PILGRIMAGE TO COWRA WITH AIA ON MARCH 19-20, 2022
In the small Australian country town of Cowra, about 300 km inland from Sydney, lie 13 Indonesian graves. They are located in the public cemetery beautifully maintained by Cowra Council. Who are these Indonesians who died far from their homeland.
The story goes back to World War II. The Japanese were in control of a large part of Papua, and the Dutch were afraid that the Japanese may reach Boven Digul, release the Indonesian political prisoners held there and use them for their own political purposes. So, in 1943, the Dutch decided to transfer these prisoners and their families to Australia, where the NEI government in exile was already established and where there were already thousands of Indonesians, many of them servicemen with KNIL or seamen with KPM.
The Digulists were first flown by Dutch navy Catalina flying boat to Horn Island at the northern tip of Australia. They then travelled by ship to Sydney and Brisbane and finally by train to Cowra, where they arrived on June 25. The 500 Digulists were then held in the large prisoner of war camp nearby. This camp already held thousands of POWs, mainly from Italy and Japan. The camp had held nearly 700 striking KPM seamen from Indonesia the previous year. They were striking because of their low wages compared to their Australian counterparts, particularly as they were required to undergo the dangers of serving in the war zone of New Guinea.
Now, June is the middle of winter in Australia, and Cowra can be very cold. Some of the Digulists were not in good health and did not survive. Some babies were born, and one or two of them did not survive also. These are the Indonesians who lie buried in Cowra. When the Australian government realised that the Digulists were not criminals but rather political prisoners, they were all released from Cowra within a year. After the end of the war, they were repatriated to Indonesia. Some, such as Mohamad Bondan, married Australian women who later joined them in Indonesia.
The Australia Indonesia Association ( AIA ) was founded in Sydney in July 1945, firstly to support the Indonesian independence movement and to promote good relations between the peoples of Australia and Indonesia. In March, the AIA made a weekend pilgrimage to Cowra to honour the sacrifice of those who lie buried there. A bus was hired to travel from Sydney. The AIA party comprised about 40 people., The Indonesian government was represented by the Indonesian Consul General Bp Vedi Kurnia Buana. Representatives were also sent from the KBRI in Canberra and the AIA in Canberra, as well as the Indonesian Diaspora and Community organisations.
The hosts were the Cowra Council, assisted by Mr Graham Apthorpe of the local historical society, the Breakout Association. This name is related to the massive escape by over 200 Japanese POWs in 1944. At the gravesite, the Mayor of Cowra, Mr Bill West, made a speech recognising the sacrifice of the Indonesians buried there, to which Bp Vedi responded. Wreaths were then placed by the organisations represented.
The occasion was particularly moving for two of the AIA party. Jan Lingard, the author of “Refugees and Rebels”, the definitive book on Indonesians in Australia during WW2, had known one of the Indonesian internees, Siti Chamsinah, who was a teenager during her time in Cowra. Jan was also instrumental in having the Indonesian graves identified and restored. Another lady, Isla Winarto, whose father , Andries Sorongan, is a Pahlawan Revolusi and lies buried in Taman Makam Pahlawan, Kalibata, proudly wore her father’s medals. It should be mentioned also that every November, around Indonesian Heroes Day, the KBRI and KJRI organise a formal ceremony at the gravesite.
As guests of the AIA, 4 Indonesian postgraduate students were included in the AIA party who are undertaking PhDs at universities in Sydney, some with families. The committee of the AIA felt it important that these visitors from Indonesia have the opportunity to experience first-hand this piece of Indonesian history in Australia, as well as to see some of the Australian countrysides and experience some Australian hospitality. These Indonesian students were very appreciative of the opportunity to join the pilgrimage.
Cowra Council provided a wonderful dinner on the Saturday night at which gifts were exchanged, and Jan Lingard spoke of the experiences of the Indonesians interned in Cowra. On Sunday morning, Graham Apthorpe and Neil Smith of the AIA conducted a tour at the site of the POW camp on the outskirts of town.
There was also an opportunity to view the site of the proposed Indonesian memorial park, which overlooks the site of the POW camp.