potty on her head “ like a Javanese lady”.  She had walked off, leaving behind her the suitcase that she had meticulously packed, presumably with her most treasured possessions as well as clothes and other items that would become essential for survival inside the camp.  Something about that sight struck her beyond a child’s innocent conclusion: “silly lady”, and the memory has remained with Aunty Hendy for all of this time.  The adult Hendy is able to make sense of it:  Such would have been the confusion and pressure of a moment in which a person knows that they are to lose not only their freedom, but almost everything that they own, that they have worked for and built, when they are told that they can only take with them, into the complete unknown, what they are able to carry.  
About the capture and questioning of their mother by the Japanese however, their accounts are   identical.   They were stopped by Japanese soldiers whilst riding bicycles in town, returning from a fitting at a dressmaker.  The soldiers insisted that Tikus go to the Japanese office for questioning and so she sent the girls home to be with Moesje.  This was not the first time she had been stopped and questioned.  However, they all sensed that this time it was different. By that time, it was risky to be out and about around town.   The Japanese policies and criteria for internment had shifted and anyone European looking, particularly if they had blonde hair and light coloured eyes, was to be rounded up, regardless of their nationality.   Perhaps naïve to this risk, Tikus may have felt a false sense of security, leaning as she had been doing on her Austrian lineage and destroying all documents that would link her to the Dutch military, keeping the ones that referred to their living in Belitung (Billiton) before the war, where Hans had worked as a civilian in the tin industry.  Having come to Bandung after the outset of the war and staying exclusively with friends, her name was not in the Bandung Address Book and so she had escaped early capture.   Now, the questions were more probing: “if you are Austrian, where is your swastika?”.  Of course, she could not produce one.  “Who is your husband?”   “Where is your husband?”.   It was inevitable that they found out that she was the wife of a KNIL (Dutch East Indies Army) officer, someone who should have been interned months previously along with the other prominent Dutch figures.   She was escorted home immediately and was given ten minutes to pack whatever she could carry.
Both Mum and Aunty Hendy remember, in more or less exactly the same words, the final decision that Tikus, at just 29 years of age, made when faced with the choice of  leaving her two young daughters with Moesje who almost certainly would be safe and would not be interned, and bringing them with her into the camp.   She would have had no idea how long they would be apart should she decide to leave them and she would have had no idea what would become of them once they were “achter”,  behind  - behind the gedek, the bamboo and barbed wire fences.   The decision that she made and told to Moesje, however, as they whispered hurried promises and plans, was the only one that was ever really open to her:
“We will face everything together”        
“Live together, die together”.
We know that they were interned in three separate camps over the following three years.  During this time, both girls recollect only one train journey, and that was the journey that took them to kamp Makassar, near Batavia (Jakarta).   They recollect that the first two camps were located in residential areas, the homes mostly bungalows with garages on the side, whilst the last camp (Makassar) was a barracks.  However, they do not know the name of the first camp in Bandung nor the location or name of the second camp.   There are two possibilities that I can deduce from this information:
1)   Karees (Bandung) -  Kota Paris (Bogor) – Kamp Makassar (Batavia)
2)   Karees (Bandung) -  Tjihapit ( Bandung) – Kamp Makassar (Batavia)  
I have done some research online and have found old maps for both of the Bandung women and children’s camps as well as some testimonials and diaries written by people who were interned there.  I realise that I have been visiting the Tjihapit camp area (a large area which included more streets than is now considered to be within Cihapit today) without knowing it:  the Chinook bar is a block down the road from the former Japanese office (now The British Institute);  the British Institute is next to the semi circular Taman Premuka Park, previously the Oranjeplein which was the site of one of the camp kitchens;  Jalan Riau, home to factory outlets and stalls advertising “Oleh Oleh Bandung!” (an appropriately jolly term for souvenir snacks) marks the Western boundary of the Tjihapit camp (and the Eastern boundary of another camp, Bloemenkamp, for families of those forced to work for a time for the Japanese); the gedek wall surrounding the entire camp is marked by a dotted line (see maps below).   I have also been in the vicinity of Karees, having crossed the train tracks at Jalan Laswi on my way to Buah Batu. 
I realised at that point that if I start down this road, there is no turning back.  I would be asking my mother and my aunt to talk to me about things that they have blocked out for the better part of seven decades.  I am surprised to recall how they both described Bandung to me as ” beautiful” eleven months ago.  It seems as though the horrors for them were in the camps and stayed in the camps, the gedeks providing a boundary between two worlds, not just physical but also mental.
Both sisters are now starting to read some literature on the subject, books that I, and others, have recommended to them.   As I write this, I am sitting in my mum’s house, on a brief visit to the UK.  I am thinking about this morning when she was flicking through the photos in the centre of Boudewyn Van Oort’s book, Tjideng Reunion.   She turned the page and upon seeing a photo of a Japanese soldier staring directly into the camera, her immediate reaction was to cover the photo with her hand and turn her head away, her expression revealing a mixture of disgust and fear of imminent danger.  I could literally see the shivers going up and down her spine.  
Me who has never known war, who never knew my Oma (Grandmother), who is a little bit Dutch but not a lot, do I really have the right to barge into someone else’s forgotten past and open up these old wounds?
The answer came when my mother said to me “This is your story as much as ours.  And you must write it in the way that you feel is right “.  I realise that this is what it means to be a mother and I am forced to ask myself whether or not I would have that capability within me.    How difficult it must have been for Tikus, several years younger than I am now, to know what to do for the best. 
Had she known then that camp would be the last place they would live together under one roof, she could at least have taken heart in her decision to keep the family together.      

From Tjideng Reunion by Boudewyn Van Oort