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Forced workers sadly recall their lives pre-independence

Jakarta Post - August 20, 2007

Slamet Susanto, Gunungkidul – For Karso Suwito, Independence Day is always a time of great pride, as well as pain, as he inevitably recalls his past.

The suffering he endured when the country was under foreign rule comes rushing back every Aug. 17 for the 85-year-old former forced laborer, or romusha. Romusha were forced laborers during the Japanese occupation of the country during World War II.

"I'm happy and proud Indonesia is independent. But if I recall the time during the Japanese occupation when I was a romusha...," Karso says, his voice trailing off. "It's a miracle that I was able to escape the romusha camp and live until today."

The grandfather of four, a resident of Ponjong village in Ponjong district, Gunungkidul regency, some 70 kilometers southeast of Yogyakarta, says in 1944 Japanese soldiers marched into his village and rounded up all the young men.

"We did not know what a romusha was. We just knew it meant working and no one dared to refuse. Refusing meant death," said Karso at his simple home.

Dozens of men were transported in the back of a truck to Gowongan in Yogyakarta, where they waited to be shipped to Celebes, as Sulawesi was known at the time.

While waiting to be shipped off, Karso and his friends were put to work building a railway. They worked long hours for no money, only receiving small rations of often rotten food. One by one the men began to fall sick and die.

Karso and four of his friends escaped by bribing a supervisor with money they had managed to bring with them from home a day before they were to leave for Celebes. "Bribery has been around for a long time, but that time it saved my life. I probably would have died if I left to Celebes," he said.

The five young men hid in the forest for days. "We could hardly walk, the skin on the bottom of our feet was peeling off because we didn't have any shoes."

Another former romusha, 83-year-old Kliwon, said the workers survived on little food, no shelter and whatever clothes they could fashion for themselves. "We only wore pants made from burlap," said the man who was forced to work in a coal mine in Banten.

Kliwon said he felt lucky to have survived. "Many romusha died in the mine," he recalled. "Others died while working to build underground bunkers or were killed afterward." In Java, according to the US Library of Congress, four to 10 million people were used as slave labor by the Japanese military.

Some 270,000 of these Javanese workers were shipped to other Japanese-occupied areas in Southeast Asia. Only 52,000 were repatriated to Java.

As the country marked the 62nd anniversary of independence on Friday, Karso and Kliwon are still struggling to survive. Karso lives in a simple house with his wife, Ngatiyem, earning a living as a farm laborer or by selling tempeh in the market.

Kliwon is a domestic servant. "I get paid Rp 70,000 a month by my employer. If there's other work, I get extra money," he said.