We had been in Goonoongsitoli for four months when the sad news came that we were to be shifted to somewhere far away in the interior. The Demang, with a bulging stomach and unfriendly eyes, came to the camp and announced that, it was not possible for the local Government to continue feeding us indefinitely, and, as small as Goonoongsitoli was, there were hardly any jobs to provide us an income to make a living. He said an alternative has been found for us to proceed to a village called Hillibadalo, more than 20 kilometers from here where we would be provided food for the next six months during which we were to clear an area of jungle and to plant paddy and maize which, when ready, would provide us food for the future..
We spent many hours discussing the unpleasant prospect, but no amount of talking could prevent us from facing this ordeal. We were given orders to move. The evening of July 21, 1942 saw us saying good bye to our friends in Goonoongsitoli. They all sympathised with us, but they could do nothing. At 7 a.m. the next day we took our gear — a pillow and one or two articles of clothing wrapped up in a mat — carried them on our heads and started marching. We took with us rice and curry wrapped up in banana leaves. We had each been given fifteen cents the previous day to buy the food. The march ahead of us was to be the longest distance I had ever walked in my life. And, it had to be done bare footed! How I envied the three policemen accompanying us on bicycles.
The road was hard and stony, but we were determined to make the best of things and started walking cheerfully. The sun was very hot and there were no big trees to shade the road. Every three miles or so we found small villages where we stopped to rest for a while and drink water. We found the villagers invariably friendly. The further we went in to the interior, the people spoke the local Nias dialect and very few of them could speak Indonesian. The women here seemed to be very shy, unlike the ones in Goonoongsitoli.
Perhaps the sight of strangers frightened them for they hid themselves as soon as they came across any of our party walking past their huts. We were glad that the police did not insist on our marching in columns. Walking as we did, in batches of four or six, we were better able to keep up each other’s spirits. A few preferred to walk on their own, but the majority of us were glad to laugh and tell stories as we went along. If we had not encouraged one another in this manner we could never have reached our destination. At each village we asked how far we were from the village where we were to go, and at each village our destination still seemed as far away as ever.
At one in the afternoon we had an hour’s rest for lunch, and then, on again. As the day prognessed, we began to feel the strain. Not a man amongst us was fit and many of us were still weak from attacks of malaria. But we had no alternative. We struggled along, growing more and more weary, until just as the sun was setting, we finished the last part of our journey and found we were in Hillibadalo.
Two policeman and an Indonesian officer were waiting for us. The officer was an Assistant Demang from Idano Gawo, a village five kilometers away. Tall, dark and heavily built, with thick curly hair and wearing glasses, he did not strike me as being sympathetic. I must say that my first impression of him was wrong, for he later proved to be very kind and helpful. I started speaking with him in Indonesian, the little that I had picked up with Karim’s help, only to find that he spoke English luently. He told me that we would start work, under police supervision, the following day, and left, as it was getting dark and he had to get back to his own village.
Hilibadalo could scarcely claim to be a village: a few empty huts were to be seen scattered about and the jungle started within a few feet of them. Our hut, which had been built as a dormitory, was rectangular in shape with walls and roof of bamboo and leaves. It was a 100 feet long and 25 wide, with two rows of machans (raised platform of half cut bamboo) on either side, spaced at intervals of four feet. These machans, on which we were to sleep, were made of split bamboo rammed together. When we arrived the mud in the spaces between them was ankle deep. There were no lights, not even oil lamps, and we had to wave our hands in the air continuously to keep away the mosquitoes which swarmed around us. The evening we arrived we were too tired to do anything except spread our cane mats and pillows on the machans, rub our mud caked feet against the edges of tile bamboo and fall asleep.
The next morning we felt a bit better but, quickly came up against our first problem: sanitation. What were we to do about it? Some of the men, who had got up very early, had already eased themselves between the trees on the side of the road near the only stream that could supply us with drinking water. However, by laying two logs of wood across a ditch which had very little water in it, we were able to construct a reasonably adequate W.C. It was no joke sitting there, a good hundred yards inside the jungle, with mosquitoes biting us all over the place!
