What is a Submarine Doing in the Middle of Surabaya?

A piece of Indonesian history is permanently docked at the city's port.

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Jan 15 2017, 9:11am

Indonesia's second city is known for its eccentricity. I mean where else can you find a monument of a shark fighting a crocodile in the middle of a major city? Still not convinced? Then think about this: there's a Soviet-made whiskey-class submarine docked in the middle of the waterfront. Yes, that's right—a submarine.

Oh, that's not so surprising, you think. Plenty of cities have submarines. Well, remember this: Indonesia doesn't make submarines. We'll we're trying to make one, but that sub—the product of a partnership with South Korea's Daewoo—isn't due for completion for a number of years.  

So what the hell is a Cold War-era sub doing in Surabaya? I went over to check out Monkasel (that's what we call the submarine monument). The "KRI Pasopati 410" submarine is pretty close to Sungai Kalimas, the city's main shopping center, and it's incredibly crowded. The evening prayer (maghrib) had just wrapped up by the time I showed up, and the dock was packed with parents and little groups of teens taking selfies in front of the submarine. 

The amount of people loitering outside would make you think that it was hard to see the inside of the sub. I was wrong. It only costs Rp 5,000 ($0.40) to walk right in. 

"This submarine was used during an attempt to liberate West Papua from the hands of Dutch," said Retno, our tour guide. She guided us through the claustrophobic hallways of the ship, through portholes and tiny doorways. Some labels are still written in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet.

"Back in the day, Indonesia had a close relationship with the [Soviet Union]," Retno said. "The [Soviet] government gave the submarine to Indonesia."

The sub was used during Operation Trikora, a military effort led by then-president Sukarno to annex West Papua (then called Netherlands New Guinea) from Dutch control. The year-long conflict ended with the Dutch seceding from the archipelago and handing control of the province to Indonesia. 

According to Retno, the sub could hold 63 people and stay submerged for up to seven days. It was decommissioned in 1995 after more than 30 years in service. 

So how did the sub end up in Surabaya? 

"The ship was badly damaged," Retno said. "But it still needed to be preserved because it was the first submarine owned by Indonesia. Why Surabaya? Well, Surabaya has the biggest port in Indonesia."

Today, it's an important reminder of the country's fight for independence, Retno said. "It's here to let people know that Indonesia had its own struggle for independence. This is proof of it," she said.

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