August 30, 2001

The Forgotten Ones
Producer: Margaret Parker
Researcher: Margaret Parker

Hello, I'm Caroline Jones. Tonight's Australian Story is about an Adelaide grandmother, Jan Ruff-O'Herne and her terrible secret, a secret that took 50 years to come to terms with before, finally, she revealed it in a letter to her daughters. Jan's idyllic childhood in Java was brought toan abrupt end by the Japanese occupation during Word War Two. Jan and her family were taken captive, and what then happened to her almost defies belief. But her suffering has been transformed now into a crusade for change. Jan is spearheading a worldwide campaign to try to protect women in war.

JAN RUFF O'HERNE: I grew up in the former Dutch East Indies, which is now called Indonesia. I was born in 1923. And I had the most wonderful childhood.

CAROL RUFF - Jan's daughter: My grandfather took a lot of films in Java. In those films, you can see my mother as a young girl wearing a big Dutch bow in her hair, dancing around in a party frock before the war, before anything happened that was unpleasant, and the future was so positive.

Eileen Mitton
Eileen Mitton, Jan's Daughter

EILEEN MITTON - Jan's daughter: Well, she always used to tell us stories of Java. Always - that goes right throughout my childhood. And we used to love looking at the photographs of the beautiful, big house, and, yeah, the servants which people had, you know, to do your cooking and washing and gardening, and a chauffeur. And we were always enthralled to hear these stories and it fascinated us.  And we were quite happy to think, "Oh, well, that was the life my mother had." But nothing, nothing at all, no hint to indicate that something as shocking as this had happened to her.

CAROL: My mother's a very beautiful woman. She's really attractive and, as a young woman, she was stunning. And, in a sense, sometimes I think that her beauty has also been her disguise.  We knew all along that she'd been in prison camp. I've never seen my mother as someone with a terrible past that she was hiding from me. Not a hint.

EILEEN: It was a perfectly kept secret. There was some things that didn't make any sense - like, my mother always used to say, when it was her birthday or Mother's Day, and we'd say, "What do you want for a present?" And she'd say, "Just don't give me flowers." They're such a waste of money. Don't give me flowers." And we couldn't understand that. Everybody loves flowers. Every mother loves getting flowers.

JAN: When the war in the Pacific started, and then the Japanese invaded Java in March 1942, and that is when all the beautiful life finished, because the Japanese put all civilians - not just the men, but all women and children - into Japanese prison camps. And I was with my family. I was interned for three and a half years in a Japanese prison camp. Starvation, torture, punishments, illnesses, you know. I saw somebody dying every day.

Carol Ruff
Carol Ruff, Jan's Daughter

CAROL: After the war, she was located to Holland, as were all the Dutch people who'd been interned in Japanese camps.  But because she'd met my father, who was an English soldier, she moved to England to marry Dad. In 1960, my family migrated to Australia.

The first hint I had of it was when my aunt from Holland came to stay with us in Sydney. And we were chatting in bed one night, and my aunt said to me, "Something happened to your mother in the camp, but I promised never to tell you, and I can't tell you till after she's died." And I lay there in the darkness and I...I...I didn't want to know what it was, really. I didn't push her for it.

Reporter: The heavy armor rumbled across the Bosnian countryside.

JAN: In 1992, 50 years on, I remember hearing on the news that the war in Bosnia had broken out, and women were being raped. Then I saw on television the Korean comfort women. The South Korean comfort women were the first ones to speak out. And I watched them here in my living room. And they wanted justice and compensation and an apology, more than anything else.  They wanted an apology from the Japanese government. And they weren't getting anywhere.  They were getting nowhere. And I thought, "I must back up these women. Now it's time to speak out."

 There was going to be an international hearing on Japanese war crimes to be held in December 1992 in Tokyo. I was asked would I be a witness. But before I could do that, of course, I had to tell my family. I had to tell Eileen and Carol. You know, how can you tell your daughters? The shame was still so great, you know. I knew I had to tell them, but I couldn't tell them face to face.

