Chapter 15. The Camp within a Chinese Graveyard – Santiong

SIBOLGA, a little sea port on the western coast of Sumatra was the capital of Tapanuli Province. The province, known as Batakland, was inhabited by the Bataks who spoke a language of their own, although most of them knew Indonesian. Three quarters of the population were Christians and the rest, Muslims and Chinese. Surrounded by hills on three sides, the harbour at Sibalgo was a natural one. It had a small jetty where very small steamers could berth.

The larger ocean-going vessels anchored in the stream and discharged their cargo on to barges which were then towed by steam tugs. There being no railway, the chief means of transportation into the interior were motor buses which ran to all the big towns of Sumatra. American and British films greatly influenced the people of Sumatra and although I never heard a Batak actually singing in English, their own songs were almost always sung to English and American tunes. With the Japanese occupation the songs disappeared and were replaced by Japanese tunes.

The houses at Sibolga were small and built of wood. Even the humblest of them had a couple of chairs and a table in the front room as the people were very fond of interior decoration. The majority of the people were poor and, at the time of my arrival, trade was in the hands of the Chinese. The Japanese occupation changed all that. Indeed, the Japanese made a great deal of propaganda out of the vast differences that existed between the rich and the poor and declared their intention of redistributing the wealth of the province. It was mere propaganda, unless the fact that all the trade became a Japanese monopoly can count as redistribution. The money the Japanese made went back to Tokyo by the millions while the Bataks remained poor.

At the beginning of the war when the Japanese were bombarding Sumatra, a number of the Chinese left the port of Sibolga and went to live in huts made of bamboo and leaves near the graveyard about a mile and a half outside the town. I must say the situation struck me as being very practical, cutting out, as it did, the need for funeral processions. When our men were brought to Sibolga, it was these empty bamboo huts, that were turned into a camp for them.

The place was not unpleasant and in spite of it being surrounded by barbed wire, it did not have the gloomy appearance of the usual prison camp. The guards who kept watch over the men were Indonesians and fairly easy going. They escorted them to work every morning and back in the evening and as this march led them through the town, it gave them a glimpse of civilisation and a feeling of not being entirely cut off from the outside world.

Most important of all, the food – rice and vegetable curry – was adequate and each man was given 30 cents, enough to buy tobacco. For a few days, the cooking was done, in turns, by the men. Later, when groups had managed to buy small pots, the communal cooking stopped and the whole backyard was turned into a kitchen. Each individual group took their share of rice and vegetables and the food was cooked early in the morning by old men among the crew who were excused from heavier work. These older prisoners were also responsible for keeping the camp clean.

There was no shortage of water and the men could bathe at any time of the day as there was a bathing house only a hundred yards from the camp.  I call this a bathing place instead of a bathroom because it was a special feature of the place. Water flowing fast down the hills was directed through pipes to covered areas situated at intervals of a quarter of a mile. Everyone living nearby used these places for bathing and washing clothes. The places, which were made of stone, had two sections, one for the men and the other for the women. The Bataks carried water back to their homes for cooking and drinking. They strapped long, wooden flasks on their backs for the purpose. Obviously, a lot of cottages had been built near the bathing places and the movement of people added to the gaiety of our camp.

Every morning as the sun rose above the eastern hills, birds sang cheerfully from the surrounding trees. Little children ran along the pathway, on the outskirts of the camp, shouting the Japanese war cry. Pretty young girls glided past the camp to fetch water in bamboo flasks that hung down on either side of their shoulders. The women were followed by men, who usually liked to take a bath before going to work. Later the older women and the children would come along the path to bathe or to wash clothes. There was life around Santiong (the name of the camp) and there is no doubt that the prisoners felt the better for it.

