Sun, 03 Sep 2000

Des Alwi, the brave man from Banda who believes in peace

By Mehru Jaffer

JAKARTA (JP): He witnessed the Japanese occupation, the Dutch colonial era and the Indonesian revolution. He rebelled against founding president Sukarno and helped mediate in the Malaysian dispute. Today his life may be marked by less exciting political endeavors, but what has not changed is the keen interest of Des Alwi, 73, in the welfare of the people of Banda and his love for the islands.

As a token of appreciation, Des, whose activities today include fishing, owning a hotel and producing documentary films, was awarded a prestigious Mahaputra award last month, given to citizens for their outstanding contribution to the state.

To celebrate the occasion, Meutia, Gemala and Halida (daughters of Mohammad Hatta); Upik (daughter of Sutan Sjahrir); Mans Muskita (daughter of Laluhahary, the first Ambonese governor of Maluku); and a group of friends and relatives from Banda, both Muslim and Christian, got together, inspiring Des to relive his involvement in the 1945 war in defense of Surabaya.

Des was the commander of the communication offices. The radio station was under his supervision. In October 1945, Allied forces replaced the Japanese and set up base in the city as if to prepare for the return of the Dutch. The British 49th Indian Infantry Brigade under Brigadier Mallaby came to forcibly occupy bank buildings, British Petroleum headquarters and the radio station.

"We did not like that," said Des, who was also robbed of his jeep and Japanese pistol by British soldiers. Soon Surabayan freedom fighters set the radio station ablaze, killing all in a platoon of 24 soldiers and also Brigadier Mallaby when his car exploded.

The battle of Surabaya was to continue for three bloody weeks. The British 5th Division began moving into the city in preparation for a revenge operation. Des was told to move the radio transmitter out of Surabaya. He left Surabaya in a lorry along with three others, including Arifin, a nephew of Hatta, followed all the way by mortars. On the way they saw a bullock cart: "The driver was killed, a ten-year old boy had lost a leg and we noticed that the two women in the cart had their breasts cut off," he said.

They decided to take the boy with them to safety but he died. When they tried to start the lorry it would not move. They decided to push it backwards and that is what saved their lives. A mortar landed on the front of the lorry.

"Arifin started to vomit as a splinter pierced his lung. I got one in my left leg. Arifin was rushed to Malang while I was deposited in a hospital in Sidoarjo," said Des. There he found the place littered with corpses and the staff too overworked to attend to their wounds. A neighbor told him that he had woken up one morning to find that his hand had been chopped off. A nurse said to Des that she could do nothing about the splinter lodged in his leg.

Luckily, his driver arrived to transport him to Malang where he bumped into Dr. Suwisa, also from Banda. He passed out with relief at the thought that at last he was in safe hands.

Today Des is chairman of the November 10 Foundation, named after a day that has gone down in Indonesian history as Hero's Day. He is the curator of an archive that documents papers and films about the revolution.

However dangerous life was in those revolutionary times, Des sometimes feels that maybe it was better when Indonesians did not have much. At least people were not killing each other during the revolution, he said.

Now he feels little optimism as he watches so much violence around him that is directed, not toward a common enemy, but toward its own kind. He finds that today there are far too many people talking too much.

There is no discipline, little organization and much too much destruction, he noted.

"All films of the revolution were destroyed. Many documents and films of Hatta were burnt by communists and of Sukarno by the military. All the time taking revenge on each other. That is the kind of people we have become," he said.

Des was only eight years old when he first met Mohammad Hatta and Sutan Sjahrir, when the country's two founding fathers were exiled to Banda. He became Sjahrir's pupil, and learned from him Dutch and also a love for books.

Des joined Sjahrir in Jakarta in 1942 where he studied radio and the Japanese broadcasting system in order to secretly monitor newscasts from Australia and the BBC on behalf of the growing nationalist movement. He also went underground, working all the time as a courier and broadcaster for his adoptive fathers who were now leading the fight for independence.

After the 1945 battle of Surabaya, Des was sent by Sjahrir to London to study at a technical college and to work at the Indonesian information office where he made friends with Tengku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia's first prime minister.

After independence he joined the foreign ministry, but soon refused to work for Sukarno after Hatta resigned from the government and Sjahrir was imprisoned. He fled his post at the Indonesian embassy in Manila and sought refuge in Malaysia, where he acted as official spokesman for the anti-Sukarno movement. He returned home only after Sukarno was president no more.

Today, Christians are given refuge in the ruins of his hotel in Ambon that was destroyed by arsonists in the April 1999 riots. He is also busy getting Christian homes that were torched in Banda at the same time rebuilt. Although he is a Muslim, Des married a Christian from Manado and believes that the only way Indonesia can face the future is for its peoples to first learn to live in peace with each other.