BLITAR, Indonesia - Hiding out in the dense, humid jungle, Markus Talam watched Indonesian soldiers herd manacled prisoners from trucks, line them up, and mow them down with round after round of automatic weapons fire.
It was 1968, and the killings were part of a final offensive by forces under General Suharto to wipe out the communist party and secure his position as leader of Indonesia, now the world's most populous Muslim nation.
"They gunned them down and dumped their bodies in a mass grave dug by other prisoners. I remember the sound of the guns clearly: tat-tat, tat-tat, tat-tat . . . over and over again," said Talam, 68, who was later jailed for 10 years after being named a leftist sympathizer.
Suharto, who died yesterday at a Jakarta hospital, seized control of the military in 1965 and ruled the country for 32 years, suppressing dissent with force and supported by an American government at the height of the Cold War.
Estimates for the number killed during his bloody rise to power - from 1965 to 1968 - range from a government figure of 78,000 to 1 million cited by US historians Barbara Harff and Ted Robert Gurr, who have published books on Indonesia's history. It was the worst mass slaughter in Southeast Asia's modern history after the Khmer Rouge killing fields in Cambodia.
A frenzy of anticommunist violence stained rivers with blood and littered the countryside with the bodies of teachers, farmers, and others.
"They used to dump the bodies here," recalled Surien, 70, a woman who lived near a bay used as an execution ground. "People called it the beach of stinking corpses because of the smell."
The CIA provided lists of thousands of leftists, including trade union members, intellectuals, and schoolteachers, many of whom were executed or sent to remote prisons.
Another 183,000 died due to killings, disappearances, hunger, and illness during Indonesia's 1975-1999 occupation of East Timor, according to an East Timorese commission sanctioned by the UN. Similar abuses left more than 100,000 dead in West Papua, according to a local human rights group. About 15,000 others died during a 29-year separatist rebellion in Aceh Province. In recent interviews around the city of Blitar, a former communist stronghold, survivors of the atrocities recounted a life on the run, living in caves, being beaten, and seeing beheadings of other captives.
"I am disappointed. I saw great cruelties and am lucky I am not dead," said Talam, whose simple two-room home overlooks a valley dotted with overgrown mass graves.
Dragging on a clove-cigarette with trembling hands, he described how he was detained by police but escaped. He stumbled across dead bodies in shallow graves and slept in dank caves with hundreds of others, eating what the jungle had to offer for 50 days, until being picked up.
Talam, a former member of a left-wing union for park rangers, said he was tortured and beaten repeatedly during interrogations while detained on remote Buru island, where about 12,000 political prisoners were held, 1,100 miles east of the capital, Jakarta. "Why has no one been put on trial?" he asked. In fact, the dark era remains largely unknown to many Indonesians. Those believed responsible still wield influence in politics and the courts. Details of the communist purge are banned from school books, and the military has blocked efforts by relatives to unearth mass graves.
Near Blitar, a prominent monument and museum honors the crushing of the communist threat, and the Communist Party is still banned in Indonesia today.
There is no official record of the shootings Talam said he witnessed by the Indonesian Army near Blitar, which lies 310 miles east of Jakarta.
Though Suharto was swept from power in a 1998 prodemocracy uprising in this nation of 235 million people, no one has ever been tried for the bloodletting, in part because some of Suharto's former generals remain in power.
"One of the enduring legacies of Suharto's regime has been the culture of impunity," said Brad Adams, the head of Human Rights Watch Asia.
Moreover, public interest in reviving a turbulent past is muted in the largely poor country, where people are more concerned with day-to-day survival, said Putmuinah, 80, a former communist city council member in Blitar.
"The ones who should be held accountable for those crimes are Suharto, his government and his regime," she said. "Suharto ordered the elimination of communists and left-wing sympathizers."
Putmuinah hid in a cave south of Blitar before being picked up and detained for 10 years. "They robbed me of the opportunity to raise my seven children," she said.
"They beheaded many of us because we were members of the union for women," she added. "I was spared torture because I knew the commander who arrested me."
© 2008 The Boston Globe