No Comfort for the Women

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.

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.

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, content with spending her days in Jerusalem.

Contact Dan-Chyi