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Europe Thursday, 8 March, 2001, 11:08 GMT
Dutch Moluccans appeal for solidarity
Yakoba Wattimena is trying to educate the Dutch about the plight of her native Moloccas

By Olenka Frenkiel

In the Royal Dutch town of Appeldoren, Yakoba Wattimena addresses the wealthy burgers of the Netherlands. She has them spellbound. Dressed in the traditional robes of what used to be known as the Spice Islands, she appeals to them to do their duty and help save her people, the Moluccans.

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She speaks quietly, in fluent Dutch, explaining how an ethnic war fuelled by rival factions in the Indonesian Army is tearing the islands apart. She reminds them that just half a century ago these islands in Indonesia were still part of Holland's colonial empire, the old Dutch East Indies, and that the slaughter there today is a legacy of that time. She's 70, slim and fragile. Only at the end does she give way to the emotions she feels and her voice betrays her with a crack as she appeals to them for solidarity with the Moluccans back home.

The Dutch businessmen listen and are moved.

The Moluccan people fought for the Dutch. With us, alongside our army. They were seen as traitors by their own Indonesian people there. That's why they came to Holland.

" I was shocked. It's very moving. So much injustice. We have a guilty feeling. We haven't done enough for these people" says one. "These people had been betrayed. The Dutch have a duty to help them." But others are sceptical. "I think the Moluccan people in Holland are chasing a dream. They can never get their Moluccas back".

It is fifty years ago this month that the first shiploads of Moluccans landed in the Netherlands. There were 12,500 of them, mostly soldiers with their families who had fought for the Dutch and against the new independent Indonesia. The Dutch told them they were in Holland for a short while and would soon go home.

But that was a dream. Most of the Moluccans were Christians, part of the Dutch-speaking colonial elite. They'd fought on the losing side. Their islands had been absorbed into a greater, predominantly Muslim Indonesia and the world they had known was disappearing forever. But for fifty years they continued to dream of an independent Moluccas.

I'm invited to the family home of Bert Tahitu. He was born in the Netherlands in a former Nazi concentration camp called Vught, which the Dutch Government adapted after World War II to accommodate the Moluccan families who found themselves stranded so far from home.

Bert Tahitu works to improve relations between the Dutch and the Moluccan community
His mother has cooked us a sumptuous meal over which numerous brothers and sisters, nieces, aunts, uncles - an ever-extending family - come in and out reminiscing about those years just after the war. Bert remembers how his father, along with the other men of this now disbanded colonial army, continued to assemble for a daily roll call and march in formation up and down, drilling and square-bashing between the huts where they lived.

These were soldiers, whose fathers were soldiers. Military life was all they knew and come what may, they would not give up. It didn't matter that the Dutch Government had sacked them all, demanded their military uniforms be returned and forbidden them to work.

Then there were the ghosts.

Bert translates for me with mischievous laughing eyes. He was the first Moluccan to obtain a doctorate in linguistics in the Netherlands, and he's now employed by the Dutch Ministry of Education to help repair the damage of those early years and develop some understanding between the Dutch and the Moluccans living in Holland.

Today his mother lives in Mordrecht, not far from Gouda, famous for its cheese. Her house is one of hundreds on an entirely Moluccan housing estate, impeccably kept and inhabited by the third and fourth generations. They all knew about the ghosts.

Bert's two nieces live on an entirely Moluccan housing estate
"You know we are spiritual people" he says, checking to see if I understand. "We believe in spirits and we see them." Bert asks his Aunt who is ready with the story.

"When we arrived", she tells me, "we didn't know what Vught was. Or where they had put us. One day at dusk I looked outside and saw a strange woman I had never seen hanging out her washing. We all saw her but did not know who she was. When we asked the Dutch authorities they told us 'the people who lived here before were Jews. After they stayed here they were sent away and killed. These are their ghosts.' That was when we learnt about the war and what the Germans had done."

Although they never meant to stay in Holland, the Moluccans settled well. Many had large families who, like Bert went on to excel in the Dutch education system and integrate well into Dutch life.

It was not until the 1970s, at a time of student protests all over Europe and America, that the Moluccans hit the news for the first time. A group of militants hijacked a Dutch train and killed two passengers. In a second hijack the Dutch took no chances and killed seven Moluccan hijackers.

It's a period some Moluccans prefer to forget - but they have no doubt it put them and their cause on the map. The Dutch Government started to listen, to reflect on the injustices the Moluccans suffered. They were compensated for their abrupt dismissal from the army and efforts were made to recognise their cultural needs with improved housing, a museum and direct access to a Government Minister.

Thousands of civilians, women and children, both Muslim and Christian have been killed in a brutal civil war

And now once again Moluccan militants have been planting bombs and threatening violence. This time their protest is not over their treatment in Holland but an appeal for help for their countrymen back home in the Moluccas. The Christians, who once were the majority there, have in recent years been greatly outnumbered by Muslim settlers from other parts of Indonesia. In the last two years a group calling itself Lakhsa Jihad has brought militant Islamist soldiers to the islands who have attacked Christian villages, converted the residents at gunpoint and circumcised the men by force.

Thousands of civilians, both Muslim and Christian, have been killed in what has now become a brutal civil war with ethnic cleansing carried out by both sides.

It was when Leo Reovaru heard that his own family's village had been burnt and his relatives killed that he decided threatening violence was the only way. He says his aim is to force the world to notice the plight of his people and to force the Dutch Government to do its duty to its former colony and send troops to defend the Moluccans from attack.

Leo Reovaru says Dutch Moluccans will resort to violence if the massacres continue on the islands
He's a pest-control salesman by day, but he also claims to be the leader of a shadowy organisation called People against Genocide. He's coy about his actual involvement with militants - the regular bomb hoaxes and the threats against Government Ministers - but when the papers write of Moluccan terrorism today, it is his picture and his quotes which appear in the papers. "If the massacre on our islands goes on," he says, "then we will change strategy. There will be violence, that's for sure."

This kind of talk has alarmed many in the Moluccan community. Most know little about Reovaru and want nothing to do with him. But the Government says it's trying to put the plight of the Moluccans on the international agenda.

Roger Van Boxtel is the Minister for the Interior with special responsibility for the Moluccans. "After the hijacking of the trains, we had this intense dialogue and then we made one thing clear. We do not subscribe to the idea of an independent Moluccas. At the same time, the Dutch government is trying to give aid in terms of financial help for food, for housing programs and for schooling programs."

Interior Minister Roger van Boxtel says he understands the Dutch Moluccans' frustrations
For the Moluccans of Holland, the dream of returning to a peaceful independent Moluccas has gone forever. As the curse of ethnic violence spreads wider and deeper across today's Indonesia, the home of their childhood can only be relived in their memories. Mercifully for the young, they are as Dutch as they are Moluccan, and today many are counting their blessings that their grandparents' dream of repatriation was never realised.

Also in this edition of Crossing Continents: the conflicts over squatters' rights in Europe's most liberal city, Amsterdam, and some lessons for the UK on flood management from the world water leaders.

Listen in on a Moluccan Gospel Choir
performing in the Netherlands
Roger van Boxtel, Dutch Interior Minister
admits that, at first, the Dutch government let the Moluccans down.
Hear Moluccan Museum director Wim Manahutu
describe the troubled history of the Moluccans' presence in the Netherlands
See also:

04 Aug 00 | Asia-Pacific
25 Jul 00 | Asia-Pacific
17 Jul 00 | Asia-Pacific
08 Jul 00 | Asia-Pacific
27 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
27 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
26 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
20 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
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