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.