Article by Connie Levett: From the jungle to Cowra's winter

December 21, 2008

SITI CHAMSINAH had never felt cold like it. Aged 17, she arrived at Cowra in June 1943 with her family, transported from their jungle detention camp in Dutch New Guinea to a new life.

They were political prisoners, exiled for 15 years to Tanah Merah, a remote jungle camp, by the Dutch because of her father's involvement in Indonesian nationalist politics.

"In Cowra, I felt like a prisoner because of the fences and barbed wire at the camp. In Tanah Merah, the forest was our fence," recalls Siti, 82.

She spent eight months in Cowra, constantly ill with malaria, bronchitis and flu. Behind the wire, she says living conditions were quite comfortable. The detainees were treated well and "could hold meetings to talk about what was happening in Indonesia".

In January 1944 Siti went to Melbourne to study nursing but did not complete the course.

Siti Chamsinah 

At college in Melbourne ... Siti Chamsinah in 1944.
Photo: Siti Chamsinah

"I didn't feel like helping Dutch soldiers because they had invaded my country," she says. "The training came in handy later for my own people."

Siti has good memories of her time in Australia and says she did not experience racism. She remains in contact with one Melbourne nursing friend. They have exchanged letters for 60 years.

Related article: Revealed: Australia's secret labour camps

This article from is reproduced by kind permission of Connie Levett, Sydney Morning Herald

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