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Manoa 12.1 (2000) 25-34

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Between the Bars

Hersri Setiawan

During my second year of imprisonment on Buru Island, I was among those who had to "ride the Honda," jail slang for coming down with malaria. I felt quite wretched. For about a month after the first attack, I could see no farther than one meter. After the second, I lost sensation in my left leg for about three months.

Once, when my fever had just broken and I was in a semiconscious state, I vowed to the mates who had gathered around me: "I am not going to die now! I will live to see how all this turns out."

It hadn't yet crossed my mind that one day--nearly eight years later--we prisoners would actually be returned to Java. I had imagined that we would be left to die, one by one, till all were gone--consumed by old age, the harsh environment, and physical and spiritual exhaustion--and that, with the sinking of time, history would gradually forget us.

I also imagined, though, that in the years to come, when historical memory had begun to dim, time through its own inattentiveness might present a chance for me to recount my testimony--for whom, I could not guess--regarding the exile of persons the government had called Political Prisoners of the Indonesian Communist Party's Thirtieth of September Movement.

My experiences while in exile on Buru Island, especially during the first few years, took me to the limits of my will to survive. Thus, my desire to relate what I witnessed was motivated by none other than my own humanistic hope that, no matter who or where, never again would anyone have to go through what we prisoners did.

I'm not sure where the saying comes from, that prison is a school, even a university, but indeed I learned much from my detention and exile. And not just about humanistic values, which I discovered to be flexible after all. I learned that human beings, too, can learn to live by the deeper values that certain animals uphold--the loyalty of the dog, for instance, or the fearlessness of the wild boar. And I learned that truly everything across the expanse of the earth and under the curvature of the sky exists with an essential nature, and that each benefits the whole of life. [End Page 25]

My notes from that period of exile are for me a memoir. For other people, these notes may serve as a mirror. Although mainly taken up by forced labor, prison time allowed me to make these notes in various ways and by various means. Constantly under close observation, I stayed on the lookout for an opportunity to open up whenever and wherever I could, even among the gaps between bayonet tips, whose stares remained constant day and night. I call these writings "Notes from between the Bars."

I'm thinking of a time in 1947 or 1948; it must have been around then because I was in the second year of middle school. One day, the homeroom teacher passed out a form to each student and ordered us to fill it out. I remember that it was a Saturday and that the instruction period had just ended. I believe we had been studying ethics.

The form was a questionnaire on religious education. Each student was to indicate the religion that he or she followed. The form listed three: Islam, Christian-Protestant, and Roman Catholic.

After the forms had been turned in, Mr. Suwandi, our teacher, counted them. He then counted them again, certain there had been some mistake. The number of questionnaires in his hands was not the same as the number of pupils who were present.

"Who hasn't turned in a form?" he asked.

Immediately, I raised my hand high. Just as suddenly an odd feeling came over me, perhaps embarrassment or nervousness. Then to my surprise, two seats in front of me, another student also started waving his hand.

"Where is your form?" Mr. Suwandi inquired of the student...


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