My 2,000km flight to Long Nawang

We know about every massacre that has taken place close to the present, but the ones in the distant past are like trees falling in the forest with no one to hear them.

Steven Pinker, Canadian-American cognitive psychologist

On Nov 29, 2017 I flew to Long Nawang, to investigate the 1942 murder of 30 Brooke officers and their families and 40 Dutch soldiers and civilians.

Even though I had dreamed of visiting Long Nawang after learning about it in 1995, I finally decided to visit the 3,000ft-high complex described as the ancestral home of the Kenyah of Borneo. 

It was going to be ‘mission impossible’ because despite strenuous efforts by the war crimes investigators,  it proved impossible to trace the Japanese officers responsible for the slaughter.

My 2,000km-journey by air, half way around Borneo, would take me from Kuching to Pontianak, Balikpapan, Samarinda and Long Ampung before reaching Long Nawang.

Ironically, the border village was only 200km “as the crow flies” directly from Kapit – I had to take a longer journey, 10 times longer.

After night stops at Pontianak and Balikpapan, we left Samarinda by a small Indonesian airline Cessna Caravan aircraft, happy I got a seat during the busy Christmas season.

If not, alternatively, the only other route was a week-long drive by over a muddy jungle track as it was the monsoon season.

As we flew over the carpet of green foliage, it reminded me of the aerial view of Sarawak before it was logged. Now we were floating over pristine forests, intact and untouched.

On arrival at Long Ampung after a 60-minute flight, we were received by police chief Lt Eddie a Lun Bawang from the Kerayan, another border town adjacent to Ba’kelalan.

Checking into a ‘losmen’ or small lodging motel, I met the Kenyah village chief, Lucas Bilong, who gave a brief history of the region.

Apo Kayan is divided into two sub-districts; Kayan Hulu and Kayan Hilir, where the majority of the 3,000 Lepo Tau and Lepo Jalan living in 30 villages.

“In the pre-war days, we lived in impressive traditional longhouses when we were a Dutch colony. But after the war and since Augustus tujuh belas (Indonesia’s Independance day on August 17, 1945), all the longhouses have been dismantled in favour of single unit homes.

“But times have changed and our people want to keep abreast with the rest of the world in terms of modernisation,” said Lucas.

He said that not many youngsters were told of the Long Nawang massacres which were like a forgotten page of the past.

It was a story that was buried in the annals and never mentioned in Indonesia’s history books, nor had it been considered a significant incident worthy of mention.

To relive the tale of Long Nawang, Lucas invited three key ‘Kepala Adat’ cultural chiefs – Ngang Jau and Baya Lek, both in their late 70s, and Lahang Ibau, in his 60s, to talk to me.

Long Ampung cultural chief Baya Apui, 76, said that at that time the Kenyah were mainly animists until Christianity began to make inroads into Apo Kayan from the 1930s.

“Looking back, it is with some regret that our ancestors were unable to make an effort to protect the Brooke government,” he said of the all-powerful Kenyah tribe.

In the late 1880s, the Kenyah were often involved in inter-tribal wars, particularly with the Iban, until their community was involved in the famous 1924 peace-making talks in Kapit, attended by Rajah Vyner Brooke.

Baya then took me on a tour of the graves, now part the proposed new border road. It was the site of four graves, the first for Lt Westerhuis and four Brooke officers  who were killed in the initial attack in Aug 20 1942.

Next to it were two larger graves for 41 Dutch soldiers and civilians and 10 Brooke officers and three Christian priests.

The fourth was a shallow pit of nine victims – where the five women (including Lt Westerhuis’ wife) and four children were bayoneted to death.

Apparently, the Indonesian government is building  a border checkpoint as the Kenyah make daily crossings where ‘Kapit’ is a key town.

Since the 1970s, the people of  Kayan Ulu and Kayan Hilir have barter traded in Kapit and like Tusau, sought employment in the logging camps.

On my trip I was told one of the village headman was about to leave for Kapit to seek specialist medical treatment for his wife. 

In the early 2000s, the government built a monument with a long list of their own heroes who had captured and killed two Japanese stragglers at the tail end of the war.

The 30ft by 60ft concrete monument also has the names of the 45 ‘Camat’ or administrative chiefs who administered Kayan Hulu and Kayan Hilir since 1911 till 2008.

Sadly, the names of the 70 Brooke officers, their families, priests and Dutch soldiers who were massacred were not inscribed on the monument, as if the incident never occurred!

It was also forgotten in Sarawak until the granddaughter of Assistant Commissioner Desmond Murphy paid for the construction of our own ‘monument’ – a 3ft by 5ft plaque which was launched in July 21 – the eve of Sarawak Day!

Next week: Part 3 – Noble mission of the ‘Belaga Patrol’

The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune.  

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