Nusakambangan. In early January, I brought my wife
and toddler daughter along on a visit to the Nusakambangan prison. We
went there to visit Republik Maluku Selatan — South Maluku Republic, or
RMS — political prisoners. I wanted to show them that in this country
many can still be jailed for holding different political views, some for
as long as 15 to 20 years.
In June 2007 in Ambon, these RMS political prisoners danced the Cakalele and raised the RMS flag in front of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono during a seemingly innocuous ceremony to celebrate National Family Day. Yudhoyono was incensed. The dancers were arrested, and then tortured. In total, 68 people were arrested after the incident and sentenced for up to 20 years in prison.
Unfortunately, this is not the end of the story. In 2009, the political prisoners were forcibly moved, away from their family in Ambon, to various prisons across Java including Nusakambangan.
The prison’s staff watched as we turned to more serious conversations. We spoke about the prisoners' health, the legacy they want to leave, food and then, naturally, the topic moved on to families.
One of the RMS men, Ruben Saija, also has a daughter, Vike Saija, who is now ten years old. Ruben last saw her in 2009, and has never seen her since he moved from Ambon to Nusakambangan. “She was as young as your daughter when I was moved to this place,” he told me.
Last December, Ruben attempted suicide by drinking insecticide. He was frustrated and depressed at not being able to witness his daughter’s baptism in Aboru on the Haruku Island. Luckily, his life was spared.
Jordan Saija also has a son, Fredy Saija, now twelve years old. Since Jordan moved to Nusa Kambangan, no one from his family has ever visited him. They are a family of sago farmers. It simply costs too much to go to Java. “My only visitor, so far, has been a sister of mine who had come from Papua some years ago,” he said. The sister had gotten help to visit Jordan from a program organized by NGOs in Jayapura and Jakarta. Filep Karma, the popular and influential Papuan ex-political prisoner, also received assistance from the same organization to visit the RMS political prisoners.
Ruben Saija and Jordan Saija are detained at the Kembang Kuning prison together with four other political prisoners: Johanis Saija, Abner Litamahuputty, Romanus Batseran and John Marcus.
Then there are the others; Johan Teterisa at Batu Prison, also in Nusakambangan. Three in Porong prison: Fredy Akihary, Jonathan Riri and Marlon Pattiwael. Another one in Madiun, Peter Yohannes. They had all been detained since 2007 on Yudhoyono’s order.
In May 2015, President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo made a promise to release all political prisoners in Indonesia — including Papuans and Moluccans. So far, Jokowi had released five political prisoners who had asked for clemency, and Filep Karma by remission.
When he visited the RMS political prisoners in Nusakambangan, Filep asked them if they wanted to ask for clemency from Jokowi — and all of them said no. The RMS men were adamant that they did not commit any crime. I agree with them.
They RMS men did not want clemency, but they did desire one thing: for their families to visit them at Nusakambangan. A simple request, but one which would cost a lot of money.
Once we were back from Nusakambangan, the Jakarta Legal Aid Foundation, Human Rights Watch and Pantau Foundation worked on making their dream to reunite with their families come true.
The work took five months, but eventually the RMS political prisoners were reunited with their families.
The Pantau Foundation was able to arrange family visits to the three prisons: Nusa Kambangan, Porong and Madiun. They were to be fully legal visits with official permits issued by the Penitentiary General Director I Wayan Kusmiantha Dusak.
We obtained permission for the visit of two family members per political prisoner. Then it was time for me to make phone calls to the RMS political prisoners' loved ones.
The first group of families visited the Kembang Kuning and Batu prisons. At Kembang Kuning, Rubben Saija was visited by his wife Yohanna Saija and daughter Vike. Jordan Saija was finally reunited with his wife Etha Saija and son Fredy. Yohanis Saija met his brother Arens Arnold Saija and daughter Afril Saija. Romanus Batseran was visited by his brother Randi Batseran and his wife, Erlin Keyzer. John Marcus was visited by his mother and her sister, Dortje Wattimena and Jansen Sasabone. In Batu, Johan Teterisa was reunited with two of his sons, Rivaldo Teterisa and Johncard Teterisa.
All the political prisoners mentioned above are fathers, sons and family members to these people from Ambon. The time apart, and the distance between them, have caused a lot of heartache for them all.
While the reunions were not perfect — they still took place in a prison after all — they were better circumstances than the last time in which the families met each other. In Ambon, the RMS men suffered constant torture. The families were never told that their family members were being moved to Java. They discovered it some months later, from gossip. For a long time since, they were left feeling restless and hopeless.
