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.
”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: “ 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 www.geheugenvannederland.nl
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”.