No Comfort for the Women

BY DAN-CHYI CHUA
Jan 06, 2009
*Special to asia!

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

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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.

dan-chyi chua

Dan-Chyi Chua was a broadcast journalist, before forsaking Goggle Box Glitz for the Open Road. A three-year foray led her through the Middle East, China, SE Asia, Latin America and Cuba, and she's now grounded herself as a writer for theasiamag.com, content with spending her days in Jerusalem.

Contact Dan-Chyi