No comfort for the women (Part 1 of 2)


For 50 years, Jan Huff O'Herne clung on to a secret she could not tell her family because she was too ashamed.

Whether it was her birthday or Mother's Day, O’Herne’s two daughters knew never to bring her flowers; they just didn't know why. Then one day in 1992, by the time they were all grown up, they finally uncovered the reason through a 30-page letter from their mother.

Eileen's husband had brought her a package dropped off by his mother-in-law at his shop earlier that day. In it were articles from Dutch newspapers about Dutch women who were coerced into sexual servitude by the Japanese during the Second World War in Indonesia, then a colony of the Netherlands.

Together with it was a bunch of papers penned in her mother's handwriting entitled "Cry of the Raped". Eileen thumbed through it, unable to understand why she was given this to read, until she got to the middle. In her words, "it was exactly what I feared."

She was reading about the experiences of her own mother.

When she finished, she drove over to her mother's home, and placed her arms around her. Eileen cried and cried. She could not say anything to her mother.

"Nothing would have been enough," she later recalled.

But there is something that could restore O’Herne’s dignity. Sixty years after her ordeal, O'Herne is after a formal apology from the government of Japan.

In February this year, she testified at a hearing before the United States Congress alongside two Korean women, and told them her story.

O'Herne was born in the Dutch East Indies (as Indonesia was known then) in 1923. She grew up in a big house on the island of Java with servants, wore pretty frocks, and was a star in the films that her father made.

When the Japanese invaded the island in 1942, she was taken with her mother and two sisters to an internment camp, where they remained with around 3,000 other Dutch women and children.

Two years later, a truck pulled into the camp and orders were given for all women aged 17 and above to gather. They were then lined up and examined by Japanese soldiers. They were appraised from head to toe, pointed at, and touched. The soldiers laughed and chatted among themselves, sent half of the women away, and then more, before they finally settled on a final ten.

The mothers tearfully tried to hang on to their daughters but to no avail. The girls were told they would be taken away, and each instructed to pack a small bag of belongings.

With the guards looking over her, O’Herne put together her Bible, prayer book, crucifix and rosary beads.

"At that moment they seemed to me the most important things, like weapons they would keep me safe and strong."

O'Herne, then 19, had been taught by Franciscan nuns and dreamt of becoming one herself.

The girls were dropped off by truck at a big house and given their own bedrooms. Nothing was said to them. Terrified, they huddled together in one big bed and tried to find solace by praying together.

The following day, the girls were gathered in the living room where they were told they would be providing sexual services to the Japanese soldiers, and were to remain at all times in the house.

The girls protested. Surely such an arrangement would contravene the Geneva Convention, they argued. The Japanese laughed. Documents were produced for the girls to sign. Since it was in Japanese which they did not understand, the girls refused and were beaten.

Pictures were then taken of the girls and flowers placed in their rooms. Each of the girls was named after the flowers in her room, in Japanese. O’Herne does not remember hers. She wanted to know nothing about it.

Finally, "opening night", as O’Herne calls it, came. The girls, all of them virgins, gathered in the living room. With barely any knowledge of sex, they asked one another what was going to happen. One by one they soon found out as they were dragged, kicking and screaming, into their respective bedrooms as soon as the Japanese officers started arriving.

O’Herne hid under the dining table, listening to the cries coming from the rooms.

But she was not spared either. A fat and bald Japanese man found her and shoved her into her room. She pleaded and tried to reason with him, explaining that she was there against her will and he had no right to do anything to her.

As she struggled, the officer drew our his sword and ran it over her body as she yelled, "Djangan, djangan!" ("Don't, don't!") He undressed himself and O’Herne prayed desperately, thinking he was going to thrust the sword into her. He flung her unto the bed and that was when she realised he was not going to kill her—he had paid good money for her body and had no use for her dead. So instead he stripped her and raped her.

"I thought he would never stop. It was the most...the most horrendous...I never thought suffering could be that terrible."

When the ordeal was finally over, all O’Herne wanted to do was to wash the hurt and shame off herself. In the bathroom she found the other girls who had the same thought. She then tried a new hiding place, at the back of the house. But she was found and raped again.

The officers came to the house night after night, and sometimes during the day, too

. The girls were thumped if they put up a fight.

O’Herne resisted each time she was assaulted, punching and scratching her attackers. They threatened to kill her, or dump her into the brothel for soldiers, which housed the local Indonesian girls, and where conditions were even worse.

Helpless, O’Herne shaved her head in a bid to make herself less attractive, but this only turned her into an item of curiosity for the officers, who started to ask for "the bald one".

One day she heard a doctor was coming. She decided to appeal to his sense of decency. She remembers thinking: "Surely, as a doctor he would have compassion for us."

Thus she asked to speak to him. But that first day he came, he raped her, as he did each subsequent time he came to examine the girls for venereal diseases. As he examined them, he left the door open for all who wanted to look in.

O’Herne later discovered she was pregnant. She did not know if she could bear to keep the child, but the decision was made for her. She was force-fed abortion pills, and made to carry on serving the officers in between beatings.

The girls thus remained at the house serving the officers for four months, before they were taken back to the internment camp. O’Herne’s mother took one look at her bald head and said nothing but O’Herne believed she knew what had happened. That night, she lay in her mother's arms, still having said nothing at all. Her mother simply held her, stroking her head.

The next day the girls told their mothers what happened before the wall of silence fell, after which the subject was never broached again. The girls received no counselling, and carried on with life as though nothing had happened. But the feelings of shame and filth remained.

A year after the war ended, O’Herne met Tom Ruff, a British soldier serving in Indonesia then. She told him what she had gone through. It didn't matter to him.

"I wasn't dirty. I wasn't soiled. I wasn't different. Not in Tom's eyes. I was just beautiful in Tom's eyes and he was beautiful to me."

The couple got married, but the effects of her four months as a "comfort woman" remained.

"I can feel that fear sometimes at night when I just sit here in my lounge room, looking out through the window and it's getting dark. Because it's getting dark, it means I'm going to be raped over and over again.

"It's a fear I can't possibly describe, a feeling I shall never forget and never lose. Even after more than fifty years I still experience this feeling of total fear going through my body and through all my limbs, burning me up.

"It comes to me at the oddest moments. I wake up with it in nightmares and still feel it just lying in bed at night. But worst of all, I have felt this fear every time my husband was making love to me. I have never been able to enjoy intercourse as a consequence of what the Japanese did to me."


> TO No comfort for the women (Part 2 of 2)


First Published: 
April 2007


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dan-chyi chuaDan-Chyi Chua began her writing career with Channel News Asia, a regional cable network, before forsaking broadcast journalism to hit the road for a three-year sabbatical through the Middle East, China, Central America and Cuba. She has now grounded herself as a writer for asia! Magazine.

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