In charge of our group of men at Santiong was Abdul Karim, that same enterprising store keeper of the Chilka who had already done so much for us all. Abdul Karim was a character. He came from a respectable family in Bengal and had gone to the Muslim University School at Aligarh. While he was in the matriculation class, he gave up his studies and joined the saloon department of a shipping company. During the first three years of the European War, he served in western waters taking part in the evacuation of Dunkirk and moving up and down the English Channel. In October 1941, he signed off at Calcutta to settle down, intending never to return to the sea again. But on March 11, 1942 Karim was found on a lifeboat with the surviving crew of the ill-fated Chilka. He was the first amongst us to learn the Malayan language — I got my first lessons in the language from him — and later, he learnt a good bit of Japanese, too.

In Sibolga, Karim’s duty was to go to the office and get the daily allowance for the men, but he was not content with that. He was always fighting for the rights of the prisoners and perhaps, his greatest triumph was when he succeeded in getting a loongee (sarong) and new shirt for each person. I can picture him now, talking animatedly to some official and moving his hands about in excitement, his rather flat features lit up by the sincerity of his arguments. Abdul Karim was a very fine man and one I am proud to have known, and pray that his soul may rest in eternal heavenly peace.

I stayed at Sibolga until April 1943 and while I was there I paid frequent visits to the camp to enquire how the men were getting on. A good part of my time was spent in Khaleel’s house. I have mentioned before that this gentleman helped me with clothes, money and food; as a matter of fact, he did so much for me that I did not know how I could ever repay him. Khaleel hailed from Azamgarh in the United Provinces of India. He was tall and had a dark complexion. Though he was not educated, he did well in business.

He was a very undemonstrative man, but a man of deep feelings, and always ready to do a good deed. Not only I but all my colleagues owed him a great debt of gratitude for the way he helped us when others gave us the cold shoulder. Whenever a Japanese officer went to his house they always enquired about me as they still suspected I was a European. On occasions they even accused him of helping the enemy, but this gallant gentleman never, for one moment, changed his attitude towards me. Later, when the Japanese were following my movements very carefully, he did ask me not to visit him for a while but he continued to send me what I needed through other people.

After I had brought all the men to Sibolga – my chief object for joining the tug — I asked the Chinese Owner, Ang Boon Hak, to let me go back to Santiong with the rest of my colleagues. He would not hear of it. Suak and I discussed the possibility of running away with the tug, but we had to admit that it was impossible. Our only hope was in meeting an Allied submarine, and there was just a faint chance that one might come in near Sumatra.

At the end of April I went to Padang. A severe pain in my right arm where I had been wounded became worse and the Indonesian doctor said it would have to be operated upon. Ang Boon Hak wanted me to go back to Sibolga but I was in such agony that I begged to have the surgery done at Padang. The tug sailed without me. I was left with a letter, signed by a Japanese officer of the shipping department, informing me that I was permitted to stay in Padang to undergo treatment. Unfortunately, no proper arrangements had been made for my admission to hospital.

Roll, the Dutch port pilot, who had been very reserved at our first meeting got to know me gradually. He became so friendly that whenever he had some free time he would come over to the Tapanuli Maru and chat with me. Very often, when there were no policemen around, we would go over to a little tea shop near the jetty where he would treat me to tea and cakes. I waited for him to return after piloting the Tapanuli Maru out of the harbour. He used a bicycle for his transportation. We put my small bundle of clothes on the bicycle’s carrier and walked to the tea shop.

As we walked, we sang “Show me the way to go home” very softly. He felt very sorry for the predicament I was in, and would have given me board and lodging. But, he had a wife and two kids to think about, and could not risk antagonising the Japanese. He was still under strict observation and allowed to go to the town for shopping on certain days of the week only. His wife and children never came out of the house, and I never met them. Although he was paid very poorly, he offered to give me money any time I was in need. After some time I bade him goodby and took the train to Padang.

1 was in great pain from the wound in my arm and desperate to go to the hospital. Of all the Indians in Padang that I knew, 1 thought that Jailani, the optician, could help me the most. I went to his place. It was, I now realise, very selfish of me for when a man is in peril he is so worried about himself that he does not always think of the man from whom he is seeking help. This time I certainly chose the right man. That same evening Jaitani took me to the hospital and through his influence, the Indonesian doctor attended to me carefully and the attitude of the Japanese doctor softened towards me.

