Ken Setiawan and her father, Hersri Setiawan (prisoner in Buru Island, Buru was the site of a prison used to hold thousands of political prisoners. While held at Buru, writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer wrote most of his novels, including Buru Quartet.

Ken Setiawan and her father, Hersri Setiawan (prisoner in Buru Island, Buru was the site of a prison used to hold thousands of political prisoners. While held at Buru, writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer wrote most of his novels, including Buru Quartet)

by Ken Setiawan

Some time ago, I was offered the opportunity to accompany my father to the island Buru, part of the Maluku islands. Buru is a significant place for my family: it is where my father, alongside more than 12,000 other men, was detained as a political prisoner from 1971 to 1979. He was sent to Buru because he was a member of the cultural organisation Lekra. He was never formally charged, let alone tried or convicted for this ‘crime’.

My father’s experiences as a ‘tapol’ (political prisoner) did not silence him. To the contrary, he has always spoken openly and written in detail about his imprisonment. I grew up with these stories, and cannot imagine my childhood without them. There were, of course, stories of friendship and resilience, but also of hunger, humiliation and torture: I always knew my father had little hearing in his left ear because an officer had put a cricket in it as punishment. Thus, to me Buru was a prison island – a place of sadness and pain.

As Buru is intrinsically connected with our family’s history, to some extent I always had a desire to visit this place. So when a few months ago my father told me about his plans, I was eager to join. But when my father called me to confirm our travel dates, I hesitated. In fact, it took me some time – and a good conversation with my father – to book my ticket to Indonesia.

To be honest, I was rather scared of what I would encounter there: I was afraid of being confronted with my own emotions. Inevitably, the journey would bring sad and difficult moments. Friends tried to encourage me; by saying the journey was a unique opportunity, and one of healing. But their words did not convince me.

While I have always been proud of my father’s openness, my way of dealing with the legacy of Buru was to keep it at a distance. I treated ‘Buru’ very much as something that belonged primarily to my father, not so much to me. After all: what did I have to say about it? I had never been to the place, and I was born after my father’s release. I did not distance myself from Buru, or more precisely, my father’s history, because I did not want to know. On the contrary: I wanted to know, very much so. But growing up with stories of what the military did to my father was far from easy. Simply because I am his daughter: his suffering is mine.

I told myself that by knowing my father’s stories, I had already been exposed to enough sadness. Travelling to Buru would inevitably mean directly confronting my father’s past, and therefore my own feelings. Selfishly I thought: “I’m happy… why put myself in such a vulnerable position?”

The answer to that question came quite simply during a phone conversation with my Dad. One Wednesday afternoon, I decided to call him to discuss the trip, or more so my fears: how scared I was of my emotions, and how worried I was to leave home and – most importantly – my children, who I had never left before. My father listened patiently, as he has done his whole life, and then simply said: “Ken, I understand. I know how hard this must be for you. But you must come”.

The times my father has told me to do something can be counted on one hand. So, when he used the word ‘must’ (’harus’) I knew what I had to do, and I booked my ticket straight away.

However, I remained very nervous about the trip, a feeling that only disappeared once the plane touched down in Jakarta, the city of my birth. The familiar feeling of the tropical heat enveloping my body, the faint smell of kretek cigarettes, and most of all finding my father’s beaming face in the arrival hall: I had come home, and felt at ease in fulfilling my father’s wish.

The following day we left for Buru, which involved a seven-hour journey by ferry from Ambon. When we arrived in Buru’s capital Namlea, it was 4am and pitch dark, so it was not for a few hours that I could take in my first sights of the island. As we travelled from Namlea to the village of Savanajaya, some 20 kilometres away, I took in the landscape: green mountains, blue sea, tall grasses and sago trees, under a scorching sun. In hindsight, it was actually quite pretty, but I could not see it in that way. I recalled my father’s stories and I visualised him walking through the grass, and how it cut his feet. In my mind, I saw prisoners working the land, with only their bare hands in those early days of imprisonment. My Dad later told me that on his second day as a ‘tapol’ on Buru he had made his singlet into bandages for his bleeding hands. The first of many tears roll down my cheeks.

