But what good came of it at last? 36 years after “The Yellow Train”

July 17, 2011 at 6:12 am 3 comments

By Roon Lewald

 Hansina Oktulseja, the young Moluccan train hijacker who diedAs a young staffer of a U.S. news agency’s Bonn bureau in Germany 36 years ago, I was seconded to command the agency’s forward desk in the Dutch town of Assen during the final week of a sensational train hijacking by armed South Moluccan terrorists. In an autobiographical  short story (see “The Yellow Train”) posted on this blog a few years ago, I described the lasting emotional impact on me of the events. For close on four weeks, the hijacking focused global attention on a yellow passenger train halted on the rural commuter line between Assen and Groningen at a hamlet called “De Punt”. Tension mounted from day to day as a mid-summer heat wave turned the interior of the train into a sweltering, insanitary oven and deadlocked negotiations raised the spectre of imminent hostage executions by the increasingly edgy, exhausted young terrorists.

It was a field day for white Netherlanders when a bold attack by Royal Dutch Marines freed most of the white hostages, though six of the nine Moluccans and two of their white captives died in the bullet-riddled train. For the Moluccan ethnic minority in the Netherlands, most of whom sympathized  with the unrealistic political demands (if not the terror tactics) of the young hotheads, it was a tragedy that buried their hopes of obtaining independence for their lost island home in the Indonesian archipelago of the South Moluccas.

For me and a few inexperienced youngsters who helped me cover the highly competitive story, our day-and-night reporting with little sleep during the final days of the drama was a taxing, bonding experience. Below the surface of the strict objectivity required by journalistic ethics, conflicting emotions aroused by my concern for the 58 hostages and the senseless death of the idealistic Moluccan youngsters had a lasting impact on me. My imagination was particularly captured by the only female member of the group, a daughter of respectable local Moluccan parents who was well known and liked in Assen as the assistant of a local white dentist. Hansina (“Hansje”) Oktulseja was described by both white acquaintances and Moluccan friends as a kind, friendly person whose participation in the hijacking alongside her extremist male friends took even her family by surprise.

Memories of those days are slowly fading. But most Moluccans remember the six dead hijackers as martyrs to the cause of freeing their ancestral islands from Indonesian rule. Their vain self-sacrifice for a cause born during the chaotic end of Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia after World War II left me more deeply shocked than I realized at the time. The needless explosion of violence and the ethnic tensions it exacerbated in a placidly rural, devoutly Calvinist region known as the Bible belt of north-eastern Holland set me off a trail of religious speculation that aggravated my inherent emotional instability with painful long-term consequences.

For my 69th birthday the other day, my Dutch friend Piet Helmholt, who helped me to cover the hijacking as a local stringer roped in by my agency, sent me a DVD of a recently made Dutch semi-documentary movie of the 1977 train hijacking entitled “De Punt”. Knowing my feelings about the death of the hijackers, Piet wrote on the accompanying card: “Be careful! The film is pretty strong stuff! Moving and very confrontational.”

He was right. The movie catapulted me back 36 years with gut-wrenching déjà vu. In the otherwise highly authentic film, the names and biographical details of some Moluccan protagonists have been changed for dramatic effect. Even so, the fictional character “Nora” is so closely based on the historical prototype who seized my imagination in 1977 that her re-enactment of Hansina Uktolseja’s death left my eyes moist and my heart racing. I identified so strongly with Hansina at the time that the gruesome details I learned after her death became tangibly real to me. Watching the movie, my mind flashed back to the handful of machine-gun cartridge shells one of our reporters brought back from the bullet-riddled train. Thousands of these shells had been scattered by the heavy machine-gun that kept pumping its fat 0.50-calibre slugs into the driver’s cab of the train, where some of the Moluccans including Hansina had previously been known to be sleeping. In my imagination, I once again fingered the greasy brass shells and remembered that pathologists found over 100 of those big, ugly bullets in Hansina’s mangled body after it was carried from the train. And I was once more overcome by that old, eerie sensation that I could see and feel them smashing their grisly tunnels through her soft flesh.

