Photo by Brian Moody

Hanneke Coates was born just before the 2nd World War on the island of Java in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), where her father was a tea planter. After the invasion of Java by the Japanese in 1942, she was forced to spend three and a half years of her childhood in one of over 300 concentration camps based around the Archipelago. After the war, as was the practice with many colonials, Hanneke’s parents remained abroad whilst she and her siblings returned to Holland to be fostered out to a number of Dutch families. Later Hanneke moved to England, where she still lives.

After the invasion all European women and children were advised by the Japanese forces to move to protection camps for their own safety.  So we left our homes voluntarily expecting to be protected, but as soon as the camps were filled, they put barbed wire around us. In the meantime husbands and fathers were sent to work on the Burma railway line or placed in concentration camps in and around Japan.

We were constantly moved from one camp to another, often transported in boarded up train carriages without seating, lavatories, food or drink. My final camp was the notorious Tjideng camp (now part of Jakarta) which housed around 11,000 women and children.  The camp was one of many set up to intern European civilians, mainly Dutch, as ‘Guests of the Emperor’ during the period 1942 to 1945.  Those of us who ended up there experienced what can only be called ‘hell on earth’.

Food was in short supply and we survived on a starvation diet of half a coconut shell with rice and water-lily soup once a day. Water and sanitation were almost non-existent and medical supplies very scarce as all Red Cross parcels were withheld by the Japanese. We all suffered from tropical diseases such as Cholera, dysentery and malaria.

The most lasting effect of those three and a half years in captivity was the relentless and total humiliation the Japanese inflicted on us. We were day and night screamed at, publicly disgraced and punished by having our hair hacked off with blunt knives and regularly lashed with long whips. Many times a day we were herded on to the parade ground to stand for hours in the burning tropical sun and to bow to our captors. One of my earlier memories is from when I was four years old when we were made to witness the hanging of two Dutch soldiers. By the end of the war many hundreds of thousands of women and children had died through malnutrition, tropical diseases and lack of medication. I was one of the lucky ones.

In 1948 I was sent to Holland to finish my schooling (11 schools altogether!) living with a number of incredibly cruel foster families. As a planter, my father carried on working first in Indonesia, then Ghana, and since European leave only came round every four years my parents became as good as strangers to me.

Even though the concentration camp years had a deep and damaging effect on us, as a family we simply did not talk about it, as it was a taboo issue when we returned to Holland. The Dutch had endured occupation by the Germans and suffered severe cold winters and hunger too, and therefore they did not want to know about our suffering.

Later, having trained as a nurse, I went to live in England, where at the age of 23 I married an English man and had three children. The traumatic years of my entire childhood had a direct influence on the relationship with my husband, and I allowed myself to be subjected to domestic abuse and years of humiliation.

It was as if the concentration camp years had ‘conditioned’ me to be humiliated. I had from an early age learned to obey in order to avoid punishment, so when I found myself married to a man who liked to control me, my life continued as the underdog. This dynamic only changed once my children had flown the nest. The fact I seemed to be enjoying this newfound freedom brought on great tensions and clashes in my marriage. And so, after almost 40 years of marriage, my husband walked out on me after having beaten me up and broken a number of my bones one more time.

It was attending a Christian divorce recovery course at Lee Abbey where I first learned to deal with my traumas through forgiveness. I have never been a hating person, but I learned to acknowledge that forgiveness is a long and slow process.

I thought I had forgiven my Japanese captors, and yet was always aware of the hairs rising in the nape of my neck when I heard a Japanese voice.

The Japanese tsunami changed all that. My church asked us to dig deep for the Japanese victims. After a lot of prayer I did just that. It was that one last and final gesture of letting God deal with the residue of my resentment that brought the final healing. I no longer worry about Japanese voices now.

Forgiveness is a healing process and the positive force in my life. It gives me a constant sense of peace and grace. I now share my story in schools, churches and secular groups. Almost always someone will share with me afterwards how my talk has changed something for them.

Forgiveness does not mean that we have to be ‘matey’ with those whom we have forgiven. I wrote a short letter to my ex husband saying I was sorry for anything I had contributed to the break up and that I had forgiven him. I have seen him twice in thirteen years. Betrayal is something others do to us, but bitterness is something we do to ourselves. Too often ‘unforgiveness’ is passed on through generations. If we do not forgive, we lose the joy of living whereas when we forgive, we release peace and grace and restoration to the forgiven as well as to ourselves.

You can read more about Hanneke’s experiences in her book, The Breaking of the Shell.