The Dutch government has formally apologised for the mass killing of Indonesians during colonial occupation which ended in 1949.
The Dutch ambassador in Indonesia, Tjeerd de Zwaan, officially presented the state’s apology at a Jakarta ceremony on Thursday.
“On behalf of the Dutch government I apologise for these excesses,” De Zwaan said.
The Netherlands had already apologised and paid compensation in certain specific cases, but this was the first general apology for atrocities carried out during the colonial era.
“The Dutch government is aware that it bears a special responsibility in respect of Indonesian widows of victims of summary executions comparable to those carried out by Dutch troops in what was then Celebes (Sulawesi) and Rawa Gede (West Java),” De Zwaan added.
Representatives of the victims welcomed the apology.
“We feel grateful and very happy to be here. Before that we never imagined that it would be like this,” said one, Nurhaeni.
Special forces from the Netherlands carried out a series of summary executions in its former colony between 1945 and 1949, killing thousands.
In total, about 40,000 people were executed during the colonial era, according to the Indonesian government; however, Dutch figures mention only a few thousand.
South Sulawesi was the site of one of the worst atrocities. On January 28, 1947, Dutch special forces executed 208 men on a field in front of a local government office.
It was one of the many mass murders by notorious captain Raymond Westerling who was long considered a hero in the Netherlands.
Westerling and his troops held summary executions in tens of villages for a period of three months in a bid to wipe out resistance against Dutch colonisation. Neither he or his men were ever prosecuted.
Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen, reporting from Jakarta, said the Dutch government suddenly seemed in a hurry to apologise for the atrocities that were committed over 60 years ago.
“In a couple of months from now, the Dutch prime minister is visiting Indonesia and many have said it would actually be much more appropriate to issue the apology then. But suddenly they decided it had to happen today at the Dutch embassy and not in the places where these war crimes have taken place,” Vaessen said.
“They chose the embassy because they want to apologies for a lot more than only what happened in South Sulawesi and other places. They are apologising for all the war crimes, which the Dutch merely call excesses,” Vaessen added.
The Hague had previously apologised and paid out to the widows in individual cases but it had never said sorry or offered compensation for the victims of general summary executions.
Two high-profile legal actions have resulted in 20,000 euros being awarded to the widows of some victims and a public apology for summary executions that took place on the island of Sulawesi and Rawagadeh, on the island of Java.
“When I received the money from the Netherlands I smelled it, I was so happy. But when I was smelling it I could not forget what happened to my husband. I was so sad,” Nani, a 93-year-old widow told Al Jazeera.
The father of Andi Mondji was one of 208 executed in Sulawesi. He witnessed it when he was still a small child.
“Look what I have lost back then, my grandmother was shot when she was 80 years old and my father was shot and another relative too. All of them shot dead. They should be able to imagine how I as a child have suffered because of this,” Mondji told Al Jazeera.