She had just been married when Japanese soldiers brought her to a tent camp in Yogyakarta and raped her every day for months.
“Black paint from my bridal makeup was still on my forehead when I was raped for the first time. I trembled with fear, curled up on my sleeping mat and cried terribly. But it was to no avail. They kept coming and I was afraid that they would shoot me to death,” said Sanikem, who was born in 1926.
Sanikem was one of 18 women forced into sex slavery by Japanese soldiers, whose stories are being exhibited at the Erasmus Huis in Jakarta, from August 12-September 12.
Dutch journalist and anthropologist Hilde Janssen collaborated with photographer Jan Banning to document the women's life stories in 2004.
An estimated 200,000 women in Indonesia, the Philippines, Korea, Taiwan and China and other Asian countries were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese imperial army during World War II. The women were called jugun ianfu, a euphemism which has been translated as comfort women.
Janssen, who published a book titled Shame and Innocence: The Suppressed War Chronicles of Indonesia's Comfort Women, said that 20,000 Indonesian women were made sex slaves between 1943 and 1945, including 200 to 400 Europeans, Dutch and Eurasian women.
“The history of these jugun ianfu needs to be recorded just as any other history of the independence war — but it is a history of suffering,” said Janssen at a recent discussion organized by the National Commission on Women Rights and the Erasmus Huis.
Janssen, who has lived in Indonesia for 10 years, said she first became interested in the topic because Indonesian media rarely covered this issue.
“Although we cannot say that this version of history is neutral because it is based on own experiences of these women, it will help the re-writing of Indonesian history,” she said.
Commission representative Andy Yentriyani said that the comfort women were organized as part of a war strategy to pacify Japanese soldiers, according to available documents and archival evidence.
“The strategy was to prevent soldiers from raping women in villages because this would create a bad image of Japan,” Andy said.
The Women's International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan's Military Sexual Slavery was held on December 8-12, 2000, in Tokyo, Japan.
Thirty-five former sex slaves from Asia-Pacific countries, including four women from Indonesia, presented testimony at the tribunal, which had been organized by several Asian-based women's and human rights organizations.
The tribunal issued its decision in the case on December 4, 2001, in the Hague, the Netherlands, and ruled that Japan's former leader, Emperor Hirohito, along with other high-ranking Japanese officials, were guilty of crimes against humanity for the comfort women system. Japan was also required to apologize to the women and pay reparation to the survivors.
Japan paid ¥380 million (US$ 4.4 million) to Indonesia from 1997-2009 through the Asian Women's Fund as compensation to honor its legal responsibilities.
The Indonesian government used the compensatory payments to build nursing homes and did not distribute it to the women. Several victims refused to accept financial compensation before the Japanese government officially apologized. Mardiyem, the most outspoken of the women, died in 1997 without receiving compensation or an apology.
Andy said that the effort to document the women's stories and stimulate public discussion was an initial step to reveal historical truth — a process which usually triggers controversy.
“History has always been written from the perspective of the winners of wars, which is something that serves to glorify a nation,” she said, adding that the stories of the victims must be included when writing history.
“We cannot abandon victims because a great nation learns from the experience of victims, provides them with rehabilitation and guarantees that similar things will never happen again,” said Andy.