After a couple of days the minor operation needed to put me out of my intense pain was performed and I was told to go to the hospital everyday to get my wound dressed. During this period I slept on the ground in the front room of Jailani’s shop and had all my meals with him. Very soon I became very friendly with his children who were all very young. I often whiled away the time playing with them. Mrs. Jailani and her elderly mother were very good to me and treated me as one of their own.

In return for all their kindness I tried, when my wound had healed, to make myself useful. Every morning I swept and cleaned the shop, opened it long before Jailani awoke. Besides optical goods, the shop stocked perfumes and toilet articles which I sometimes sold when Jailani was not there. He taught me to fix spectacle frames and said that in time, he would teach me to become a real optician. All the time I was with him I felt quite safe and happy, and thanks to the mercy of the Lord Almighty, no harm came to my protector either. I do not know why, but the police did not worry about me at all. I still had to be very careful in the streets and indeed, I went out of doors very seldom. However, I helped Mrs. Jailani by standing in queue for the family sugar ration.

I always found Jailani’s advice most valuable. To add to the pleasure of his company, now came that of meeting his brother, Murad, who was an Arabic scholar and had spent sometime in Turkey. My meeting with Murad was a turning point in my life, for he gave me an Urdu book from which I learnt a great deal about the Religion of Islam, and it created an interest in me to try and understand the Holy Qur’an, which, as children, we were taught to read its Arabic text as a religious ritual. We were not encouraged neither did our religious teachers (Maulvi Sahibs) tried to explain the meanings of the Arabic verses.

I feel very sad now, to think, that it never occurred to the scholars, many centuries ago, to make the learning of the Arabic language compulsory. Isn’t it odd that it was not thought imperative for Muslim children to be taught Arabic in order to understand the Qur’an, its message and derive guidance from it?  Our parents taught us to perform prayers reciting verses of the Qur’an in Arabic, which we did off and on, without being aware of what we were praying. I did perform prayers whenever I could, but, did not keep it up during the time I was serving aboard the Chilka.

About this time, Narayan Singh of Han Brothers, offered to employ me in their shop and sent me 100 guilders, which came to me as a wonderful surprise. It meant so much to me, and yet, I could not find suitable words to express my deep sense of gratitude. I also thanked him for his kind and thoughtful offer of employment which was out of the question for me to accept, as I was having this freedom, granted by the Japanese, as the Captain of the Steam Tug Tapanuli Maru.

While writing about my benefactors, I must not forget to mention Nasir, the well-known “ice-creamwalla” (ice cream man). He made the best ice-cream in Padang and every Indonesian that ever spoke of ice- cream always praised his speciality. I used to visit him often — I love ice-cream — but since he never accepted payment, I had to cut down my visits.

How pleasant were those Padang evenings. I used to roam all over the place riding Jailani’s bicycle. Sometimes I was accompanied by one of his children. I remember one evening when three-year old Zainab was riding with me on the bar of the bicycle, a passer-by shouted that the child was fast asleep. Thank heavens I had been told, otherwise little Zainab would have surely fallen off the bar!

Emma Haven, Padang’s port, was 10 miles from town. I cycled there once and met Roll, the pilot who was delighted to see me. I had been with Jailani for about three weeks when another young man came to him and asked for shelter. He said that he had been to other people, but had found no one willing to help. Jailani was not a very rich man. He earned enough as an optician to live comfortably. He was very good hearted and could never deny help to anyone who came to his door. The young man was also taken in. He was called Alijan. He had been in the R.I.A.S.C. (Royal Indian Auxiliary Service Corp) until the fall of Singapore and had managed to escape.

Alijan and I became good friends very quickly. He had a cheeky sense of humour and was always ready for fun, especially with the girls. Often when we were in Jailani’s shop, or sometimes even while we were walking in the bazaar, if a girl stopped and stared at me, he would make faces at her and say: “Apa Mao, ini bintang ka?” (What do you want, is he an animal?”) The poor girl, who was probably wondering why a white man was allowed to go about freely without wearing a badge identifying him as a German or an European, would feel embarrassed, blush and hastily run away. The more forward amongst the girls would answer him back and joke with him. Alijan made ice-cream and sold it in the bazaar, and for helping him I got some ice-cream free of charge. Eventually, he joined a travelling repertory company, and 1 sadly missed his cheerful companionship.