Recalling those tragic events so long ago, I was reminded of a small boy’s pertinent question in Robert Southey’s narrative poem “After Blenheim”. It relates how the old peasant Kaspar, explaining to his grandchildren why his plough keeps turning up skulls of men long dead, tells them about the thousands of bodies he saw rotting in the fields after the Duke of Marlborough’s historic victory over the French at Blenheim.

“But what good came of it at last?”

Quoth little Peterkin.

“Why that I cannot tell,” said he,

“But ‘twas a famous victory.”

Reflecting on the 20-day ordeal of the innocent hostages at De Punt and the bloody retribution visited on their captors, I wondered: was there any point to this particular microcosm of the bloody mayhem that soils the history of mankind? Looking back over the past 36 years, what good – if any – has come of it at last? Assisted by some well-informed white and Moluccas Netherlanders, I delved into a complicated chapter of Dutch post-colonial history to answer these questions.

The modern state of Indonesia was born when Dutch troops fighting to regain control of their old colony of Batavia surrendered to the rebel forces of Javanese insurgent leader Sukarno in 1949. At a subsequent Round-Table Conference (RTK), the Dutch authorities extracted a written undertaking from President Sukarno’s regime to respect the self-determination wishes of separatist provinces or sub-regions of its sprawling empire, including inhabitants of the South Moluccan island archipelago. The majority of the local population were Christians who had accepted Dutch customs during over three centuries of colonial rule. This community provided most of the Moluccas recruits who bravely fought alongside the Dutch in the colonial army, and were therefore likely to fare badly under Indonesian rule.

However, the Moluccas have an exemplary history of friendly, peaceful relations between Christians and the Muslim minority, based on ancestral spiritual beliefs that predated and transcended modern religious divisions. Supported by many of their Muslim neighbours, Christian majority leaders established Republic Maloekoe Selatan (RMS), or the Free Republic of the Moluccas, as an independent state in 1950. The Indonesians thereupon reneged on their RTK self-determination pledge and crushed the RMS in a bloody five-year campaign that ended in 1955. They finally mopped up the last RMS guerrillas on the island of Ceram in 1966 and executed RMS President Chris Somoukil. This was motivated as much by the authoritarian Sukarno regime’s fear of encouraging separatist tendencies in its huge, multi-ethnic population as by the fact that Javanese Muslims saw the little Christian stronghold of the Moluccas as a thorn in the side of the world’s largest Islamic state.

Meanwhile, some 3,500 of the Moluccan colonial troops who refused to accept Indonesian rule were shipped to the Netherlands with around 9,000 dependents in 1951 – against their wishes, since the Dutch government realized that their insistence on being demobilised in their home islands could not be fulfilled unless they opted for transferral to the Indonesian forces. Still in uniform, the soldiers with their families were provisionally parked in spartanic barracks with the intention of eventually shipping them back home for demobilisation and settlement there once the independent RMS republic proved viable.

This provided to be a pipe-dream once the Indonesian army finally conquered the Moluccan archipelago in 1955. Reluctantly accepting that they were an abiding presence in the Netherlands, the Dutch eventually started settling the 12,500 exiles in separate communities with their own social and cultural institutions. Though their segregation was partly due to their own desire to avoid taking root in the Netherlands, it kept them socially marginalized and aloof from the mainstream of Dutch social life for years. After arriving in the Netherlands, their leaders had founded an RMS government-in-exile to serve as a focus of communal identity and pursue Moluccan independence under the RMS flag from Dutch soil. Their ghetto-like circumstances restricted their socio-economic development and perpetuated their bitter resentment over the alleged “broken promises” of the Dutch government, whom they accused of failing to press Indonesia to honour its round-table pledge and reinstate the independent RMS.