In the days that followed, my father showed me the site where one of his friends, Munajid, was found dead under a fisherman’s boat, his hands tied. Munajid was tortured to death because he was found reading a newspaper clipping: the prisoners were not allowed to read. Elsewhere, my father located the grave of another friend, Heru, who passed away only months before the prisoners were all released. His name can be barely read, so worn is the headstone. My father cleared some of the weeds, and placed some flowers picked from a nearby bush on the headstone. I see that my father is deeply affected by being in these places. I do not exactly know what to do or say, and feel helpless in my inability to comfort him. Quietly I hope that my presence and tears convey what words cannot.

Standing on the beach where the political prisoners first arrived on Buru, I looked out over the sea, filled my lungs with air and let the sand run through my fingers. As my father recounted the day he walked seven kilometres to his barrack, barefoot (“imagine what that was like for us city people!”), carrying a prisoner too old and frail to walk, once again the tears flowed and I wonder how it was possible for my father to survive this ordeal.

My emotions affected me profoundly, and one night in particular I could not sleep, replaying in my mind the stories of that day. I was also worrying about my kids, and actually I just wanted to go home. That next day after lunch at the house of ‘Mbah’ (grandfather) Diro – also a former political prisoner, who instead chose to remain on the island after his release – I felt particularly low. Mbah Diro called me. “Come here”, he said. “What is it, Mbah?” I replied, and walked over to him. He took my hand, placing a small, pretty, yellow and red stone in it. “Here, that’s for you”. He then walked over to my dad and said “I like it when young people come to visit. It means that they care”. And within seconds, my tiredness and sad mood had lifted, and I smiled again.

That moment proved to be a turning point. Unexpectedly, in the midst of a place of such sadness, I found positives. For instance, I realised that it was the first place in Indonesia where I could be completely open about my father’s past, and therefore my own ‘status’ as the child of an ex-political prisoner. Elsewhere, I have always been cautious. I only told people when I knew them well enough. But in Buru, it is normal to have a ‘tapol’ dad. Instead of the looks of surprise, fear or pity (the worst kind), which I had become accustomed to on Java, people on Buru enthusiastically asked: “which unit? What year did he arrive? When was he released? What’s his name?”

More importantly, I realised that it was easy to talk to my father about his experiences – and perhaps more so, my feelings. While before I often felt silly or earnest asking my father questions, on Buru I felt I could. In seeing that my father was held in a place of so much suffering, yet still, harboured no feelings of anger, my pride of him deepened. And for the first time in my life, I found it easy to express this. Before, I found it hard to choose the time or place to talk about the past and its effects on me, but on Buru these conversations happened easily.

The night we left Buru for Ambon, we settled into our cabins on the ferry when we discovered that Mbah Diro and his family had made the journey from Savanajaya to Namlea to say goodbye. We walked over to them and I extended my hand to Mbah Diro. Instead, he pulled me into a warm embrace. While patting me on the back, he said: “farewell, my child. Come back one day. You have so many brothers and sisters here”. As the ferry left the port, and the silhouettes of Mbah Diro and his family became one with the darkness, once again the tears flowed. But this time they are tears of thankfulness.

Before I travelled to Buru, I thought of the journey as fulfilling my father’s wish. I did not expect anything from the journey for myself, apart from grief. After all: what is there to find on a prison island?

I could not have been more wrong. In being able to be open about being the child of a ‘tapol’, I found freedom. In the bonds established with the people of Savanajaya, I found a new family. In talking with my father about his experiences and feelings, as well as my own, I renewed and deepened my relationship with him.

The Indonesian word ‘pulang’ means to return, or to go back, to a place where you have roots: a place where you belong. While the first element of that meaning – to return –did not technically apply to my journey, the second element – the notion of belonging – did. Unexpectedly, the journey to Buru made me realise something that maybe I had always known but not fully acknowledged: that Buru was not just part of my father’s past, but that it is an inherent part of my identity.

My journey to Buru, meeting the ‘tapol’ families, and particularly listening to my father’s stories in situ – confirmed that confronting my fears was not easy. But at the same time, my journey showed me that by allowing myself to be vulnerable, I was given something precious in return. In embracing the unknown, I found a sense of purpose and belonging, pieces of myself I did not know were missing, in a home I did not know I had.

To find such sweetness in a place of darkness is a great blessing, and for the lesson Buru taught me, I am forever grateful.