Leo (with black t-shirt)

I was in my hotel room in Jogja at the end of August 2013. Suddenly, someone knocked on the door. When I opened it, two elderly men were standing before me. Leo Mulyono introduced himself and his friend, Suparto, who is also an ex-political prisoner. I was really happy that they were willing to travel to this hotel, to meet me. We had a chat in my room for a while, but then he whispered: Its not safe here. The anti-communist groups are still strong and aggressive in this city. Thats why we must still be very careful. You should not stay here.He said that he could ask his friend, another ex-political prisoner, whether I could stay at his friends house: But his house is really simple. Do you mind?.

I can sleep anywhere. I dont even mind sleeping on the floor,I said. I used to do it when I was a child. Leo and Suparto left my hotel and about an hour later, they came back with Buce, another ex-political prisoner. They helped me pack my stuff, and all of us walked to Buces house, which was only about 10 minute walk from the hotel. At Buces house, we chatted over snacks and coffee. This is Leos story.


I was born on 21 August 1945 in Blora, Central Java. I went to the ISI (Institut Seni Indonesia or the Indonesian Institute of Arts), which used to be called ASRI. I studied Graphic Illustrations there.

When I was in my second year, I joined CGMI (The Unified Movement of Indonesian Students). I was also active in the Art House, Sanggar Bumi Tarung (established by people from Lekra). On 1 October 1965, my friends asked me to take part in the demonstration to support the revolutionary council and to oppose the Council of Generals, as we considered the Council of Generals sided with the bureaucratic capitalists and the new rich. Two days later, on 3 October, Jogja was full of posters like “Get Aidit now!, Hang Aidit!, Gerwani are Whores, “Communists are Dogs”, Fuck PKI”. I didn’t know where they came from, but sentiments against communists grew as quickly as lightning. In the North square, on 20 October, there was a rally to demand the abolishment of the PKI.

That day, I went to the North square, because I wanted to see the anti-communist rally and what happened there. The people at the rally seemed aggressive and ready to devour the PKI. Then, I decided to go to Respublika University. There were so many people there; some were my friends and the rest I didn’t really know. They immediately dragged me in, then gave me janur kuning (yellow coconut leaf) to be tied around my wrist. I was really confused: “What is this janur kuning for?”. In Java, we usually used janur kuning for parties and celebrations. But this time? I followed what they asked me and tied the leaf around my wrist. “We must guard this university,” they said. “If they come here, we must fight them,” the others said to me. I was even more confused. What did we have to fight them with? “Anything”, they answered. Coincidentally, the university was being renovated. So, there were many bricks around. We could use them as weapons. Then, we filled balloons with gasoline, to be thrown and exploded. But we didn’t want to attack them first. We were here only to defend ourselves and this university.

My friends were right. A group of people was approaching. They came with various weapons: knives, spears, axes, kris; and started destroying the sign-board of the university. Many of them were the ones in the rally against communists, previously. Respublica University was considered pro-communist then.

That was when I realized that the janur kuning was given to me to differentiate friends from enemies. The other group was getting more aggressive. So, we started throwing bricks and balloons. Several of us also used slingshots. The others threw whatever they could find in the university: bottles, cement, anything. We knew this building better, so we could defend ourselves despite their violence.

Several of them decided not to go further, and some even retreated to the nearest post office. If anyone dared to go a bit further into the university, we just threw anything at them. In the end, all of them slowly left the university. We had not injured anyone seriously – which was good. So, we felt quite relieved when we could no longer see them.

But suddenly, we heard some shots. A panzer tank was approaching, led by the commandant Major Kartawi.

To be Kept Safe

We were very relieved when we saw them. The soldiers had come; they would keep us safe and protect us. Suddenly, there were other shots from inside. The sounds of pistols of the police. So, there were the police and the army there, at the same time. We were really confused. Several friends were taken at gunpoint. They were ordered to surrender any “weapon” they used to defend themselves.

