Indonesian Pilgrimage, Part VI

Jalan Keputran: Not Just Any Street in Surabaya

On our last morning in Surabaya, I resisted one thing and that was go to the street where the Gubeng Transport of about 200 women and children got caught in the crossfire of the Revolution, and was massacred in a scene so gruesome that I won’t go into fully here but that you can find in all its horrific detail in my book Silenced Voices (Ohio University Press: 2008, available on Amazon). 

The two girls I have mentioned before (in Part V of my Indonesian Pilgrimage) were shot to pieces but their younger brother Harry (8 years old at the time) and his mother survived because they managed to escape the scene with the help of some Indonesians and British soldiers. Both mother and son never revisited the scene in conversations or shared memories, and Harry didn’t disclose anything for a long time, until I interviewed him in 2005 (he has since died). 

I resisted finding the street because what was I to gain from a spot that would have no marker, no statue, no nothing of what happened there more than 70 years ago? Jon was good in that he encouraged me to go, so I looked at a map of Surabaya and even though the old name of the street was not searchable on Google Maps, I knew that the incident had taken place near the Brantas Hotel: although that hotel has been demolished, the hotel was still listed on Google Maps, so that was a good clue. 

The street has since been renamed Jalan Keputran and that sent chills down my spine because the Keputran kampung nearby had been slighted by the Dutch government several times, so there was a lot of anti-Dutch sentiment in Keputran. Hence, when the battle was unleashed, the kampung joined in all too readily to take revenge on the Dutch, never mind that these were women and children who were evacuated out of the dangerous Gubeng neighborhood, to the safer and barricaded Darmo neighborhood, from where they were going to get shipped out to Singapore and from there, back to the Netherlands. 

My greataunt and her three children had survived one of the camps with some of the highest death rates, but her husband had not been so lucky. Arrested by the Japanese, shortly after the invasion, Peddy Francken was interrogated and tortured for a year and would finally die in Sukamiskin Prison in Bandung. Because my greataunt had become a war widow and had three children, she was fast-tracked out as it were, but that in itself was a death warrant because the timing of her evacuation coincided with the Revolution in Surabaya, where they had been transported to. 

Shortly after the six trucks took off at Gubeng at 4 PM in the afternoon, on October 28th, 1945, the Revolution broke out. The convoy was ambushed and shot at for four hours and very few survived. It was one of the three major bloodbaths in Surabaya…

When I first gave a lecture on my book at the Asia Center of the University of Vancouver, shortly after my book had come out, I was slightly nervous when I saw the lecture hall fill up with nothing but Asians. My story was a colonial one and I got nervous, because how was I going to present this story to this audience? I decided to present my talk as I had prepared it and when I finished speaking and asked for questions, I was getting real nervous. An Indonesian raised his hand:
     “You know, no doubt, what October 28th is called in Indonesia, right? It is called the Day of Heroes,” he said.
     I swallowed and felt a drop of perspiration running down my back.
     The Indonesian continued: “My mother was in the street you spoke of and saw it happen.”
     He then said:
     “Every year, my mother would sit us down and say to us: ‘Let me tell you what really happened on the Day of Heroes’…”
     I was floored.

When we told our driver Johnny about the street, he had to ask the doorman at the hotel: they chatted briefly in that fire-rapid Bahasa that is so fun to listen to, and then they turned to me and said: “But why do you want to go there…?” I was too embarrassed to explain and merely said that the street meant something to my family. 

Once we turned into the street, I rolled down my window: street vendors with not a single day of dental care in their lives sold produce, and that curious fermented smell of rotting flowers, fruit, garbage and open sewage filled the car. We were momentarily distracted by a monkey on a leash, held by a man who was barefoot. 

“There!” I said, “There is the river”. The Kali Mas runs alongside this street and it was shortly after the convoy crossed the bridge over the river, to turn into the street where we were on, that they were ambushed. When we came near the bridge, I recognized the street and we got out of the car. As we were standing there, taking pictures (the Brantas Hotel was indeed gone, and so is part of the kampung to make room for a building site so large that it could fit a skyscraper), I felt nauseated and sick for the first time. Concrete planter boxes with flowers had been planted on the pavement along the river, covering part of the street that was once stained with blood and strewn with body parts. 

When the British came to the scene the next day, they found mostly body parts and cut-up women; some of them had their mouths stuffed with the genitals of the British-Indian troops who had escorted the convoy. The reason why Willy and Joke lie in a grave with 84 “unknown” people was because the people had been maimed so much that they had been hard to identify. 

Both Harry and his mother made it to the kampung where the maimed Joke was put in her mother’s arms to open her eyes one last time and tell her mother: “It doesn’t matter, mommy. I am dead already.” Willy was heard as they were being shot at (both girls were not in the same truck with their mother), signaling to her mother that she had been hit, but her mother never saw Willy again, and until her dying day, Harry told me one day, there seemed to have been a quiet hope that Willy had wandered off in the kampung and had somehow survived. 

“Chilling.” I heard Jon’s voice behind me. 

So I was not alone in picking up on the eerie energy that hovered over this street that showed no trace whatsoever of what had happened there 70 years earlier. Strangely, seeing the street had more impact than seeing the graves at Kembang Kuning and maybe more so, because there was a total lack of evidence. Surabaya had moved on and was moving on, rebuilding and erasing history, renaming a street after the perpetrators, not the victims of that fateful day in 1945. This blog will be the marker, albeit in the virtual world, but that world is as good as any as long as you have internet access.  

The street also marked our departure from Surabaya and, as we were driving away, I saw how close Darmo (the safe neighborhood) was to Jalan Keputran, as well as close to the Darmo Hospital where Harry, badly injured, his body riddled with shrapnel and bullets, had promised his mother he would take care of her, now that his older sisters were dead. 

We passed another pemuda statue. 

I was done with Surabaya… 

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4 Responses to Indonesian Pilgrimage, Part VI

  1. Editor BDH says:

    I am so glad your husband Jon was with you at this point.

  2. Barbara Vlot says:

    Chills down my spine….

  3. Nora Valk says:

    Inez, I just reread a letter I received in november 1991 in which the first officer of the British LST ship on which I was evacuated out of Surabaya, writes me that they took 236 women and children on board on Tuesday, November 5th, 1945. So eery to read this today and relive it all together with your blogs. He writes, ‘a weary and hungry crowd of women, children and old men’. But we made it. From Darmo out to rhe harbor, hidden on trucks. We were the lucky ones.

  4. Eileen says:

    Inez, as I was reading I suddenly became aware that my breath was caught in my chest as my heart lurched. How heartbreaking and such a waste of precious life. God Bless them all and you for your loss and for ensuring that there is a public record of these terrible events. Eileen

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