Second World War in the Dutch East Indies
‘I was 2.5 years old when I arrived in the Netherlands’, says Bert, who was born on Bali. ‘I still have five brothers and a sister who were all born in the Dutch East Indies. My father was a sergeant major and instructor for heavy weapons in the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (KNIL) and we were stationed throughout the archipelago. During the Second World War, my father was interred by the Japanese and spent 3.5 years as a prisoner in the Japanese camp in Surabaya. That was a very difficult time, and the prisoners experienced considerable hunger. Sometimes they broke out via the perimeter fence to beg for food in the kampongs (villages). During an inspection, the Japanese discovered that Aponno’s bed was empty, and he had to pay the price for that. He was strung up on a pole in the burning sun for three days.’ Mike adds: ‘Non, my father’s sister, said in a television documentary1 that the camp permanently changed her father.’ Bert describes how the roles were reversed following the liberation from the Japanese. ‘My father went back to the place where he had been interned and the camp torturers were now imprisoned there themselves. My father’s troops had already started to get excited about it: What would Aponno do to his Japanese camp torturer? They anticipated quite a spectacle. At a certain moment, the torturer was thrown at his feet and what did my father do? He gave him a packet of cigarettes and shook his hand. Love your enemies is what he said.’
‘What would Aponno do to his Japanese camp torturer? He gave him a packet of cigarettes and shook his hand.’
However, the end of the Japanese occupation and, accordingly, of the Second World War in 1945 did not yet bring peace. The Dutch hoped for a restoration of the pre-war colonial situation. The Indonesian nationalists, however, wanted an independent Indonesia. That marked the start of what the Dutch refer to as the Bersiap period (1945-1946). That was an extremely violent period in which Indonesian nationalists dealt with anyone who had links with the Netherlands in a horrifying manner. With their actions, the nationalists wanted to make it clear that the era of colonial rule was over. This period was particularly difficult for mother Aponno because, together with her children, she was constantly fleeing straight through the sawas (rice fields, ed.), say Bert and Mike.
Moluccans in a tight spot
The Bersiap period was followed by “police actions” (1945-1949): two offensive operations from the Dutch Armed Forces during the Indonesian War of Independence. The Dutch government did not recognise the Republic of Indonesia as an independent state and wanted to restore order by means of military campaigns. Under pressure from the United Nations, the Netherlands finally recognised Indonesia’s independence in December 1949 and transferred power to Indonesia. Bert: ‘After the transfer of power, the Dutch East Indies were divided into three autonomous sub-republics: Sukarno’s (President of Indonesia, ed.) Republic of Indonesia, mid-Indonesia and East Indonesia (including Timor and the Moluccan islands). And these three sub-republics together were meant to form the United States of Indonesia. In the end, however, Sukarno wanted to establish a single republic, and he failed to uphold the agreements made. In response to this, Moluccan leaders such as Chris Soumokil declared the independence of the Republic of South Maluku on 25 April 1950. Sukarno did not want that and intervened. The Netherlands had nothing more to say in the matter. Even the efforts of Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema (also known as the Dutch resistance fighter, the Soldier of Orange) to help the Moluccans were in vain.’
The transfer of power to Indonesia in 1950 also meant the end of the KNIL, which consisted of European, South-African, Javanese and Ambonese (Moluccan) soldiers. Of the 50,000 indigenous soldiers, 26,000 were transferred to the Indonesian army, 20,000 were demobilised (left the service), and the rest were repatriated to Holland. The Moluccan KNIL soldiers ended up in a tight spot: they had to choose either demobilisation (at the place they came from or another place of choice) or join the Indonesian army. That was a choice between two evils. ‘Back then, the group of 4000 Moluccan KNIL soldiers were stationed on Java. The Indonesian government regarded the Moluccan soldiers as enemies and very degradingly referred to them as “Dutch dogs”. Remaining on Java was extremely dangerous. However, the soldiers wanted to return to the Maluku islands. But Sukarno blocked that move. Furthermore, returning to the Maluku Islands was too dangerous. Even demobilising to New Guinea, which was still in Dutch hands at that time, was refused by both Indonesia and the Netherlands. That was because New Guinea was too close to the Maluku Islands’, says Bert.
Bert and Mike describe how the situation further developed. ‘My (grand)father was involved at the highest level in the decision-making about the fate of the Moluccan KNIL soldiers. In that period, he travelled with a delegation, the Aponno delegation, to the Netherlands to negotiate with the Dutch government. He went against the wishes of the top boss, the Dutch Minister of Defence. The Aponno delegation initiated summary proceedings against the Dutch State, supported in their efforts by their lawyer K. van Rijckevorsel. They demanded that the Dutch government did not abandon this group of Moluccan KNIL soldiers to their lot on Java and that they would instead be temporarily accommodated on either New Guinea or in the Netherlands. It was a case of choosing the lesser of two evils: a temporary stay in the Netherlands. Later, the Dutch government claimed that the Moluccans themselves had opted for the Netherlands, but that was not the case. It is like somebody pointing a pistol at your head and asking you, “give me your wallet”, and then the same person subsequently saying: “but you gave me the wallet yourself”.’