Then they searched all of us and we were herded in a corner. After a few minutes, while still pointing their guns at us, they ordered us to get out of the building. We were loaded into a truck, taken to the police office, and questioned there. One by one, all of us were interrogated. A friend said that one of the army personnel managed to get in from the backdoor, and said: “If anyone gets in here, I will shoot him.” So, maybe the army was on our side, but the police were not and they were successful in trapping us. But I don’t know the answer even now. Everything was so confusing.

The police asked our addresses. I answered honestly, as I thought they needed it to send us home. But several friends were very suspicious and gave fake addresses. But it made no difference: whether you were honest or not, everyone was detained. When we asked why, the police said that because Jogja was still in chaos, it was not safe for us to be around. So, we had to stay in the Wirogunan prison temporarily.

Indeed, we were in Wirogunan for a short while. But only to be transferred to other more terrible prisons. It turned out that this “temporary” would take a very, very long time. I knew that worse things were awaiting us, when all of us were squeezed into a small space. The capacity of this room was maybe only for 30-40 people, but there were 134 of us there, so we could only lie down on our side and our legs were often on top of other people’s legs. But we didn’t want to be separated anyway. We thought, if we had to die, then we might as well die together. We were never sent home by the police. Our families were never notified. They presumed that I was lost.

There were many ethnic Chinese here, and before Christmas, some troops from Jakarta came in and barked: “Where are the Chinese?”. With the tip of their bayonet, they lifted our chins one by one, identifying the ethnic Chinese. Raymond Sulung said: “I am not Chinese, I am Manadonese”. Indeed, many people from Manado look Chinese. But he was still asked to go forward, then they picked another Chinese; and the two of them were ordered to fight and punch each other. The officers watched while laughing. If they did not fight properly or if the officers thought they were not hitting the opponent hard enough, they would be beaten up by the officers. Teng Han was one of them. He didn’t really want to hit his friends, so he was punched and thrown against the spiky fence. His body was lacerated all over because of this. But he was really tough. He got up then whispered to us: “That was just practice, to make my body stronger.” Later, we met again in Unit 4 on Buru Island.

When Eid was approaching, I thought I was going to die because we hardly had any food for a few days. Maybe because the guards had to fast then (all of them were Muslims), so we had to fast as well. Suddenly, on the day of Eid, we were allowed to have a communal shower. It was only for a few seconds and we couldn’t use soap, and we were given some food. Well, it was their day of celebration, so they were slightly more humane to us.

In March 1966, we were gathered in a yard in front of the prison. We were ordered to put our hands behind our heads. From the other side of the yard, other prisoners could see what was happening. I thought we would be killed then. We were told to go into a train carriage. The train was surrounded by soldiers and after we were inside, all of the windows were shut and nailed shut. Before the door was closed, we were given a small parcel of rice with a little side dish – it was as tiny as a pair of dice. We peered out of the tiny window slat, but we could only look down at the passing road asphalt that changed to grassland, then changed to stones. It reminded me of Hitler’s holocaust train.

When the train stopped in the morning, they asked us to get out while squatting with our hands on our necks. I saw water around me: “Is this Nusakambangan?” I knew that this island was the place for serious criminals like murderers. My tears fell. I was imprisoned in a metal jail. Food was really scarce. Many of my friends died there from starvation.

If someone died, the guards distributed coconuts to the prisoners. The guards would ask one of us to help bury the dead and to pray with the coconut. Then the prisoner had to cut the coconut and spread the juice around the grave. This was the custom here. The flesh of the coconut was distributed to the prisoners, so we were really happy when someone died. We were even waiting for someone to die, so that we could eat coconut. Our sense of solidarity had disappeared because of hunger.

One time, I had to carry huge stones with a friend, using a long pole and a basket. I carried the pole at the front, and he at the back. He kept pushing me from behind. I scolded him, but he didn’t stop. Finally I asked him to swap positions: he moved to the front. But then he was dragging me. It was like he tried to load more of the burden on me. Eventually I lost my patience. I threw the stones on the ground, then challenged him to a duel. His name was Suroto. He said, “Mas1, do we really have to fight because of stones? Aren’t we about to die anytime, anyway? The government is trying to kill us. We can die together if you are like this.” I almost cried. I realised at that time, there was no point in us fighting each other. His body was weak because he hardly had any food. That was why he didn’t have much energy to carry this heavy load.

