Grisly Images

Linawati Sidarto, WEEKENDER | Thu, 06/23/2011 1:26 PM |

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Photos showing Dutch slaughter in Aceh more than a century ago continue to arouse discomfort in the Netherlands.


Courtesy of The Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam.Courtesy of The Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam.Tall, lush trees shade several thatched huts, some with no walls, their household wares – ceramic pots, water jugs – on display. Others are enclosed, propped high above the ground by wooden stilts.

But there is nothing normal about this scene, captured in a 1904 photograph of Koetö Réh village in Aceh.

In the open spaces around the huts, dozens of corpses are piled up haphazardly, some sprawled sideways; a leg juts out over another body that lies face down. While the photo does not afford a clear view of the victims, the piles do not seem to be made up solely of adult men. Standing over the corpses are several soldiers.

It is one of 173 photographs taken during a Dutch army “expedition” across Aceh’s Gayo and Alas regions during the first half of 1904. Until that time, the regions had defied Dutch rule during three decades of war. The Dutch force consisted of some 200 soldiers and more than 400 forced laborers. By the end of June that year, the “expedition” had left more than 3,000 Acehnese dead. In some areas, about 20 percent of the total population was killed.

Icons of Memory

Several of the photographs have been reproduced repeatedly in the past century. Utrecht University cultural scientist Paulus Bijl recently wrote a dissertation on the photos, comparing them to the notorious 1972 photo from Vietnam of a young girl drenched in napalm.

The Vietnam photo, Bijl points out, has become more than just an image of a girl – it has become a symbol of the atrocities of the Vietnam War.

As a widespread representation of a historically significant event, the photograph of Koetö Réh is an icon of memory,” Bijl says. “These photos keep showing up in different time periods – in the ’60s, the peace movements during the Vietnam War, and even the war against terror in Afghanistan. They emerge and submerge, but they never disappear.”

Bijl describes the Dutch response to its violent past as “cultural aphasia” rather than “amnesia”.

The emergence of the photos is usually paired with public discussions, but these never end in a consensus of views.”

The Aceh photos were first shown in public in February 1905 during an exhibition in Batavia, and later that year in a book about the Gayo Alas expedition. Bijl stresses that the Dutch government had never made any attempt to keep the gruesome photos secret.

Don’t think of them as the Abu Ghraib photos, which were certainly not meant for a wider audience,” Bijl says of the notorious photos of US soldiers torturing Iraqi detainees.

The Aceh photos were published more or less to inform the public that progress had been made in Aceh. It was a way to let people know what the Dutch troops had been up to.”

This reflects the overall sentiment of that time: Colonialism was an accepted, uncontested fact of life. Nevertheless, the publication of the photos did spark debate in the Netherlands, including in parliament.

There clearly was criticism over the level of violence used in pacifying Aceh, and other areas in the colony,” Bijl notes. “However, there were no voices countering colonialism itself.”

Different Takes

When books showcasing images of the Dutch colonial period started to be published in the 1960s, the photos turned up again. Interestingly, one author, Rob Nieuwenhuys, presented the same photos in different ways in two of his publications.

In his 1961 book, Tempo Doeloe, Nieuwenhuys’ description of the Aceh photos mainly emphasized the Dutch troops, calling them an “an elite corps of toughened soldiers” who had to endure “incredible hardships” during this particular tour of duty. Bijl points out that “in the text, the inhabitants of Gayo and Alas remain linguistically invisible”.

By contrast, in that same year, historian Lou de Jong used the Aceh photos “in a larger historical narrative”. Bijl points out that de Jong described the Acehnese as “people [who] were strongly averse to foreign oppression … which makes the Gayos the vocalizers in the 1904 photograph.”

De Jong, who was Jewish and lost many family members during the Holocaust, was also the first person to use the photographs as a cross reference to other moments of mass violence in European history.

Nieuwenhuys, meanwhile, shifted his emphasis in his 1988 book With Strange Eyes, narrating the Aceh photos “as a massacre of civilians, not the outcome of a battle between two armies”, Bijl says.

Early 1969 marked an important milestone in the collective memory of Dutch colonial history. Veteran and psychologist Joop Hueting, in newspaper and television interviews, detailed atrocities that had taken place during the Independence War between Indonesia and the Netherlands in the 1940s.

It led to a probe into war atrocities committed by the Dutch in Indonesia, resulting in the “Memorandum of Excesses” in June that year. Although the publication acknowledged the occurrence of atrocities, ultimately nobody was held legally responsible for the excesses.

Hueting’s revelations, coinciding with heated anti-war discussions as the Vietnam War raged on, produced considerable debate on colonial war crimes. During this time, the photos appeared again in publications.

From Aceh to Afghanistan

In recent years, the Aceh photos re-emerged in the media, coinciding with the deployment of Dutch troops to missions in Afghanistan. They accompanied articles about the war legacy of Johannes van Heutsz, the Dutch commander who was credited with bringing Dutch victory in Aceh.

Lieutenant Colonel Piet van der Sar was quoted in the Elsevier weekly in December 2006 as saying that Van Heutsz’ people-oriented strategy was a model for the troops in Uruzgan.

We are competing with the Taliban for the people’s support. We have to learn to think the way they do,” he was quoted as saying.

The violence symbolized in the Aceh photos continues to arouse discomfort and shame in the Netherlands, Bijl says.

The Dutch East Indies’ colonial past remains a constant presence in the Netherlands, “but then [it’s] mostly in the form of romantic nostalgia: delicious food, the memories of life in a tropical paradise. The role as violent aggressor does not fit in the general Dutch self image of an egalitarian, democratic society which is a benevolent do-gooder in the world,” Bijl says.

The Dutch public and academics must continue to take a critical look at themselves and difficult questions: What is it in our culture that has allowed these atrocities to occur? Have we as a people resolved this?”

As long as there is no consensus, he adds, “the colonial past will keep on being contested terrain”.

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