Sunday, 22 March 2015


A few years ago I found myself in Semarang, Central Java, Indonesia, in search of the infamous Dutch colonial era building nick named “Lawang Sewu”.

The locals told me about the place, after discovering my interest in history and the macabre, and suggested that we go to a night tour of the place.

When we showed up we were met by one man who would be giving the tour in Bahasa, but a friend of mine offered to translate any important points. There were also a few other tourists, some from Korea, and some from China, if I remember correctly, as well as some domestic tourists.

Lawang Sewu translates as “Thousand doors” and the building is called so on account of the many sections, doors, arcs and rooms built into its design. It took three years to build, with construction finally completed in 1907, and was initially built for the use of the first Dutch East Indies railway company, “Nederlandsch Indische Spoorweg Maatschappij”, up until the Japanese Invasion in ’42.
The Japanese took over the building for their own use and turned the basement of building B into a prison, where they also executed people.

On entry to the building, we were met by a grand reception room with a beautiful stained glass window on curving stair cases. It really was a great piece of architecture.
We ascended the staircase and were strictly told not to leave our small tour group or the tour guide, as it was easy to get lost.

I left to go rattle a few of those thousand door handles, some were locked shut with big rusted pad locks, some doors were ajar revealing empty rooms, save for carpets of dust and the odd piece of dilapidated furniture.

I trailed behind the group and was lead to an empty room, barren, with an unfinished wooden floor, a big ribcage of iron beams under the ceiling.

The tour guide stopped and told us the Japanese used to hang people from the beams, and that most likely we were walking through the ghosts of the hanged.
He also paused to offer us one of his free services, which was “opening our eyes to the dead”. 
He told us, with a deadpan expression, that he could do an old ritual that involved smearing either graveyard dirt, or the dirt from the floor of the room, over our eyelids, and that once we opened our eyes we would be able to see ghosts, instantly.
The only stipulation being, that we would never be able to un-see them, as there was no way to reverse the ritual.

No thanks.

After no one took him up on his offer- be it the fear of living in the constant horror of seeing gross old dead people 24/7, or the crust of bird shit that would inevitably be scooped up with dirt he was offering to smear near our eye balls, he lead us to the basement.

We had to wear rubber boots as it was flooded with about a foot of water, there were no lights so a few people in the group carried torches, but not enough to really illuminate the place.

A few of the locals in the group I was with were too scared to go down there and opted out, fearing that they might leave with a ghost of two attached to them.

The basement was in building B, which the Japanese had turned it into a detention center where they brutally tortured and executed people. My friend turned to me, the beams of torch light cutting past his face in the pitch black tunnel, and translated some of them to me.

“You see those square concrete things?”

He put his hand on my shoulder and turned me to a small door that one of the Korean tourists was checking out with their flash light. There was a concrete room, dark and wet, with rows of square vats.

“Well the Japanese would put around six prisoners in there and make them sit hunched up together, then the rain would come in and fill it with water. Can you imagine looking next to you and seeing your dead, bloated friend?”

“That’s where they would cut off people’s heads, and the blood would run down into that drain” he said, pointing to another room.

 “You see this?” He asked.

There were a row of small alcoves. Like really small.

“They are standing prisons. They would put up to twelve prisoners in there. Twelve! It doesn’t even look possible.”

 (picture from an online source.)

I stood in one of them to see how many of me could fit in there, and jolted by his slack jawed, wide eyed response, quickly jumped back out. It was a strange feeling, though, to stand in a spot that had soaked up the residual energy of so much pain and misery. 
One can’t help but wonder what would compel anyone to torture. How a mind can even conjure up such twisted ways to do so is beyond me. I had read a couple of Laurens Van Der Post books and his accounts of the Japanese during world war two, the things he had been through and seen and survived at the hands of the Japanese sent a chill down my spine.

In his book “Dawn of a new moon” Van Der Post had written about being a prisoner under the Japanese army in Sukabumi and Bandung. On the subject, during a depression, he was said to have written in his diary “It is one of the hardest things in this prison life: the strain caused by being continually in the power of people who are only half-sane and live in twilight of reason and humanity."

I couldn’t help but remember this quote at that moment.

People often visited Lawang Sewu as if it were a ghost house at a carnival. T.V shows shoot episodes there for entertainment, scaring their contestants out of the prize money with tales of ghosts and hauntings, but no myth or folklore or sighting could ever be more terrifying that what happened in the basement of building B to those Dutch prisoners and nationalist Indonesian youth who were imprisoned there.
Real life is horror.

The tour guide made us all turn off our torches and stand in complete silence in the pitch black. He was reenacting the scene from a famous episode from a reality paranormal TV show "Dunia Lain - Lawang Sewu" where a man sits in the exact basement we were all standing in, in the darkness, and they capture a ghost on the night cam.

I didn’t see or hear anything, bar a couple of nervously giggling Chinese tourists.

Our tour was over.

It was an unforgettable trip.

We met up with the friends from our group who were too afraid to join us in the basement and headed out into the night. I breathed a sigh of relief to be back outside in the open. Lawang sewu is like another dimention and it had really given me the creeps.

I heard that the Government attempted to rebrand it and make it into some kind of cultural center, but I’m not so sure that the house of a thousand doors will ever shake its gruesome history.

If you want to stop by, here's the address: 
TJalan Pemuda, Komplek Tugu Muda, Semarang, Jawa Tengah 13220, Indonesia

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