Later on, I was imprisoned in a prison called Nirbaya, on Nusakambangan. This prison was so terrible, and it made me fall apart. Many of my friends died here. I really didn’t have anything, but I managed to sneak in a T-shirt from a friend from Respublika University. I didn’t dare to wear it because there was a picture of the CGMI torch. When my friends saw it, they asked me to burn it. But that was everything I had. And I only used it as a pillow.

Maybe because the conditions in this prison were so bad, and I thought I was going to die anyway, I decided to wear that T-shirt one day. My friends got very worried and thought I was mad. They were right, the guard summoned me. I had to see an officer named Dalim. He was huge and carried a club everywhere. He was one of the mass-murderer commanders and wore a red and white shawl, maybe to show off his sense of nationalism. I was really nervous in front of him and was preparing myself with any excuse, like I had just cleaned up the coconuts and didn’t have any clothes, so I had to wear this. Or what else could I say?

Dalim: “Where are you from?”


Studied at?”


Can you draw?”

He didn’t say anything about my T-shirt. I was very relieved. Then he called pak Repto, his assistant. “Pak Repto, could you go to Cilacap and buy some pencils, drawing brushes, paper and other tools for drawing?” I was told to help around the office for a while, before all those drawing tools arrived. That was in late 1967.

After the drawing tools arrived, I was required to draw heroes like Diponegoro and Kartini. Other commanders really liked my drawings too, and asked me to draw for them as well. Because of this, the guards were nicer to me. I could get in and out of the prison without being checked, so I could bring cassava to be distributed in the prison.

One morning, the people aged 20-50 and the students were called. I was so happy: we definitely would be freed now. We were asked to go to the train station. I left Nirbaya prison in a cheerful mood, and could walk quite well because of the better treatment I received when I was drawing. The others could hardly stand, so many of them had to crawl. They were only skin and bones, and the elderly ones had to be helped to get on the train. This time, the windows were not nailed shut. But why should they be nailed if we could hardly stand and we were about to be set free anyway? At the train station, there were several banana sellers, and the guards bought us bananas. It was such a happy day.

When the train was approaching Jogja, I was very excited. I could see my home, my friends, and my family again soon. At the main station, Tugu, the train didn’t stop. So, it would stop at Lempuyangan, a smaller station. But the train also didn’t stop. Where would we be taken? Finally, the train stopped in Semarang. Would we be released here? We were ordered to get on a truck. The army surrounded us with guns, although it was impossible for us to run away, as we were already very weak.

The truck took us to Ambarawa, a market town in Central Java. When we were in Ambarawa, our family was informed of our whereabouts. Only at that point did my parents know that I was still alive. The prisoners’ families could also send stuff for us: clothes, food, etc. The fathers of several of our Chinese friends could come and meet them. Maybe they paid bribes because our families weren’t allowed to see us. But I heard one of our Chinese friends, Kim Siang, say to his father: “Do not pay bribes, pa. It will make me feel like a cow. After all, if they want to kill me, they will just kill me.”

In Ambarawa, I met a soldier who had been arrested (maybe because he still had enough of a conscience not to take part in this brutality). Because he knew several guards, his wife was allowed to visit him and she helped me to send letters to my mother. My mother tried to send some stuff to me, but I said to her: “Bu, if you can not afford it, don’t send anything.” I had many siblings and they all needed to be fed. I knew that my mother had to sell her hair, to earn money.

Dating in Prison

Here, the female and male prisoners were not very far away from each other, and we could see each other. Some of the prisoners began dating. They used code and finger-movements such as sign language to communicate and to express their feelings to each other. No paper or newspaper was allowed, so it was impossible to write any love letters. The only reading material we could have were the Bible, the Quran and several religious books that were selected by the authorities. Basically, they tried to brainwash us with religion.

In Ambarawa prison, there were two tailors who could come out often, as the commander assigned them to make clothes. One of them asked me to help them and said: “I’ll teach you to sew”. Although I couldn’t sew at all, that was a chance for me to be able to get out every now and then. Because of that, I met an officer’s daughter and started dating her. She was still young, still in high school. I knew she had a crush on me, because although I was a prisoner, she thought I was educated. And when I was young, I was rather handsome. She often sent me all kinds of things: food, clothes.