On our first night in Hilibadalo we thought it would be impossible to live there. Indeed, one night was enough for the Indonesian cook who had accompanied us. Although he had brought his thick mattress and blanket with him, he made arrangements the very next morning to sleep in a village four miles away, returning every morning to cook our breakfast.
“Breakfast” consisted merely of a cup of hot water with tea leaves in it. In the jungle we did not get the fried bananas that we had got in Goonongitoli, though at times we did buy bananas with the little money we had. Bananas were very cheap in those days; we could get six of them for only one cent from the villagers.
The first morning we set to work cleaning up the jungle immediately surrounding our camp and alloted areas to the men. We made a clearing where we could sit in the evening and a place for our prayers. The problem of water was most important. Some villagers told us there was a 100 feet in width, stream, with fast flowing water, a kilometer and half from here, a little stream nearby that had to be used for drinking, although the water was by no means clean. The big stream we used for bathing, gladly walking the kilometer and a half for the cool, refreshing splash.
Snakes might have proved another problem, for the jungle abounded in them. Fortunately, they were absolutely harmless and slunk away if they saw us. One day a snake even crept under a machan, but not one of us were ever bitten by one. But by insects we were bitten to pieces. There were insects of every shape and size, the worst being the scorpions. These lived in the bamboo, on the roof and quite a number of our men were badly bitten. Among the wild animals the only dangerous one was the wild boar which was found far in the interior. The villagers had told us that the wild boar usually retreated when faced by people and we did not have to worry about it.
Abdul Karim paid a number of visits to the Assistant Dernang asking him to have us removed from Hilibadalo. All his efforts were fruitless and we set out to clean up the place and make it as habitable as we could. Our work was to clear the jungle and prepare the land for cultivation. The men fell normally into three sections: deck, engine room and saloon. We started by dividing the whole area into three and allotting a part to each section. Immediately after morning tea, we were out on the job, with just a small break for lunch and then on again until 4 p.m. For lunch we had to be content with rice and dry, fire-burnt fish, or a few vegetables with very little gravy. We got our last meal of the day back at camp at 5 p.m.
Our day was long, but the dark hours were even more unwelcome. We had no lamps, so we cut wood from the forest and made fires at three places inside the hut. This gave us a little light and a great deal of smoke. Though we sat there choking, with our eyes watering, the smoke at least kept the mosquitoes away. These wood fires, however, did not last very long and from 8 p.m. onwards we had to remain in complete darkness, with no blankets to protect ourselves against the renewed onslaught of the mosquitoes. It was not surprising that a number of us were soon laid up with malaria. Dr.Hyke, the German, had given me quinine tablets for those who got an attack of malaria. There was a village hospital only four kilometers from us and it was run by a kind Indonesian doctor and his wife.
It became my job to take the sick to the hospital, and the four-kilometer walk there and back became a matter of routine for me. Once or twice the doctor came to our camp himself to examine patients. He was a very practical man, forbidding us, for instance, to keep our scythes under our pillows. Before he gave the order, it had become our habit to do so; but, as he pointed out, if any one had a nightmare he might easily take out the scythe and kill the person next to him. Nor was the doctor very far wrong either, because the men were a volatile lot and whenever they started scrapping, which they did quite frequently, they would always pick up the nearest thing within reach and throw it.
I am sorry to say that in the jungle, our men were absolutely out of control; they would not listen to their officers. They said they were not on the ship any more and so there was no further need for them to obey orders. Some of the worst of them managed to get toddy from the cleaners and after an evening’s drinking would create confusion all night long. It was a miracle that there were no serious injuries. The Indonesian police, who were in charge of us, did not come to the camp every day and when they did come, they did not throw their weight about or try and drive us beyond our strength.
The highlight of our week was the bazaar in Idano Gavo, five kilometers to our south. Although we could not go there, our merchant friends from Goonoongsitoli did. They stopped at our camp on the way back to give us fruit, money or tobacco and cheered us up in their kindly Indonesian way. There was an Indian, living in a near-by village, who traded in precious stones. He, I regret to say, did not sympathise with us. A big Chinese tobacco merchant, on the other hand, always gave us news. He had a battery radio in his home, and once, I remember, he told us that Burma had been recaptured, that Singapore had fallen to the Allies and that within three months they would all be here to rescue us.