“Temporarily” to the Netherlands
In 1951, more than 4000 Moluccan KNIL soldiers with their families, in total more than 12,500 people, departed with various ships to the Netherlands for a “temporary” stay there. The soldiers received a frosty welcome when they arrived. The Dutch government placed the Moluccans in camps, like the former Westerbork concentration camp. The National Archives of the Netherlands writes: ‘The accommodation and living conditions were anything but ideal. Initially, the Moluccans were not allowed to work, and they received three guilders’ pocket money per week. They were not even allowed to cook for themselves. Instead, food was provided from central kitchens.’ ‘It was not just the Moluccans who received such a cold welcome. The Dutch from the Dutch East Indies who had repatriated shortly before them were also cold-shouldered’, states Bert. The Moluccans lived separately from the Dutch. This arrangement was inspired by the idea that this would make it easier for them to return to Asia as soon as the Maluku Islands became independent. However, upon arriving in the Netherlands, the KNIL soldiers received another very unpleasant surprise: they were immediately discharged from military service. ‘Their disappointment could not have been greater. It felt as if they, men who had fought for the Netherlands, had been discarded like rubbish’, wrote the online magazine “Geschiedenis” [History] in its article about this.
‘I can still remember the trunks stacked up in the corridor. They stood there, ready for the return journey. After all, our stay was only temporary.’
Bert: ‘Fortunately, we did not end up in the camps because my father had arranged a boarding house for us. He was already in the Netherlands, well before we came with mother. I can still remember the trunks stacked up in the corridor. They stood there, ready for the return journey. After all, our stay was only temporary.’ We went from boarding house to boarding house and, at a certain point, we stayed in a hostel on the Nieuwe Uitleg, a quay in The Hague, with repatriated people from the Dutch East Indies. For us as children, it was a wonderful, pleasant and carefree time. However, that must have been very different for our parents.’
Revolt and no more hope of a return
The years passed by, and the Moluccan families in the Netherlands remained in limbo concerning their status and whether their return was still possible. Upon being asked when it became clear that the Moluccan KNIL soldiers and their families would no longer return, Mike responds emotionally: ‘Not! That has never been stated. Right up until this day, that decision has not been taken. At a certain moment, the Moluccan camps were simply disbanded, and the Moluccan families were placed in residential areas. They were spread as much as possible to ensure their integration in Dutch society. However, disquiet remained in the Moluccan community, especially among the younger generations. My uncle, Etty Aponno, became politically active and was the chair of the Vrije Molukse Jongeren [Free Moluccan Youth]. He was closely involved in the activities of J. Manusama (president of the RMS, Republic of South Maluku, and successor to the former RMS president Soumokil, who in 1966 was executed by Indonesian soldiers on the island of Ceram, ed.). In 1970, my uncle was severely injured during a demonstration at the prison in Scheveningen, and he remained disabled for the rest of his life’, says Mike. ‘In his position as chair of the Vrije Molukse Jongeren, he was spokesperson during the train hijack in the province of Drenthe, at De Punt (nine armed Moluccans entered a train on 23 May 1977 and started a hijack that would last almost 3 weeks, ed.)’, adds Bert. ‘I really do understand the frustration among the Moluccans. But I personally have an awful lot of difficulty with this episode in our history. We lived among Dutch people, I was the only coloured person at a Dutch school, and I had Dutch friends. I didn’t know better. When this happened, I did, however, notice that there was little understanding of the situation. Of course, as a family, we also had the “misfortune” that the name Aponno came up a lot in the news because my brother Etty was a mediator. On one occasion, all Aponnos listed in the old-fashioned paper telephone book were called and threatened.’
Adapting and looking ahead
The family Aponno adapted as well as it could in the Netherlands and looked ahead. The family talked little about the war. ‘However, I can still remember one particular situation well’, remembers Bert. ‘I had earned money and had purchased a Mitsubishi car. “You’ve bought a Japanese car!”, my father said. Then he briefly lost it’, recalls Bert further. ‘My elder brothers told me that my father said: you may forget everything that I ever taught you. Here you will learn very different things. And we speak Dutch’, says Bert, who explained that they had already acquired Dutch nationality back in the Dutch East Indies, even his own great-grandfather. ‘The consequence of that, however, was that the eldest Aponno sons had to enter military service as soon as they arrived in the Netherlands. I was lucky, because, as the fifth child, it was enough if I joined the BB (de Bescherming Bevolking), the civil protection force that defends the population in times of war.’ Bert looks back on the past in a very matter of fact way. ‘My mother very much lived in the past. But I do not suffer from nostalgia or sentimental feelings. Neither do I have any desire to go back to Indonesia. My sister Non is very different in that respect. She is still very angry. The rest of the children managed to come to terms with the past, wherever life took them. For example, one brother immigrated to California (US), and another brother ended up in Sweden.’