(In fact, says Fridus Steijlen, senior researcher at the Royal Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies in Amsterdam, the Dutch never promised to back up the RMS as such. The round-table agreement of 1949 actually required Indonesia to permit self-determination by the entire population of separatist regions like the Moluccas, rather than hand the islands over to the largely Christian-backed RMS. No longer a mighty colonial power, the Netherlands clearly lacked the international clout to sway the authoritarian Indonesian regime of the day. The Hague government therefore confined itself to requesting a United Nations debate on human rights violations during Indonesia’s brutal 1950-1955 reconquest of the islands. Indonesia’s strong backing by the anti-imperialist third-world bloc thwarted this initiative and the UN refused to discuss the issue.)

By the mid-1970s, resentment over the “betrayal” by the former Dutch masters they had served “with dog-like loyalty” for over three centuries spawned a radical terrorist fringe among the second generation of Moluccans. Trying to force their host government to press for reinstatement of the RMS by Indonesia, armed Moluccan youngsters simultaneously hijacked a commuter train at Wijster, near Groningen, and occupied the Indonesian consulate in Amsterdam in 1975.  Four hostages were shot dead – a train engineer, two passengers and a consular employee who tried to flee – before the Moluccans surrendered. They received long jail sentences. Youths from the same Moluccan community at Bovensmilde staged a second train hijacking in May 1977 along the same rural commuter line at De Punt. They were encouraged by their entire community’s sympathy with their aims, though not necessarily their terror tactics.

By proving the unrealistic nature of these aims, the tough Dutch action against the train hijackers has effectively extinguished the extremist movement. Since then, says Steijlen, major changes in the thinking of the Moluccan community and its political leaders in the RMS government-in-exile have done much to normalize white/brown community relations and promote the social integration of the now roughly 50,000-strong Moluccan minority. An older generation of hardline RMS leaders has been replaced by Dutch-born moderates who no longer harp on the Dutch government’s alleged “broken promises”. John Wattilete, an Amsterdam lawyer who was elected President of the RMS-in-exile in April 2010 after a six-year tenure as vice-president, confirmed to me that his group has shifted towards a two-track policy.  “We still regard the Netherlands as co-responsible for Moluccan independence, but we are also pursuing our own dialogue with Indonesia,” he says. The dialogue commenced after the successors of President Suharto, who was toppled in 1998, signalled greater openness to the democratic concerns of the multi-ethnic population.

Wattilete and other leading Dutch Moluccans visited Indonesia twice to confer with President Habibie in October 1999 and his successor, President Wahid, two months later. These missions aimed to discover what Dutch Moluccans could do to help pacify the Christian-versus-Muslim hostilities then raging in the 1999-2002 Ambon War. The Indonesians remained opposed to Moluccan independence, but the dialogue and the softer human rights line of Suharto’s successors have increasingly led to private visits by Dutch Moluccans to the islands and vice-versa. Both the dialogue and this informal two-way traffic of ordinary people would have been unthinkable a few years ago, when RMS leaders clung to the dogma that Indonesia was their enemy and visits to the Indonesian-ruled islands would betray RMS freedom aspirations.

Much as integration into Dutch life is increasing, the islands retain a strong grip on the emotions of Dutch Moluccans. Nowadays, Dutch-born youngsters are returning from visits there with their identity powerfully augmented by first-hand contact with their ancestral roots, strengthened family ties with islanders and first-hand knowledge of the complex political realities and economic needs of the islands they previously knew only from the tales of their elders. The RMS cause, which previously focused on political activism on Dutch soil for the reinstatement of the old RMS republic, has now shifted to a desire “to promote the self-determination rights of the ‘brothers and sisters’ in the Moluccas”, says Steijlen. “(It is felt that) the people living there must choose what they want.”

The factional hostilities which raged on the main island of Ambon from 1999 to 2002 have driven home the need for this more differentiated thinking. After many centuries of inter-religious harmony, the Islamic Jakarta government’s “transmigration” policy of settling more Muslims in the Christian-dominated islands created social unrest that was worsened by a severe economic crisis in the 1990s. This led to bloody riots on the main island of Ambon in 1999, escalating into a two-year war when heavily armed Laskar Jihad fighters arrived on Ambon to mobilize local Muslims and to outgun and outnumber the Christians. Local Indonesian secret agents are widely believed to have connived with Laskar Jihad in a bid to overthrow Christian cultural domination of the islands. The Jakarta government publicly condemned the violence, but militant Muslims in Java and further afield would be glad to see the Moluccas driven into the Islamic fold by upsetting local Christian dominance.

