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Revisiting the Past: Buru Islands

By: Kartika Pratiwi

More than 50 years on, a group of survivors revisit a prison camp in the Buru Islands. Buru is best known in Indonesia as a place where political prisoners used to be exiled and isolated because they were or were assumed as members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI/Partai Komunis Indonesia) during the New Order era.

The fall of New Order and the emergence of the Reformation Era in 1998 have triggered ex-prisoners to revisit the prison without fear. They tell stories of their suffering in silence, memories about loss, and unspeakable trauma while trying to recall the violence that happened in that different period. There are many accounts of people who lost their lives simply because they had the same name as someone the authorities were looking for.

Kotak Hitam Forum has been working to document these stories on video, and screening them to students in classroom settings to encourage better understanding and debate on history. One such story is that of Mia Bustam and Lekra, a social movement made up of artists and writers which was banned by the then President Suharto (view subtitled version here).

It’s said that there are 224 prisoners who do not want to go home and remain living in Buru farming in paddy fields as it has fertile land, which shows that they are dealing with the past, ignoring marginalization and stigma. But some others, surely, wanted to go back to Java and other places in Indonesia.

In 1978, Hersri Setiawan, one of the ex-prisoners, was going to back home. He said, “Buru was a symbol of slavery, a symbol that I was not free. But I wanted to be free, whatever might happen on Java. However, Buru is a part of my life that cannot be taken from me.”