EILEEN: One day, my mother came up to my husband's shop and gave him an envelope and just mysteriously said, "Oh, give this to Eileen to read tonight." So I opened the envelope up, and there was two articles from Dutch newspapers with headlines about shocking revelations of Dutch women being used as sex slaves during the war. And I...I just couldn't associate..."Why have I been given this to read? What is this about? Why has my mother given me this?" And as I read the articles, I just got so angry inside. I can feel it now. Anger just surged up inside me. I could see there was also a large amount of hand written notes by my mother, which was, in fact, 30 pages.


CAROL: And it was all in Mum's handwriting, and it was called 'Cry of the Raped'. I saw the title and I flicked through really quickly till I found the crucial pages where it actually said the story, where she'd written her story.

EILEEN: And as it so turned out, it was exactly what I had feared. And all the time as I was reading, I was saying, "No! Not this! Not this!" And I was throwing the sheets of paper.  And I can't believe the anger, because I'm not an angry person. Tears were just streaming down my face. I don't think I've ever cried so much in my whole life. I must have used a whole box of tissues. And I literally threw the sheets on the table as I read the horrors that she had written about what had happened to her and how she was, in fact, one of these Dutch girls.

CAROL: What I really felt was horror, shock and horror, that these things could have happened to such a beautiful person as my mother.

EILEEN: All I'm thinking was, "No! Not my...No, this is not my mother. My mother is this this beautiful, strong person. Nobody could do that to her. That's not what's happened. That's not what I've heard. That's not...that's not the story of prison camp that I know."

JAN: I'd been in the camp two years. They gave an order that all the young girls from 17 years and up had to line up in the compound. These high military officers walked towards us and started to eye us up and down, looking at our figures, looking at our legs, and it was obviously a selection process that was going to take place.

We were forced onto this open truck and just driven away in this open truck as if we were cattle. And I remember we were so scared and clinging to our little suitcases and clinging to each other. And the truck stopped in front of a large Dutch colonial house, and we were told to get out. When we got into the house, we were told we were there for the sexual pleasure of the Japanese military. In fact, we found ourselves in a brothel. It was a brothel. And, you know, our whole world just collapsed from under our feet. And we started protesting straightaway. We said that we were forced into this, that they couldn't do this to us, they had no right to do this, it was against the Geneva Convention, and that we would never do this. But they just laughed at us, you know, just laughed. They said they could do with us what they liked.

I always wanted to be a nun, you know. I was brought up by the Franciscan nuns right through primary school and teacher's college, and I always wanted to be a nun. I mean, then to find out, you know.....yeah, what's going to happen. I can't describe it. We were given flower names and they were pinned on our doors, you know. I can't remember my Japanese flower name. I just didn't even want to know about it. They started to drag us away one by one. And I could hear all the screaming coming from the bedrooms, you know, and you just wait for your turn, you know. And there stood this large, fat, bald Japanese officer looking at me, grinning at me, and I put up an enormous fight, but he just dragged me to the bedroom. And I said, "I'm not going to do this." And he said, "Well, I will kill you. If you don't give yourself to me, I will kill you."

Jan Ruff-O'Herne
Jan Ruff-O'Herne

And he actually got out his sword. I went on my knees to say my prayers and I felt God very close. I wasn't afraid to die.  And as I was praying, he...he had no intention of killing me, of course. He just, you know, threw me on the bed - got hold of me, threw me on the bed and just tore off all my clothes and most brutally raped me. And, I thought he would never stop.  It was the most...the most horrendous... I never thought suffering could be that terrible. And eventually he left the room and I was in total shock. I thought, "I want to go to the bathroom. I want to wash this all away. I want to wash away all the shame, all the dirt. Just wash it away, wash it away."

And when I got to the bathroom, all the other girls were there. We were all there in the bathroom, you know, all totally hysterical and crying and just trying to wash away the dirt, you know, the shame. Within one night, we lost our youth. We lost our innocence, our youth. We were just such a...such a pitiful little group of girls, and we were just embracing each other. And how many times was each one raped that night? You know, I shall never forget that first night. And we felt so helpless. This was going to happen from now on, night after night.

