I guess when I mention the name Anwar Congo most of you will never have heard of him. If I told you he died a few weeks ago aged 78 in his homeland, Indonesia, I also guess that would not help much.
The reason I bring his name to your attention is because he was responsible for the killing of at least 1,000 people. Some estimate that this is an underestimate of the true number he personally killed. His preferred method of killing was to use a length of wire to strangle his victims. He said he learned early on that beating his victims proved to be too messy.
Anwar Congo grew up near the northern city of Medan Indonesia where his family lived and worked. His family were relatively well off and were opposed to independence from the Dutch in 1945. He left school aged 12 and quickly became part of the criminal underworld in Medan.
It was not long before he graduated from reselling cinema tickets to more serious activity such as extortion, smuggling and illegal gambling. He met, and made friends with Adil Zulkadry and they offered their services as hired killers.
As was the case in many parts of the world post-colonialism was not a bed of roses. The first president, Sukarno moved Indonesia from a democracy towards authoritarianism and maintained power by balancing the opposing forces of the military, political Islam, and the increasingly powerful communist party.
There was a failed coup in 1965 and the army, led by Major General Suharto countered by instigating mass killing and between 500,000 and one million people lost their lives. Congo and his friends as hardened anti-communist criminals thrived during this period.
Most of the killings were carried out by roving gangs of thugs and right-wing paramilitaries orchestrated by the military. Congo’s gang was directly recruited by the army and they carried out interrogations, torture and killed hundreds of suspected communists. They were known as the Frog Squad and were one of the most powerful and ruthless death squads in the country. Congo became notorious as the squad’s lead executioner.
This period of Indonesian history remains a sensitive topic and the purge led to more than 100,000 people being incarcerated in prisons without trial on very tenuous links with the communists. Finally, in 1968 the killing came to an end when president Suharto was appointed, supported by the Americans.
Congo was never held to account for his crimes during the 1960s and went back to his life of crime in Medan where his past reputation was a big benefit. Again, he focused on extortion, smuggling and robberies to support him and his gang members.
Joshua Oppenheimer the film director tracked Congo down in 2005 and the former executioner gladly shared his story with a high degree of honestly and openness about his feelings and the pain he felt. Oppenheimer said that eventually during his interviews Congo reached a point when he told of his feeling of guilt and his nightmares.
In 2012 Oppenheimer’s movie The Act of Killing was premiered at the Telluride Film Festival. It went on to win many prizes worldwide, including the European Film Award for Best Documentary.
A former political prisoner sums up how many feel about Congo. “It’s really disappointing that he died before he faced justice”.
Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org