“The last time I saw him, my husband... his eyes were swollen, he was in a lot of pain,” Etha Saija said, holding back tears as she caressed her daughter’s hair.
The pain suffered by these people seemed to be endless. The prisoners' families were also subjected to intimidation by police and military officers. Families were left in ruin, some of the men's partners had asked for divorce. Family members who work in government offices were threatened with dismissal. A couple of families were forced out of Ambon.
The families desperately wanted to meet their loved ones, but few of them had the wherewithal to travel all the way to Java. Jordan Saija’s wife Etha, for example, lives in Aboru, a small island south of Ambon. Her journey to Java would require her taking a speedboat to Ambon, followed by a long flight to Jakarta before a long bus trip to Nusakambangan. Such trip would be daunting for most people, let alone a simple farmer who had never flown before in her life.
The thought of the journey alone filled Etha with dread and worry. She never flew in an aircraft. How could she pay for the speedboat? How could they get to the airport? Who would keep her company during the trip? Do we need to bring gifts? These questions occupied her mind as she prepared to leave for Java.
Eventually, Etha Saija and her daughter left Aboru with Johana Saija and her daughter. They also brought Arens Saija and his son. Luckily, Arens Saija had been to Java before. He was detained at Kedung Pane in Semarang for the same case but was released sooner because of illness. “I was tortured and and almost died in prison,” Arens said.
Arens’ knowledge of Java brought some comfort to the travelers. They went early in the morning from Aboru, flew to Jakarta and, without any rest, hopped on a bus to Cilacap then crossed by boat to Nusakambangan. The long trip took its toll, especially on the kids. Vike, especially, was prone to bouts of sickness along the trip. But they had no choice, they had to go on with the trip. This was the first time they had a chance to meet their family after a long wait.
After 24 hours on the road, we are arrived at Nusakambangan. There was no time for a bath or other niceties. I showed the electronic permit to the prison staff. It was finally issued when we were on the way from the airport. A friend from the Jakarta Legal Aid Foundation had sent it to me. The staff asked me to print out the letter. An hour later I came back with the printed letter, but the others had already gone and left me at the port.
Sticking to the plan, we would stay in Cilacap for two days. The next morning, we visited Johan Teterisa at the Batu prison. At Kembang Kuning, the families were reunited during the regular prison visiting hours, 10 a.m. to 12 a.m. There was no privacy. Even though they had not seen each other for seven years. Even though they had just spent 24 hours on the road. No, they were given the regular visiting hours at the regular visiting room.
I asked Etha Saija, “How did it feel meeting your husband [Jordan] again?"
Etha said Jordan did not recognize his son Fredy, walking past him and straight to his wife when they entered the room.
Before crossing into the Kembang Kuning prison, I showed Ruben Saija's photograph to Vike. I asked her if she recognized the man in the picture. She said,”My father.” But when they finally met each other in Kembang Kuning, Vike did not recognize her dad, refusing to come too close to him.
It took Ruben some time to convince Vike that he was not a stranger. ”Just look at our faces, don't they look similar?” Ruben asked Vike. Vike nodded. Ruben then hugged his daughter and sat her on his lap. After a couple minutes, they were inseparable. Playing, talking randomly about many things, everything. Two hours later, it was time for Vike and her mother to leave. But Vike resisted.
“I want to sleep with Daddy,” Vike said. She wanted to stay with her dad at the Nusakambangan prison.
I felt deep sadness during these trips with the political prisoners' familiers. Many people just do not understand the real issues at play. They all assume that these Haruku people were guilty of treason because they wanted independence, they wanted get out of the NKRI, or Republic of Indonesia. Because of that "sin" they deserve all the atrocities coming to them.
Many forget that these so-called RMS men have not committed any violent act. They were just dancing with a flag because they were upset with discrimination. Discrimination that has left them eking out a meager life as destitute farmers in a tiny island in one of the remotest parts of Indonesia.
The same type of protest would not have angered the authorities so much if it happened in other countries — such as Spain where the Catalans constantly advocate independence from the Spanish. As long as you're not violent, you should be allowed to express your political view. The right to do is actually protected by the Indonesian constitution. And this is why Jokowi has to come good with his promise to release all political prisoners, and quickly
At Nusakambangan, I kept thinking about my own daughter. I hope when she grows up, the state will commit no more violence against people who want to express their political ideas. And I certainly hope none of them they will be put in jail for it, for any length of time.
Imam Shofwan is the chairman of Pantau Foundation, an organization dedicated to improve the standards of journalism in Indonesia.
This article also appear on Jakarta Globe for the first time.