EILEEN MITTON, daughter: After I'd read the story, I drove over to my mother's house and, I just put my arms around her and cried and cried. I couldn't speak, I didn't...I just was total... I couldn't say anything to her, nothing would have been enough. There was nothing - just putting my arms around her I guess was words enough.

JAN RUFF-O'HERNE: All these years, I was too ashamed. You think, "What will they think of me?" You know? "I can't tell this. What will they think of me?" And then to get that wonderful reaction, you know, of their embrace - it's all told in the embrace. You're trying to hide. You'd try to run away and try to hide somewhere.

CAROL RUFF: If I'd known her story sooner, I would have understood her better.

JAN: You can't really hide, anyway. You'd be caught, anyway, in the end, you know.

CAROL:I sort of feel now that I know who she is and why she is who she is.

JAN: The fear, the fear. I'll never forget that fear. You know, it runs right through your body like electrical currents. And it's a fear that has never left me. It's been with me all my life. I can feel that fear sometimes at night when I just sit here in my lounge room, looking out though the window and it's getting dark. Because when it's getting dark, it means I'm going to be raped over and over again. And even now, when I see it getting dark at night, I can still feel that fear coming over me, you know? It's never really left me.

You come to a stage where you think, "I've tried everything. What can I do? What can I do next?" I cut off all my hair. I thought if I made myself look as ugly as possible, nobody would want me. And I looked absolutely horrible, really ugly. And the other girls, they said, "Oh, Jan, what have you done? What have you done?" I said, "Well, perhaps they won't want me now."

It turned me into a curiosity object. And they wanted me even more because I was the girl that cut her hair off. know, the bald girl, you know. "We all want the bald girl." It had just  the opposite effect for some reason or other, you know? So, it didn't do me any good at all.

There was a room set up where we had to be examined every week against venereal diseases.  Every week, when the doctor used to come for examinations, they left the doors open, the windows open, and so the Japanese military were invited to look in while we were being examined, you know. When the doctor came, I went to him and I said, "Look, I want you to know we're here against our will. Use your influence. Go to the highest authority, report this, that we are forced into this." He just laughed and he ended up raping me himself. And from that time onwards, every time the doctor came for his regular visit, he used rape me first. Even the doctor raped me.

This just went on, you know, week after week, month after month. We were total wrecks. I'd been beaten up so many times. At one stage, I remember sitting in the brothel, and it was almost getting dark, and I got this handkerchief out. And I asked the other girls would they please all write their names on this handkerchief. And they did. I wanted to have something of them forever. You know, I wanted to have something solid to remember them with forever. So they all wrote their name on the handkerchief and embroidered over this handkerchief.

One day, we were told to pack our belongings again and we were then put in the transit camp. I was there reunited with my mother and my two younger sisters. And, to see my mother again, you know, after all that time. And my mother looked at my bald head, you know, and she feared the worst. And that first night, I couldn't even talk or say anything to her. I just...I can feel it now, laying in my mother's arms, you know, in the hollow of her arms, you know, her arms around me. And she just stroked my head, you know, she just kept stroking my bald head. And I just lay there in the safety of my mother's arms and we didn't speak, we just lay there. And then the next day, I told her what had happened to me and so did the other girls. We had all these girls with all these mothers, you know. And the mothers just couldn't cope with this story, this happened to their daughters, you know. It was too much for them - they couldn't cope with it. And we were only to ever tell our mothers just once. And it was never talked about again - it was just too much for them.

There's things that the girls can look back on now, after I've told them, they said, "Oh, Mum, now I know why you never wanted to go to the doctor." Yeah, and also with the flowers, you know, if they don't give me any flowers. Now they realise why and now I love to get flowers, you know, because I've spoken out now, you know, I can enjoy flowers.

FATHER ANTHONY KAIN - Jan's Priest: Jan, is a person of deep faith. Which is quite an amazing thing and most of us would struggle like crazy with God and even be bitter about God or blame God even.

JAN: When the war was over, I still wanted to become a nun. And a priest came to our camp and I remember, "Oh, a priest. We can have mass." And I just needed to talk to a priest. I remember telling him of my story, what happened to me. And I said to him, "I want to become a nun. I still want to become a nun." And I remember his words, you know. He said to me, "My dear child, under the circumstances, I think you'd better not become a nun."

