Asia

The inmates who chose to remain on 'prison island'

Picture of Buru Island
Image caption The prisoners were put to hard labour on Buru, clearing jungle land for paddy fields such as this one shown here

Buru Island in East Indonesia was once home to 12,000 political prisoners, suspected communist sympathisers sent to toil there during the rule of President Suharto from the late 1960s.

It became known as the prison island: it was where people were detained without charge, forced to do hard labour clearing the jungle with simple tools to make roads and farms.

They were not given adequate food or clothing. Hundreds died due to illness, worn down by the toll of physical labour. Some others committed suicide.

Image caption Many of the political prisoners landed on Buru in Sanleko beach

In the face of increasing global condemnation they were released by the end of the 1970s. They were free to leave the island but had to report regularly to the local authorities. This continued until President Suharto fell from power in 1998.

But for some of the prisoners, returning to everyday life was simply not possible because of the stigma surrounding their detention.

Image caption Most of the former prisoners and their families live on Savana Java village on Buru
Image caption The political prisoners who died on Buru were buried in a cemetery on the island

About 20 of them opted to stay on the island that imprisoned them. These are the settlers' stories.


'We ate rats to survive'

Image caption Diro says he was wrongly arrested

Diro was in his late 20s, married and with a young son when the military arrested him from his village of Boyolali in Central Java in 1968.

"I was a farmer, helping my father on the farm, nothing more," he said.

"Until now, I really don't understand why they detained me for more than 10 years; my wife never recovered from the shock and became mentally ill. She died while pregnant with my second child," he said.

"We had to eat rats, snakes, mushrooms and plants—anything we could find in the jungle to survive," he recalled.

He says he was beaten many times: "They beat my head and my legs. It hurts sometimes even now."

His family were ostracised from their community.

"My oldest child left school because he couldn't stand the stigma of being a son of an accused Communist Party member," he said.

"If I went back to my village and I married again I was worried that my new wife and children couldn't stand it when people stigmatize them for being so-called communists," said Utomo.

Image caption Diro and his second wife, Mada, run a food stall from their home

The Communist Party is still banned in Indonesia. When former political prisoners have tried to hold meetings in recent months they have been shut down.

After being released Diro married a local woman, Mada, and they now live with their four children in the Savana Jaya Village alongside a small community of former political prisoners.

His wife runs a food stall in front of their house and he works in their vegetable fields.


'My father died without seeing justice'

Image caption Darsini moved to Buru when she was seven

In 1974, when the island was still a prison, the government said prisoners could invite their families to come and live with them.

Many of the families didn't know their loved ones were on the prison island.

Darsini was seven when her family moved to join her father on Buru.

He was a teacher in a village in central Java and had been labelled a communist and sent to Buru without trial in 1969.

"My father said that if we moved here, we could continue our education," said Darsini.

She and her older sister were forced to leave school in Java after her father was arrested. Her former friends taunted her for being the daughter of a suspected communist.

On Buru they were able to complete their education in peace.

Image caption Darsini and her husband continue to live on Buru

But the stigma even today still haunts them.

"There are a few people here that if we have a disagreement with them they call us communists. It's really hurt us, because my father never went to trial. He died without seeing justice," she said.


'They couldn't feed us any more in prison'

Image caption Roni works as a teacher as well as an acupuncture and herbal therapist

Roni Munawar, 75, had just graduated from the army academy in Bandung West Java when he was arrested.

He was suspected to be a member of the group related to the failed coup on 30 September 1965. But he said he never knew about the coup, and was never put on trial.

"I don't know why they detained me for a long time, and I think they sent us here so we can feed ourselves by clearing the jungle to make roads and paddy fields. Because they couldn't feed us anymore if we stayed in prison on Java," he said.

Image caption Much of the island's infrastructure, such as its roads, was built by political prisoners

He chose to stay in Buru after Suharto government released him at the end of the 1970s.

"I didn't have anything in my homeland, and I thought my life would be meaningful here. I teach children to learn how to read and count, and find them scholarships to continue their studies," said Roni.

Roni also works as an acupuncture and herbal therapist, using knowledge that he learnt from other prisoners.

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