We continue to follow the story of our sisters in Indonesia during the Japanese occupation--
Muntilan is located on the road from Semarang on the north coast of Java and Yogjakarta in the south, near the volcano Mt. Merapi. It was the site of the camp where 42 sisters from the communities of Mendut, Muntilan, and Magelang were interned beginning on July 15, 1943. There were 50 sisters from other congregations there as well.
S. Elisa writes that life at Muntilan was fairly quiet at the beginning. There was sufficient food and the sisters could even go into town for needed provisions. “The Japanese also allowed Christmas festivities to be celebrated.” However, by March 1944 the situation changed.
The harshness of camp life now really made itself known: backbreaking labour on the land for at least 3 hours in a row and in the burning sun; dragging . . . heavy bags of rice from the camp to the church where it was distributed; pumping water was part of the sisters’ daily chores as well. Normally a pump would be used for this purpose, but it had given up the ghost. The Nip responsible for water provision simply said: “I don’t need a new pump, I have more than enough living pumps here.” Pumping up water by hand for 4,000 people every day was no mean feat. . . . Beatings were the order of the day in this camp. The internees heard people screaming when the Japanese were beating them.
By mid-May, the sisters were assigned to a smaller room which also had to accommodate additional sisters who had been transferred from Camp Solo. Among the new arrivals was S. Eliana Steegh who was critically ill and soon died. She was buried in the cemetery next to S. Bernadette who had died shortly before.
August 1945 brought yet another move as the sisters packed what little remained (three chairs for 40 sisters) and were transported to Ambarawa/Camp 7 where they were reunited with Mother Xaverio Savelberg and her sisters from Semarang.
Camps 6, 7, and 8 at Ambarawa had seen many of the sisters transferred in and out during the internment period. As in the other camps, the initial manageable situation soon deteriorated.
Diseases spread and a lack of room became acutely felt as the camps were flooded with people. In the end it was so crowded that in the area where the sisters had to sleep each sister had just 60 cm to lie on. They slept on a mat rather than a mattress, lying like sardines in a tin; the gallery where they slept was screened off, but, as Sr. Theophile said, “during tropical downpours the roof displayed the properties of a sieve. But we would pick up our mat and lie somewhere in the centre aisle, although by doing so one did run the risk of being trod on by someone waling around in the night.”
In our next segment from S. Elisa’s book we will take a look at some of the descriptions of the Ambarawa camps and the experiences of the sisters who found themselves there.