This news, alas, was too good to be true. We did not dare believe him, even though the Assistant Demang of Idano Gavo had told us much the same thing. Then, three Indonesians, who had made their escape after the fall of Sumatra and were now hiding in a village eight kilometers from us, came to us with the same story. This time we thought the news must really be true, and I got so excited that I longed to let Sister Hank Visker in the Mission Hospital know about it, too. (She, I am glad to say, had not been interned, as we had all feared, but continued to be in charge of the Mission Hospital at Hilisimithano). I wondered if I could contact her.
A few days later, as if in answer to my prayer, one of Sister Hank Visker’s assistants, passing through Hilibadalo on his way to Goonoongsitoli, dropped in to see me. I asked him to drop in again on his way back. In the meantime I had written two letters, one to Sister Hank Visker and the other to Hodges, which were duly picked up and delivered. A week later he was back again, this time carrying not only a reply but a small parcel as well. The parcel contained a face towel, a cake of scented soap and a few tomato seeds. Inside the envelope, besides letters from Sister Hank Visker and Hodges, were 25 guilders in cash. I was dumbfounded and I had tears in my eyes as I stood there trying to thank God for having mercy on us, and the kind Sister through whom God’s mercy had descended. How could she have known that three or four of us were sharing one filthy piece of cloth to dry ourselves? How could she have known how welcome that clean smelling cake of soap could be? I kept smelling the soap as I thought of Sister Hank Visker who had been so wonderfully kind.
But, in my reply to her, I did not know how to put on paper just what it meant to me; the proper words to thank her just would not come, indeed no words could express the overwhelming gratitude that I felt. In the jungle things were so cheap that 25 guilders were more like two thousand five hundred! I could even afford to buy myself a few clothes to replace the sorry rags that my own had become — so my mind ran on, spending my fortune. I felt, to keep the money to myself would be unfair to the others and so, I handed it all over to Rahman, the oldest man amongst us, and told him to divide it equally amongst us. Each man got 30 cents, a small fortune for people with no money at all.
It was one evening in the month of September 1942, while I was saying my prayers, I heard a car stop outside the camp and heard the sweet voice of Sister Hank Visker. She was accompanied by an Indonesian police officer and was going to Goonoongsitoli to nurse Dr.Hyke who was very seriously ill. The Indonesian officer had been kind enough to allow her to call in on us. A couple of days later we heard that Dr.Hyke had passed away. This news was a great shock for us because he had done everything he could to help us. It was because of his influence that the Indonesians connected with the village hospital near Hilibadalo were being so good to us.
I was out at work cutting the trees when I heard the drone of a motor cycle. What could it mean? Imagine my surprise when the person who got off was Sister Hank Visker! I rushed up to her, just as I was, in my dirty, muddy clothes and took her inside the cow shed, as we called the hut. I told all the other men to keep on working and not to crowd round us in case she was discovered. There were three or four sick men lying on their machans, and the Indonesian cook came up and stood near us for a while. As he could not understand a word of what we were saying, he soon stopped being curious and went back to his work.
Sister Hank Visker then told me all about Dr.Hyke’s illness and how, in his death, not only she, but, the whole island had lost a sincere helper. She had been asked to take charge of the Goonoongsitoli Hospital in his place, but did not like to leave the two English officers who were lying very ill in the village hospital. Then, as gently as she could, she told me that the good news that I had given her in my letter was all wrong and that I should trust no one that came to the camp. She had heard from a reliable Chinaman that the Allies were not doing well and that the future looked very bleak for the Allies. The war, she thought, would last at least another three years.
The news that the good Sister had given me was most depressing. For a whole month we had lived in the hope that in a few months time we would be out of the jungle and on our way home. But three years! The mere thought of it made us shiver. How many of us, we wondered, would ever see home again? How many of us would survive?
So, after Sister Hank Visker left us, there was no more talk of the future, no more planning, nothing to look forward to. A marked change had come over the faces of the men and all the excitement had disappeared. We did our work, and we prayed to God Almighty to have mercy on us and to deliver us from the evil hands into which we had fallen.
A couple of weeks passed and I did not hear again from Sister Hank, until one evening when her driver brought me a letter. The letter was very long, and in it she told me that the Japanese were thinking of arresting all white men and women who were still free. She was thinking of making her escape and asked me if I would like to join her. The driver, in fact, was on his way to the coast to buy a boat for that purpose.