Her father, Pak Karto, was Javanese, from Banyuwangi (East Java) and once said to me: “Leo, when they have set you free, don’t be worried. Just come to Banyuwangi, I have a madumongso2 company.” He wanted me to marry her. But actually, I did not love her, I just loved her deliveries.

In 1968, several people aged 20 to 50 were released. I thought this time I would be freed, but my name was not called. We said to the people who were about to be released: “Please visit us.” We wanted to know whether they were really freed or murdered instead. Some of them visited us later on, and we knew that they were really free.

Being Transferred Again

In 1969, we were transported again by train. When I got out, I thought somehow this place was very familiar. Then, I realised, we were back in Nusakambangan! But I was tougher by then, and I did not cry at all. Kim Siang, who had asked his parents not to pay bribes, was with us in Nusakambangan. He said he wanted to stay with his friends no matter what.

Many of the old commanders were still on this island, and they asked me to paint the buildings. Because of this, I could smoke and eat better. I did it really slowly, so I never finished. I just kept painting the same thing over and over again. In my cellblock, there was a dalang (puppet master), and in the evening, he performed for the prisoners. He did everything with his mouth. He did the Baratayuda story, a capella, from start to finish, including the gamelan, the music, the drumming. Everything.

Finally, the day for us to move to another prison arrived. They gave me a leopard pillow, with a number. Starting then, we had no names, we were just numbers. There was no Leo. This was just like Hitler’s camp. On board the Tobelo boat, we went to Buru. They turned on dangdut3 songs. Only a few songs, the favourites of the guards on the boat, were played over and over again. For a few days, we had to listen to the same few songs. But the guards’ attitude to us changed on this boat. They became nicer. Maybe that was the rule of the boat. Many people got seasick here, but I didn’t. So I could eat their food, but then I got sick as well, because I ate too much.

On Buru, they put me in unit 4 (Savanajaya). I was really impressed by how diligent the Chinese people here were. Whereas we always tried to be in shade while working, these Chinese were out in the sun, although it was really hot. Later, I realised why they were like that: they wanted to look darker. Because the guards liked picking on the Chinese, these people wanted to look more like us. Unfortunately, many could not hide their slanted eyes.

Back to Jogja

Finally, I was released in 1979, and got married in 1980. My wife is a former Plantungan4 prisoner. She had often danced genjer-genjer5, and that was why they took her. The people who were dating in Ambarawa prison, none of them got married. After I left Ambarawa, I also lost touch with my girlfriend there. I met my wife at church. I love her dearly. We have four children, and we are still together now.

* * *

When Leo finished his story, it was already around 4 pm. We tried to get some food at a stall nearby, but it was closed. Where should we go then? Are you really hungry?, he asked me. I shook my head. You know, we used to be starving in the prison, so if we dont eat, its not a big deal. I can just eat at home later. But you should eat soon.

Before he left, he told me that his daughter, Pipiet, would love to meet me, but her child was ill. I stayed with Buce, who works as a masseur. That day, Buce refused to take any customers so that he could stay and have a chat with me.

In August 2014, I visited Jogja again. I came with my mother, so she also had the opportunity to meet Leo and Pipiet. My mother could not believe how much we could laugh about the past together. Suparto also came with Leo, but unfortunately Buce was in Jakarta then.

At the beginning of July 2015, I came to visit Leo again. This time, Pipiet told me that her father used to tell her funny experiences on Buru island when she was young. So she thought that being a prisoner was fun. He told her about the suffering and torture much later. We still keep in touch via email to encourage each other. I still often miss these people.

1 Mas (meaning brother): a form of address for Javanese men.

2 Sweet made of fermented black glutinous rice, usually wrapped in colourful paper.

3 A genre of Indonesian music derived from Indian and Arabic music.

4 Plantungan is a district in Central Java, and the hospital for lepers there was turned into a prison for female detainees around 1965.

5 Genjer-genjer is the title of a song and also a dance, which was associated to the communists.