GUY RAZ, HOST:
In Indonesia, many people are celebrating what they see as a long-delayed victory for justice and human rights. Sixty-four years ago, Dutch colonial soldiers massacred hundreds of men in an Indonesian village. Now, representatives of that village have sued the Dutch government and won. The court ruled that the government must now compensate the victims' seven surviving widows.
NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Jakarta about the case and why the widows got no help from the Indonesian government.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Eighty-four-year-old Cawi Binti Baisan remembers her husband Bitol waking her up before dawn one morning in 1947. Bitol went by only one name, and he had just come in from the rice paddies, carrying his plow.
CAWI BINTI BAISAN: (Through Translator) Wake up, wake up, he said. Many wives were still asleep. What is it, I asked. There are many Dutch troops at the irrigation ditches, he replied. We're already surrounded.
KUHN: Indonesia declared its independence in 1945, but for four more years, the Dutch fought to hang on to their former colony, known as the Dutch East Indies.
On December 9th, 1947, Dutch troops came to Rawagede village in West Java, looking for an insurgent leader. The villagers said they had no idea where he was, but the soldiers suspected the villagers were aiding the insurgents.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAWI MIMICKING GUNFIRE)
KUHN: Cawi mimics the sound of gunfire she heard as the soldiers summarily executed all male villagers aged 14 or over. She squats beside Bitol's grave next to those of 180 other massacre victims in Rawagede. Villagers say the rest of the remains of the more than 400 massacre victims are missing. Cawi's lips quiver as she recalls finding her husband that afternoon shot to death in a ditch.
BAISAN: (Through translator) People searched for bodies like this. Where is my brother? Where is my husband? Like this, like people looking for small fish in a ditch. The surviving men all ran for their lives. For a month there was not one man in this village.
KUHN: The massacre would likely have faded into history were it not for the lawsuit which was filed three years ago by village representatives and others who were unwilling to let such an injustice go unchallenged. There's a five-year statute of limitations for a civil suit under Dutch law. Officials reminded Liesbeth Zegveld of this. But the Amsterdam lawyer who represented the victims' widows shot back.
LIESBETH ZEGVELD: I know, but you also know that you're still dealing with the claims of Jewish relatives that suffered damage in the Second World War, so you do still take up claims from that period.
KUHN: Dutch opposition lawmakers supported the lawsuit. They argued that if the Netherlands aspires to be the international capital of justice, then it had better be able to take a dose of its own medicine. In fact, the Dutch government long ago admitted to the killings and donated money to the village of Rawagede. Zegveld says that a lawsuit could have been avoided if the Dutch had just linked that payment to the massacre, but they refused.
ZEGVELD: It acknowledged from the first day that crimes had been committed, and then they remained silent for the next 60 years.
KUHN: How much compensation the widows will now receive has not yet been determined. War crimes victims suing perpetrators in court is a fairly recent development. Traditionally, such matters have been settled between governments. But Jakarta has avoided any involvement in the Rawagade massacre case.
Haris Azhar is a human rights advocate with a group called the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence. He says that the government wants to avoid responsibility for atrocities committed in the post-colonial era.
HARIS AZHAR: There were many similar cases like Rawagede. Hundreds of people, or even thousands of people being persecuted, killed, targeted for torture, many human rights violations. But, unfortunately, no accountability has been taken.
KUHN: It's been more than a decade since the fall of the military dictator Suharto, Haris says, but his culture of impunity for past human rights violations lives on.
Anthony Kuhn NPR News, Jakarta.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.