For the next three days I could think of nothing else; should I have a shot at escaping and possibly lose my life in the process? Or should I stick it out at Hilibadalo with the men? Anything seemed better than staying in the jungle. The crowd of men who were with me had begun to get on my nerves and yet, ungrateful as they were, I still did not like the idea of leaving them. But, for once I became selfish and wrote to Sister Hank Visker expressing my eagerness to join her and the two officers in their effort to escape from the Japanese.. I gave this letter to the Driver some time in early October when he stopped by on his way back to the Mission Hospital.
A week or so later, we were chatting outside our hut when we heard a motor cycle approaching from a distance. Could this be the news I was waiting for? No, it was the Assistant Demang. who used to come over once in a while and spend some time talking with me. He was educated, spoke English fluently and from his talk it was evident that he was not happy to find his country under Japanese occupation. He stopped by the side of the road opposite to the entrance of our hut, as he always did and, as usual, we walked up to a spot where we normally sat down on a rock and chatted away. On this particular day he did not appear to be his pleasant self, and as soon as we sat down he asked me bluntly: “Are you corresponding with the sister at the Mission Hospital?” I was taken aback and for a fleeting second I wondered why he asked this question. Without any hesitation I said: “Yes”. He said: “The last letter you wrote to the Sister is now in my possession. It is a very serious matter and it can land you into deep trouble.
However, I have not reported to the Japanese the offence that you have committed and have burnt the letter, in the hope that you will promise never again to make any attempts to escape as long as you are under my charge.” I was dumb-founded and did not know how to express my deep sense of gratitude for his kindess and consideration for my safety and welfare. I said: “I have no words to thank you for what you have done for me. I give you my solemn word that, as long as I am under your charge, never again will I do anything to cause you any embarrassment.” I then added, “I sincerely hope the Sister and the two British officers will not get into any trouble. I thanked the Lord Almighty for His merciful blessings which saved me from getting into very serious trouble with the Japanese.
It was not long after my conversation with the Assistant Demang, I learnt that Sister Hank Visker, together with Feast and Hodges, had been taken to Sumatra where they were interned. Feast died in a Sibolga hospital, and Hodges lost his life while being transported to Singapore in a prison ship sunk by an Allied submarine. May their souls rest in peace!. I had no news about the Sister
By the end of October, 1942, a large area of the land had been cleared and prepared for cultivation. Then the seeds were brought by an expert who showed us how to plant them. But when this had been done, our work was by no means finished. We now had to start cutting away the remaining portion of the jungle. By this time many of the prisoners were sick and as the days passed, the number of sick men increased. I was among those who became so ill that I could not walk on my own.
At one time only seven of our men were fit to move about. Then, on November 9, 1942 one of our comrades, the Pantry man (I forget his name), who slept next to me, passed away. His death, the first since we came to Hilibadalo, had a very bad effect on the morale of our group. I must admit that I began to feel convinced that I was dying. I even went so far as to hand over my wrist watch to Rashid, with instructions to give it to my mother on his return home. I begged him not to throw me just anywhere in the jungle, but to bury me properly. Fortunately for me my friends refused to accept the possibility of my dying and together they kept up my spirits. At one moment they exhorted me to have faith in Allah and in the next reprimanded me for giving up hope so easily.
A couple of days later I was removed to the village hospital along with nine others. Karim was still with me. The change of atmosphere certainly did me good, for my condition at once improved and I began to feel that, after all, I was going to live. The Assistant Demang came to the hospital one day and we told him that he must do something about us: we simply could not go on living in this jungle. He promised that he would do his best and went away to Goonoongsitoli to make representations on our behalf. In the meantime all of us had returned to the camp, except two, who were very seriously ill.
On the evening of November 16, 1942 the Assistant Demang returned to Hilibadalo with the news that we were to go back to Goonoongsitoli. He regretted, he said, that he had not been able to arrange a bus for us, adding that we would have to make our own way back. Walk or crawl back, the mere idea of leaving the jungle was so welcome that we were prepared to start at once. The Assistant Demang told us that no food would be cooked for us on the way, but he gave us money to buy food to last us for the next two days. One of our comrades, Rahman, who was too sick to walk, was put on the bullock cart that was to carry our pots and pans and other cooking utensils.
