Born: January 18, 1923;

Died: August 19, 2019

JAN Ruff O’Herne, who has died aged 96, was interned with her family in a labour camp at the age of 19 after the Japanese invasion of Java; 50 years later, she broke her silence about her imprisonment as a “comfort woman”, campaigned against sexual war crimes and sought acknowledgement of the rape and abuse she endured.

The Imperial Japanese Army’s imprisonment of young women in brothels had been brought to light by the testimony of Korean women. Most of the victims – perhaps as many as 200,000 – were Korean, but O’Herne was the first European woman to speak out publicly about her experience. “Japan wouldn’t listen to the Korean women,” she said, “but when European women come forward… I knew they would sit up and listen – and this is what happened.” She first spoke out in 1992, and testified in Tokyo at a war crimes tribunal; she wrote a memoir two years later, and for two decades campaigned against rape in wartime. In 2007 she addressed the US Congress.

Though the Japanese government issued an apology that acknowledged the existence of “comfort stations” in 1993, she viewed the response as inadequate; many Japanese politicians continue to maintain that there was no evidence of rape or coercion in the army’s brothels. In 1998 she refused to accept a compensation scheme, seeing it as an attempt to buy victims’ victims. A belated multi-million dollar settlement, with a qualified apology, in 2015, was restricted to South Korean victims.

Jeanne Alida O’Herne was born at Bandung, west Java, one of five children of Celestin O’Herne, an engineer who ran a sugar plantation. She had “the most wonderful childhood anyone could imagine”; the family were Roman Catholic, and Jan (as she was always known) developed an early vocation, intending to become a nun. After the Japanese invasion of the island in March 1942, Jan, her mother, Josephine, and her two younger sisters were interned at a labour camp for enemy non-combatants in central Java. In February 1944, the army rounded up women aged between 17 and 21, and transferred Jan and six other Dutch-Indonesian girls – all virgins – to a rambling colonial house which served as a military brothel. “To this day I have never forgotten that fear,” she later said.

They recited Psalms and prayed before being confined to rooms which bore the names of flowers; for the rest of her life, O’Herne could not abide them, as a reminder of the ordeals which followed. She was first raped by an officer with a “big, fat, repulsive, horrible, face” who ran a sword across her body before attacking her, as she screamed “Don’t” in all the languages she knew. For three months she was subjected to continual rapes and abuse, although “always and every time, I tried to fight them off”. She cut off all her hair in a bid to make herself unattractive, but it served only to turn her “into a curiosity object”. Even the doctor who inspected her for signs of venereal disease would rape her before the examinations, adding a terror of doctors to her hatred of flowers. After three months, she was returned to the labour camp with the warning that if she ever mentioned her ordeals, she and her entire family would be killed.

She complied with this instruction for five decades, though she confided in her mother and a priest, who “shattered” her with his view that “under the circumstances, I think it is better that you do not become a nun”. The only other person she told was Tom Ruff, a Burma campaign veteran who serving with the Army during the British occupation of Indonesia, and whom she married in 1946, after asking for his patience. Their marriage was a happy one, though she admitted that she could never enjoy sexual intimacy, and had difficulty conceiving; after several miscarriages caused by the internal damage she had suffered, she had surgery and eventually had two daughters. After some years in Britain, the family moved to Adelaide.

For years she suffered silently. Outwardly an ordinary mother, she worked as a teacher at a Catholic primary school, sang in choirs and cared for her husband when he became ill. But she was burdened not only by the prompts to memories of her traumatic experience – flowers, beds, the dark, doctors, and a handkerchief on which she had embroidered the names of the girls with whom she had been imprisoned in the brothel – but from an overwhelming sense of shame.

In 1992, after seeing three Korean women describe their experience on television, she wrote an account, “Cry of the Raped”, for her daughters to read, which became the basis for her published memoir. Her husband died in 1995, and she devoted the rest of her life to campaigning for the victims of sexual abuse during combat. “Rape is part of war,” she said, “as if war makes it right.” She was awarded the Order of Orange-Nassau by the Netherlands in 2001, the Order of Australia in 2002 and the Centenary Medal in 2004, and for her campaigning work was created a Dame Commander of the Order of St Sylvester by Pope John Paul II.