Romeo Gacad / AFP - Getty Images
Dutch Ambassador to Indonesia Tjeerd de Zwaan (C) accompanied by local officials, offers flowers to Rawagede massacre victims after he formally apologized Friday on behalf of the Dutch government for the 1947 killings.
RAWAGEDE, Indonesia — After six decades of waiting, relatives of hundreds of men and boys killed in a notorious massacre during Indonesia's bitter struggle for independence finally got what they wanted: an official apology from the Dutch state.
Tjeerd de Zwaan, ambassador to Indonesia, made the announcement before hundreds of villagers in Rawagede, scene of the Dec. 9, 1947 killings of up to 430 boys and young men by Dutch troops.
"Today, Dec. 9," the ambassador began, "we remember the members of your families and those of your fellow villagers who died 64 years ago through the actions of the Dutch military."
"On behalf of the Dutch government, I apologize for the tragedy that took place," he added.
The crowd, tense with emotion, erupted in cheers and applause.
De Zwaan repeated his message in Bahasa, the Indonesian language, al-Jazeera reported.
Tears rolled down the cheeks of surviving widows, now in their late 80s and early 90s, some of whom had started to doubt they would ever hear those words.
"It makes me feel my struggle for justice was not useless," said Cawi binti Baisa, who was 20 when her husband of two years headed to the rice paddy in the morning never to return.
Dutch troops clinging to their retreating colonial empire arrived in Rawagede just before dawn 64 years ago and opened fire, sending sleepy residents scattering from their homes in panic.
The soldiers were looking for resistance leader Lukas Kustario, known for ambushing Dutch bases. When villagers said they didn't know where he was, nearly all the men were rounded up and taken to the fields.
Squatting in rows, with both hands placed on the backs of their heads, they were shot one by one.
Huge emotional stir
The apology — more than six decades later — followed a landmark ruling by a Dutch court in September that said the state was responsible for the massacre.
It also agreed to pay euro20,000 ($27,000) to 10 plaintiffs, three of whom have since died, said their lawyer, Liesbeth Zegveld.
But it wasn't immediately clear when or how funds would be distributed.
Romeo Gacad / AFP - Getty Images
Indonesian widow Anti Rukiyah, in her 90's, visits the tomb of her husband Saleh Tanuwijaya at the Rawagede monument of independence where victims of a 1947 massacre by Dutch military troops are buried in the town of Rawagede, in West Java province on September 15, 2011.
The presence of de Zwaan at the annual commemoration held at Rawagede Hero Cemetery — where many of the victims were buried in a mass grave — caused a huge, emotional stir.
Big white tents were erected to provide relief from the blazing tropical sun.
Several women involved in the case — their faces lined with heavy wrinkles and their eyes milky with cataracts — said the apology was much more important than whatever money they eventually get.
What they most wanted was closure.
Wanti binti Sariman was nine months pregnant with her second child when her 26-year-old husband, Tarman, was taken to a field with around 60 other men.
Nightmares of blood in the water
She later found his body in the last of three rows of corpses.
"I was so shocked to see him lying there with the other men," she said. "It had been raining. Their blood was mixed with the water, creating red pools all around them.
"I can't get that image out of my head," she said. "I still have nightmares about it."
Some men managed to escape, hiding in the swamps and plantations, she said. But they were eventually chased down by dogs and shot.
"It was horrific. But I've come to accept it. That was our destiny," the widow said as she wiped away her tears. "And of course, we have to forgive the troops who killed our men."
The other women around her nodded.
"It's true," said Lasmi binti Kasilan, who lost her baby after her seventh month of pregnancy when she learned of her husband's death.
"We never wanted vengeance. We wanted an apology and compensation, and in the end, we got it."
The Dutch government has never prosecuted any soldiers for the massacre, despite a United Nations report condemning the attack as "deliberate and ruthless" as early as 1948.
A 1968 Dutch report acknowledged "violent excesses" in Indonesia but argued that Dutch troops were carrying out a "police action" often incited by guerrilla warfare and terror attacks.
Former Foreign Minister Ben Bot expressed deep regret for offenses by Dutch forces throughout Indonesia in 1947, but the government had never before formally apologized to relatives in Rawagede.
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