Mike is a third-generation Moluccan in the Netherlands because his grandparents were born on the Maluku Islands. He reflects on the question of how aware he is of his own roots. ‘My father is Moluccan, but my mother is Dutch. I think that I have only been really aware of my Moluccan roots since I was a teenager. Of course, we sometimes went to Moluccan events, and at primary school, I also had a lot of Dutch East Indian friends. Then they asked me: are you Chinese-Dutch East Indian or simply Dutch East Indian? And only later did I realise that I was neither, but Moluccan instead! The date 25 April did have a place in my family as that is the date on which the independence of the Republic of South Maluku was declared in 1950. Then the entire Moluccan family came together to celebrate on the Malieveld in The Hague. In the past, it was a real celebration, but since the train hijack and other events, it is now more like a remembrance ceremony in character.’
Recording the family history
Bert: ‘It’s a real shame that Dutch people know so little about Moluccan history. This should be taught in the history lessons at schools. That would create more understanding for Moluccans. Young people nowadays have no idea about this history. Fortunately, there is a remembrance place in the form of the Moluccan Historical Museum in The Hague where I work as a volunteer myself.’ Mike: ‘It is also the reason I am busy making a documentary. I believe that my grandfather’s story must be told. It is a good, important and exciting story, but regrettably, it remains unknown. My grandfather did, after all, take the Dutch state to court. Furthermore, I would like to know exactly what happened and everything he did for his family and the Moluccan community. It is also good that my children know about this. But the Moluccan story is not known to the general public, and that is a shame. My nephew is a filmmaker, and we will take on this challenge together. Together with him and my father, I’ll undertake a road trip to Sweden to interview one of my father’s brothers in April. The story must be properly told once and for all, without any trimmings.’
Who is Michael Aponno?
Michael (Mike) Aponno (45) has worked at NWO for 15 years. He is a Senior Service Desk Employee I&A in The Hague, and he manages Studio NWO. Together with Jan-Joost de Man and sidekick Maudy Lohaus, he has presented the podcast “Koffieapparaatpraat” since 2021, which is definitely worth listening to via NWO intranet Joost. In his spare time, he is a DJ and a youth football coach for the Under 11s. Mike and his girlfriend together have five children.
Text: Melissa Vianen
Newsletter Inside NWO-I, April 2022
This interview is part of the interview series “NWO celebrates…”.
- Article from the website Nationaal Archief: 1951: Eerste Molukkers komen aan in Nederland.
- Article from Geschiedenis Magazine: ‘Het voelde alsof zij, mannen die voor Nederland hadden gevochten, als vuilnis aan de kant werden gezet’.
* * 1Dutch television documentary “Molukkers in Nederland: 70 jaar op weg naar huis” [Moluccans in the Netherlands: on their way home for 70 years] Coen Verbraak, watch again on NPO Start.
* Moluccan Historical Museum (website in Dutch only). Together with the Dutch East Indies Remembrance Centre, this jointly forms the Museum Sophiahof van Indië tot nu (website in Dutch only).
* Travelling Exhibition: In Two Worlds | Moluccans in the Netherlands (website in Dutch only)
The story of Mike and his father Bert Aponno contains sensitive subjects but is authentically and honestly portrayed with due consideration for the historical facts. With this article, the section “NWO celebrates…” shows that there is often a fine line between celebration and remembrance. The editors of “NWO celebrates…” can imagine that there might be readers who would like to give feedback on the story or ask questions. The editors welcome any and all reactions. Please send your mail to Melissa Vianen via firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the photo
In the circle: Bert Aponno (left) and Michael Aponno (right). In the background is a photo of the Aponno delegation. (Grand)father sergeant-major F.A. Aponno is in the back row, third from left.
Diversity & Inclusion at NWO and NWO-I
The section “NWO celebrates…” is published on the NWO intranet Joost and in the newsletter Inside NWO-I. it is an initiative from the NWO-D and NWO-I wide Diversity team. We aim to realise working in an inclusive organisation with inclusive procedures. We believe that we can achieve our strategic ambitions as NWO if we also seek to be a diverse organisation with an inclusive culture. Diversity brings us creativity, innovation, and renewal. In addition to this, we are convinced that we, as NWO, will have more societal impact if our organisation reflects the society we are part of. This means that as an employer, NWO needs to ensure that everybody is welcome, can be themselves and can perform at their best. This Diversity and Inclusion calendar contributes to that. You can read more about diversity and inclusion on the NWO website. And in the January 2021 edition, we published the article “Striving for an organisation where everybody can be themselves” about diversity within NWO and NWO-I.
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