The moderate Dutch Moluccan leadership has since backed away from the old cause of straightforward RMS reinstatement to favour a less doctrinaire vision of independence – or perhaps merely autonomy – freely determined by the entire Moluccan population. Significantly, spokesmen for the 2% Muslim minority among Dutch Moluccans have expressed support for this modified policy.

Having made considerable social progress since the 1970s, Dutch Moluccans now generally accept the Netherlands as their de facto home and are increasingly abandoning their resentful isolationism to pursue social and political integration. In fact, Wattilete says, many Moluccans by now would probably remain in the Netherlands even if the islands gained independence.

To Steijlen, “the RMS has become an identity symbol rather than a political ideal.” To young Moluccans today, however, Moluccan identity means more than wearing RMS badges and saluting the four-coloured RMS flag at annual festivities. They are being inspired by visits to the Moluccas to contribute materially to island development through financial assistance, small-scale aid projects and know-how acquired in the Netherlands.

Wattilete pointed to recent research indicating that “the commitment of younger Moluccans to the Moluccas and the RMS is more than just a symbolic relationship.”  He referred to in-depth interviews with young third-generation Moluccans conducted in 2009 by Nienke Offerman, an Utrecht University student, for her MA thesis on Conflict Studies. Like other respondents in the mid-20 to mid-30 age bracket, one 26-year-old woman expressed her passionate commitment to the home of her ancestors: “The Moluccas are my breath, my everything. They are where I came from and my forefathers came from, they are my identity.” Yet the recorded responses also show that, by now, the Netherlands too are part and parcel of this diasporic community’s identity. “I think my feeling of identity is twofold,” said a 31-year-old man. “Despite my skin colour, despite the fact that my heart is of course still Moluccan, I do feel Dutch.”

As for the white rightwing backlash that strained ethnic relations after the hijackings, this is no longer a significant factor, thinks Steijlen. Anger and concern over 1970s Moluccan terrorism has been overtaken by fear of global Islamic radicalism, which has put the predominantly Christian Dutch Moluccans in the same boat with white fellow-citizens.

How do the people who knew and loved Hansina Oktulseja when she was alive see the aftermath of the train hijackings today? Harking back to my visit to the home of Hansina’s parents shortly after the June 1977 commando attack in which she died (see The Yellow Train), I recalled how her grief-stricken parents, brothers Chris and Jakob and sister Augustina insisted that she was a kind, gentle person who would never have harmed anybody.

The commando attack was needlessly violent – “as if a person with a huge cannon had killed somebody who was carrying only a little water pistol!” exclaimed brother Jakob. This view is echoed by the film, in which the character “Nora” argues passionately on the train against hostage executions demanded by some of her more hotheaded comrades.

Hansina’s death makes it impossible to establish her true intentions. But if appearances count for anything, two photos of Hansina lent to me by the family seemingly bear witness to her human warmth. One shows her cuddling sister Augustina’s baby son Denesh, who was crawling under the living-room table around which I sat with the family (see photo above). The second photo (below) shows brother Chris proudly escorting the attractive Hansina, in traditional sarong and kabaya blouse, to a community festival.

Chris Oktulseja proudly escorts sister Hansina, in traditional sarong and kabaya blouse, to a Moluccan community festival in 1977

Chris Oktulseja proudly escorts sister Hansina, in traditional sarong and kabaya blouse, to a Moluccan community festival in 1977

I looked up the telephone number of Hansina’s brother Chris in the Dutch online phone directory, correctly assuming that he still lives in the Bovensmilde community outside Assen where I first met him in his parents’ home. He had little to say on the phone about the events of 1977. “That’s history now”, he said. But he spoke freely and objectively about the current status of his community, painting a generally positive picture of its social progress since the radical unrest of the mid-1970s petered out. He welcomed the increased human exchanges between his community and Moluccans living in the ancestral islands and agreed that formerly tense relations with white Dutch neighbours are much improved. But while Moluccan integration into Dutch society has made progress, most Moluccans still prefer to keep themselves to themselves, he feels.