The best thing that God did to me was give me Tom. It's a proper sort of war romance. And one that worked out well. He was such a lovely, gentle person and when I told Tom what had happened to me it didn't matter to Tom. He loved me for what I was. And to be accepted so totally, no matter what, you know, don't you just love a man like that? 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.

When I married Tom, I mean, I wanted the house, I wanted the husband, I wanted the family but I didn't want sex, you know? That was the last thing I wanted so Tom had to be fairly patient with me. And the first years of my married life were very hard. All together, I had four miscarriages because my body was in such a terrible condition. You know, I had to have a major operation before I could even carry through, you know, and have a baby. And now I have these two beautiful daughters - Eileen and Carol.

CAROL: Her marriage to my father was really, really happy. My father had a very bad car accident. So she had another cross to bear which went for about 20 years where she had to nurse him when he wasn't a well man.

JAN: He died six years ago and he was a beautiful husband.

It was my deep faith in God that helped me survive all that I suffered. When I went to Tokyo, I never told anybody here - not a soul. And I was still so naive. I thought I could tell this story in Tokyo, you know, be a witness, come back to Kingswood, nobody would even know but of course, once I spoke out in Tokyo, I mean, the whole world was out there.

File footage
Jan: More anxiety came when I realised that I was pregnant.

JAN: It was on the news straight away, and I thought, "Oh, my God. They will see that in Adelaide," you know.

File Footage
Reporter: Her captors forced pills down her throat.

Jan: I miscarried shortly after.

JAN: I got to face, you know, all my friends and things. What are people going to think of me? You know, I still felt ashamed.

FATHER ANTHONY: She was fearful of what was going to happen. You know, because people can be ostracised so easily and this is what we do. We ostracise the victims.

JAN: And I came home and the first time I went to mass in my church in Kingswood how my parishioners, my friends, you know, they were waiting for me, they were all putting their arms around me, you know. They said, "Welcome home, Jan." You know, "Well done." And they had  even laid flowers on the seat in the church where I always sat, they had laid flowers.

After I spoke out, I made up my mind there and then that I wanted to spend the rest of my life for the protection of women at war.

File footage
Jan: For eight years, I've been fighting for the Asian comfort women.

JAN: I have spoken conferences in Northern Ireland, in England, in Holland. I was in Tokyo twice.

File Footage
Jan: And I will keep on fighting. They're waiting for us to all die but I believe you, this one is not going to die. I'm going to continue to fight for the Asian comfort women to get their apology and their compensation. They deserve to get justice.

JAN: So I have been able to not waste my suffering. I always knew that God didn't want me to waste that suffering. It's what you make out of that suffering that counts, you know. You've got to make something out...good comes out of suffering if you use it well, good will come out of it. And this is what I've been trying to do.

CAROL: Her life has 100% changed. She has worked tirelessly for the rights of women who have been raped in war.

JAN: Only those who have experienced the war know what these names stand for.

Australian War Memorial Curator: Would you like to come around and have a look at where your handkerchief is displayed?

JAN: Iíts not easy, Iím not young, Iím getting old, but I feel itís so important that our voices are heard. This is where is belongs, you know. It was sort of hard to part with it but at the same time, you know, I've given it now to the War Memorial and yeah, this is where it should be. It's got such a story to tell. That handkerchief has such a story to tell.

Curator: Would you like me to remove it for you so you can have a closer look?

Jan: Could I really? Could I really touch it again? I'd love to hold it.

Curator: We thought it was a special occasion that you were visiting. It's actually mounted on a board that...and I need to wear gloves but on this occasion, you don't.


Jan: There's my name, Jan. There's Liz. I said all the rosaries with Liz. Hertie, she was only 18. Bertha, Maree, Ali and Grace. And those names are forever in my heart. Yes. Yeah. It's lovely to hold it again. Thank you. That is really good. Yeah.

JAN: When people hear my story, I think the message, the great message, is the message of faith and forgiveness. And that these things will never happen again - that is why I tell these stories - I never want any other women to suffer as I did.

Note: Jan's fight for the rights of women in war has been recognised by many overseas aid groups.