Early the next morning, we started on our march back. Weak as we were, the thought of leaving the jungle gave us new strength and energy so that even the most feeble amongst us managed to continue. There was Ramzan, for instance, who was 63 years of age., who, like Rahman, had sailed the seven seas and been in many tight corners in his time. But, the march from Hilibadalo to Goonoongsitoli was the worst experience of his life. I felt so sorry for him, watching him struggle along with his bundle on his bowed shoulders that I offered to carry his load as well as my own.
The first day more than half the men stopped half-way at a village and arrived in Goonoongsitoli late the next day. A few others and I arrived there the same evening. We had only one thought, to get out of the jungle as fast as our legs would carry us. As we neared the town, our flagging steps quickened and we got more cheerful. Two saloon boys, Tarmuz Ali and Jamal, walked along beside me at top speed, chatting and cracking jokes. We reminded ourselves that the jungle made us ‘junglees’ (belonging to the jungle) and now that we were getting back to town, we must become more civilised again. In the jungle, we had always worn our sarongs above our knees because that was the most comfortable way for walking. This method, we now decided, was not suitable for life in town. We adjusted them by lowering them below our knees.
We arrived in the town at sunset and went immediately on arrival to the police barracks, where we had lived before. The wife of a policeman, very thoughtfully, provided us with several cakes of soap. Feeling almost free again, we bathed and went on to dine at Marah Sultan’s eating house. As always, he refused to take any money from us.What a change it was from the rice and dried fish!
The next day, Abdul Karim went to see the Demang who expressed his anger and said that he had not given any orders for us to return and that we had no business to leave the jungle. Karim said that the Assistant Demang had given us money and told us to return to Goonoogsitoli. The demang had a heated argument with Abdul Karim and told him to return to the barracks.
The Demang, accompanied by two policemen, arrived in the afternoon. “You were sent to the jungle where you could grow your own food and live as free men,” he said. “But, it seems that this is not what you want. Of your own free will, you have come back to live like prisoners here. No one could sympathise with your plight more than I do; but here, in the town, you are no longer my responsibility. I cannot give you any food or any money, or any work to earn food and money. It will be far better for you to return to the jungle and your freedom”.
Even a fool could not fail to realise the insincerity of the Demang’s speech. Did he really think that we would believe he was “helping” us by letting us stay in the mosquito ridden swamps of Hilibadalo where even the natives of the island could not survive? We had known this man, or rather this mass of human flesh, from the time we landed on Nias Island and we were well aware of his attitude towards us. He was a mere puppet who was like jelly as soon as a Japanese came near. It was he who once, on a visit to us in the jungle, had told us that he would have to consult the Japanese before he could authorise us to get an oil lamp. Four months had passed and we never got that lamp. He was now asking us to believe him that he wanted, most sincerely, to help us.
Someone suggested that since he could not look after us himself, he might send us across to Sumatra where at least we could earn our living. He replied that the Japanese did not want us there. There was nothing else to it; either we go back to the jungle or we must earn our living in Goonoogsitoti.
How in the world, we wanted to know, could 70 of us find employment in a small town which had for a bazaar only a few fruit shops, five tea shops and a couple of eating houses? That, he said had nothing to do with him. It was our problem. After a great deal of argument he was persuaded to allow us food for another six weeks on a reduced ration. We were now to get less to eat than at any time since the Chilka sank. ‘And”, he added “after January 1943 you will get no more, nothing at all”.
Rahman began to comfort us. He was a very pious old man and he begged us not to worry. “No human being”, he said, “has the power to stop another human being’s food. As long as we were willing to work, I believe, God would see to it that we had something to eat.
Our hearts sank and in the days that followed, with the food situation rapidly becoming worse, we lost all the zest and enthusiasm that had brought us out of the jungle. One day, the taste of salt disappeared completely from the vegetables and gravy and many of the prisoners became so ill that they had to be admitted to hospital. One thing alone sustained us as we swept the roads, cut the grass and did all kinds of manual labour; the Demang had not forced us to return to Hilibadalo.