Forgiven, Not Forgotten
Lina Sidarto, WEEKENDER | Fri, 12/17/2010 2:01 PM |
More than 60 years since Dutch soldiers attacked his village, Saih bin Sakam is forging ahead with a lawsuit against the Netherlands.
Although Saih bin Sakam had never set foot in the Netherlands until last year, the frail 87-year-old’s life has been intricately, if unpleasantly, linked to the country: When he was a youth, Dutch soldiers killed nearly all the men in his village.
At dawn on December 9, 1947, the Dutch military surrounded Rawagede, a small village east of Jakarta.
“We were told to sit on the floor in rows of seven,” Saih recalls. “My father and brother were also there. When the Dutch soldiers didn’t receive the answer they wanted, they started shouting ‘just shoot them’. Then they started shooting us in the back.”
The soldiers were searching for Indonesian freedom fighters in the battle for Independence from the Dutch. When the villagers refused to divulge any information, the soldiers rounded up all the men – including teenagers – and executed them. According to Indonesian accounts, 431 men and boys died that day. The Dutch put the toll at 150.
In November, Saih traveled to the Netherlands to push forward the civil suit he filed last year together with eight Rawagede widows, assisted by the foundation KUKB (committee for Dutch honor debts).
“I want the Dutch people to realize what happened to us,” said Saih, a soft-spoken man who never had the opportunity to learn to read.
KUKB chairman Jeffry Pondaag points out that the case is a race against time, given the plaintiffs’ advanced ages. “One of the widows has already passed away since we started the lawsuit.”
Saih and the widows are the first Indonesians taking legal action against the Dutch for crimes committed in Indonesia during the armed conflict between the two countries between 1945 and 1949.
While lawyers for the Dutch state have admitted that the events in Rawagede were “war crimes”, they contend that the case can no longer be heard because it has exceeded the statute of limitations.
International criminal law expert Liesbeth Zegveld, who is Saih’s lawyer, said this argument is flawed. “The Dutch state has continued to accept compensation requests made by Holocaust victims from World War II. This shows that using the moratorium argument is a choice that the state makes.”
Both sides have a point, according to Leiden University legal scholar John Dugard.
“The state is correct that normally the moratorium period has expired. But Zegveld is quite right: This does not prevent the government from paying out Holocaust victims,” he said. “So in other words they seem to accept that for crimes of this kind the period of prescription does not apply. She’s arguing that there should be equal treatment.”
Dugard, an expert in international criminal and human rights law, points out that this case is politically very sensitive.
“The difficulty is that once the Dutch government apologizes, it acknowledges responsibility. Then it may lay itself open to claims for compensation from other parties.”
Historian Peter Keppy of the Dutch Institute of War Documentation (NIOD) said the case “is also a moral and political issue, whatever legal direction it would take. If this is not solved in court, maybe they can settle outside court.”
Although Saih received ample attention from the Dutch media, the country’s official institutions gave him the cold shoulder. Parliament refused to officially receive him, although he was informally received by some MPs.
“I believe that the Netherlands should not hide behind the formal statute of limitations argument,” MP Harry van Bommel of the Socialist Party (SP) said after meeting Saih. “It must recognize [the case] and give reparations.”
SP parliamentarians have consistently supported the plight of the Rawagede victims, although they are a minority. When KUKB members met with MPs in 2008 to discuss the Rawagede incident, members of the main parties, Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), made their position clear.
“In general, the Dutch military in Indonesia carried out their duties in an exemplary way,” VVD MP Hans van Baalen said. “History should remain history. The Netherlands and Indonesia have to maintain good relations into the future, and apologies do not fit into that cooperation.”
It seems the Indonesian government largely shares the view of its Dutch counterpart. “[Former] foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda told us that we should go ahead with the lawsuit if we wished to do so,” KUKB’s Pondaag said. “However, behind the scenes some Indonesian officials strongly urged us to lay off the case.”
Saih’s request to meet Queen Beatrix during his visit was also denied.
“It would have been nice if we could have shaken hands, and that she would ask for an apology. I would have forgiven her,” Saih said, with his broad, toothless smile.
Saih did find unequivocal support among the younger generation: He was welcomed at Willem Lodewijk high school in Groningen, where he spoke of his experiences. He showed the students the scars on his back and his wrist, where the bullets had hit him.
“It is truly shocking what we did there,” Harro Boven, 16, said as quoted by NRC, a daily newspaper.
The school’s history teacher, Wim Plas, pointed out that Saih represents an important part of Dutch history. “His story tells the history of that time,” he said.
Asked what he thought of the country and the people, Saih flashed his signature smile: “I have nothing against the Dutch. Many of them are nice people, and I feel no grudge whatsoever. I just want the Dutch to pay attention to what happened, apologize to us and give some reasonable compensation.”
The case is ongoing in a court in The Hague, with a verdict expected early next year.