Sat, 29 Mar 2003

Peucut Kerkhoff cemetery, a colonial legacy

Nani Farida, The Jakarta Post, Banda Aceh

Gen. Kohler, who led the Dutch aggression in Aceh, may have never dreamed that he would conquer the land of Aceh. Ironically, he is now buried in Aceh, the land he tried to subjugate.

Kohler died at the hands of the Acehnese after having the Baiturrahman Grand Mosque in Banda Aceh set ablaze in 1873. He was buried in Batavia, the name of Jakarta during the Dutch colonial times.

But it seems to have been his destiny to be buried in Aceh. About 100 years after his death, his remains were exhumed and reburied in Peucut Kerkhoff, a cemetery for the Dutch soldiers killed in action during the Aceh War.

In memory of the general, a monument was put up in Peucut Kerkhoff. Underneath his name there is the symbol of a snake biting its own tail. This symbol shows that Kohler made a mistake when he had the grand mosque burned, an act strategically tantamount to suicide. Beside Kohler's grave, there are the graves of other Dutch generals, including Gen. Peer and Gen. Weijerman.

Peucut Kerkhoff, which measures about four hectares, is located in downtown Banda Aceh. It used to be part of the grounds of the palace of Sultan Iskandar Muda. The cemetery is home to about 2,200 graves of both Dutch soldiers and Indonesian soldiers -- Ambonese, Manadonese or Batak -- who worked for the Dutch.

In 1893 Peucut Kerkhoff was dedicated as a cemetery for the Dutch. The names of thousands of Dutch soldiers killed in action during Dutch operations to conquer Aceh are inscribed on the marble wall at the entrance gate to the cemetery.

The Dutch at first had some difficulty dedicating Kerkhoff as a cemetery for Dutch soldiers. The Acehnese regarded the Dutch as their colonizers. Besides, the plot of land was better suited for a shopping or business area.

"At first we found it strange to have a cemetery for soldiers of the Dutch colonial rule in the downtown part of a city," said Muslim, who lives close to Peucut Kerkhoff.

As time went by, the Acehnese accepted the presence of the cemetery as a memento of the struggle that the Acehnese waged against the Dutch.

As a cemetery for foreigners, Peucut Kerkhoff used to be rather eerie as it was not properly maintained. It was also used as an unofficial garbage dump. Many of the gravestones were broken or covered in moss, and other marble gravestones had been stolen.

In 1975, a Dutch foundation called Sixteen Pocut Fund provided financial assistance for the maintenance of the graveyard. Members of the foundation include grandchildren and great- grandchildren of the Dutch soldiers buried in Kerkhoff. With the money from Sixteen Pocut Fund, Peucut Kerkhoff began to be looked after. Today, a fence has been built around the graveyard.

Rusli, 50, has worked as a caretakers at Peucut Kerkhoff for 10 years. He said many Dutch people came to pay homage to the graves in this cemetery.

"The board members of the Dutch foundation come here every year," he said.

The Dutch foundation, said Rusli, cooperates with the Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam provincial administration in looking after the graveyard.

"Every quarter they send some Rp 15 million for this purpose," he said. "The money is managed by the provincial administration."

Because the money is limited, the cemetery is not in the best of repair.

Once, he said, a visiting Dutch citizen became angry because he could find his ancestor's grave and many gravestones were broken.

"He said he paid for the maintenance of the graves but was disappointed with what he saw. I told him this was the best I could do as the money I received from the provincial administration was not sufficient," he said.

Rusli can tell you from memory the history of Kerkhoff. "Non- Muslims were buried here until late 1965."

He is also sure Peucut Kerkhoff came into existence to show that Banda Aceh was once in the hands of the Dutch. "Otherwise, how could a Dutch graveyard be established in the sultanate of Aceh?"

He added that only a small number of the Dutch soldiers killed in Aceh were buried in Peucut Kerkhoff. "There are many other Dutch cemeteries elsewhere in Aceh," he noted.

Peucut Kerkhoff is indeed a unique legacy from the colonial era. And in Aceh's history, Peucut Kerkhoff is memorable, particularly with respect to the application of Islamic law in Aceh in the 16th century. In the graveyard one can find the grave of Pocut Meurah Pupok, the son of Sultan Iskandar Muda, who was beheaded by his father for adultery.

Greatly enraged, the sultan had his son buried outside the palace, evidence of the application of Islamic law in Aceh even during the reign of Sultan Iskandar Muda. The Dutch colonial rulers later named the graveyard after the beheaded crown prince.

The Acehnese fought to the death in defense of their land, known as the Veranda of Mecca. Today Peucut Kerkhoff is witness to the fierce struggle of the Acehnese against the Dutch colonialists.