He says he gets on well with white neighbours and would not want to leave the Netherlands if the islands became independent. But he still feels unable to call the country whose citizenship he holds his home. “I suppose I don’t have a home anywhere,” he concluded.

Much has also happened to me in personal terms since the 1977 train hijacking. A close friendship has developed between me and the friend who sent me the film about the hijacking the other day. Thirty-six years ago, Piet Helmholt was a young Assen theology student with journalistic ambitions. As a local stringer, his good personal contacts in the region proved very helpful at the time. Piet witnessed and understood the chaotic emotions which contributed to the turmoil of my subsequent life, when marital problems, work pressures and inherent emotional instability precipitated a series of nervous breakdowns, a painful divorce, the wreckage of my journalistic career and my early retirement on a disability pension.

Piet has since become a soul brother and a centre of moral reference to me, even if I can never attain the rock-like fortitude and consistent good neighbourliness he draws from his fundamentalist Calvinist faith. Back in that hot summer of 1977, it was the shy, unassuming Piet who saved my bacon when I was under heavy pressure from my agency for comprehensive coverage of the commando action and its aftermath, including interviews with released hostages. Major publications had collared every liberated hostage in sight for exclusive interviews, offering large fees my agency refused to match for ethical reasons.

Piet’s initiative secured a moving personal account of the events on the train by a member of his church congregation who had experienced the hijacking from start to finish. Refusing to accept money, this deeply religious young woman asked only to include in her story on the AP wire a Bible passage from which she had drawn strength during her long ordeal.

Her quotation from Psalm 34, Verse 3 has stayed with me all these years as a mantra of comfort in troubled moments and a bond with my friend Piet:

“I sought the LORD, and he heard me, and he delivered me from all my fears”.   

Instead of preaching from the pulpit of his Calvinist church as he once intended, Piet is now a respected inspector of schools in the state Education Department. He and his wife Marjan have three attractive daughters. Blonde, soft-spoken Margaretha, the eldest, has given her parents two grandchildren. Dark-haired, impetuous Jacqueline, the middle one, is following her to the altar this year. Pretty little Henriette, the youngest, is going steady with a nice young man.

One thing I particularly respect about Piet is the consistency with which he lives his religious faith. Though anything but obtrusively pious, the Helmholts go to church every Sunday and pray with linked hands at mealtimes, after which Piet usually reads a Bible passage and may comment on it briefly.

He is nevertheless very much of this world. As witness his exclamation after we discussed the film of the hijacking on the phone. “Jongie,” he told me, “you know what I’m going to do as soon as I get a break? I’m going to visit you in Bonn with a bag of that droge worst (peppery dried sausage, a Dutch speciality) you like. Then we’ll sit in front of your TV, munch droge worst and down a few of beers while really concentrating on that film.”

Right on, Piet – I’m waiting!


Entry filed under: Essay, Human Rights, Identity, Justice, Lewald, Race and Culture, van pletsen.

A place in social history Die „Saga der Van Pletsens“

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Piet  |  October 19, 2011 at 1:15 am

    Hi Roon

    This Friday I come to you. We’ll watch the DVD, remmember our history, drink jenever and eat droge worst and Dutch cheese.
    God bless you

  • 2. Jan Beckers  |  April 14, 2012 at 12:27 am

    Dear Mister Lewald,
    I realy like to come in contact with you about the history you wrote.
    In do research to te liberationaction of the army at that train.I found new facts.
    Will you please contact me?
    Jan Beckers,Holland

  • 3. Jos Meijer  |  November 20, 2014 at 11:39 pm

    This is a great description of the tragic events. It is now late 2014 and this story is still necessary. This not the place for accusations, I will just say: thank you so much.


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