One afternoon in the first week of July, a Malabari named Ayar came to Jailani and asked for me. Ayar was a member of the Japanese propaganda department, and was well educated and spoke good English. He said that  Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose was to  broadcast  a speech, in Urdu, from Singapore. He had been told by his Japanese employers to listen to the broadcast and translate it for them. As he did not understand Urdu, hailing from South India, he had come for my help. I cannot remember how and when we first met, and I did not want to get involved with Japanese propaganda. I told him that I was sorry I could not do it.

I was sure there were several other people in Padang who could help him. No one else, he said, understood Urdu fluently and suggested that he should get in touch with me. I was surprised to learn that many others knew about me. “If you don’t help me”, he said, “I shall get into serious trouble and you know what the Japanese are like”. I changed my mind when I heard this. I hoped that by listening to the broadcast and translating faithfully what was said, I would be doing no harm and might even get hold of reliable foreign news.

That night Ayar came to my quarters and took me to the broadcasting station. A few Japanese officers were trying to tune into Singapore station when we arrived. They made me sit down and gave me a paper and a pencil to write. A programme of Indian music came on the air. My favourite song was being broadcast. Listening to the song brought tears to my eyes. The Japanese turned it off and tuned to another Indian station. I told them not to turn off the previous station as it might be Singapore. Actually, I was listening to the news in Hindustani from London. It was for the first time since my captivity that I had heard the Allied news. The Japanese officers caught the word R.A.F. and Germany and switched off abruptly. Four of them came over to me and asked me what station it was. I said I did not know, but the announcer had said that the R.A.F. were bombing Germany.

One officer looked worried, “Did they say anything about the Eastern theatre of war?” When I said “No,” their relief was obvious.

Why? I wondered they did not want me to hear anything about the East?’ Obviously, the Japanese could not be doing well.

We did not get Singapore that night, but all the same I was glad that I had gone to the broadcasting station. The snippet of news that I had heard satisfied me that the Japanese propaganda regarding their speedy advance must be false. I was delighted when I was told to come again after two days. I returned, eager for more news, but this time the Japanese were very careful and gave me no chance to hear anything except what they wanted me to hear. Netaji’s broadcast came through and in it he called upon all Indians in South East Asia to fight against the Allies for the freedom of their motherland.

The Japanese officer in charge of the broadcasting station was well educated and knew several languages; his manners were pleasing and he was very good to me. I, however, behaved rather badly towards him, answering his questions very abruptly. In spite of my rudeness he offered to employ me in his department. Obviously, the Japanese were in need of men for this kind of work and their anxiety to secure my services was very apparent. All the way home Ayar pointed out to me how stupid I had been to say no.

‘Why,” he said, “if you go back to that tug you will almost certainly be torpedoed”. From his conversation I learned there were a lot of Allied submarines lurking in the waters around Sumatra. When we said good night, he reminded me that there was still time for me to think over the Japanese offer and told me he would call again on the following day. “You will be very comfortable,” he said, “and get a good pay”.

Think it over I certainly did; all that night I tossed in bed, reviewing the whole thing over and over again. The offer was very tempting, and I would have done almost anything to stay in Padang. It was a pleasant place and I already had many acquaintances. If I were employed by the Japanese, no one would have any fears about befriending me. The next morning I told Jailani about the offer of a job.

“It’s a grand idea,” he said. “The world revolves and people must revolve with it. At this very moment other men are making much the same sort of compromise with their consciences in order to save their lives”.

But, in spite of Jailani’s approval I could not bring myself to accept the job. I would have loved it if it had been a question of working with an Indian firm, but I could not collaborate with the Japanese propaganda department. Allah in His goodness saved me from yielding to the temptation and I finally decided not to accept the job.

Now there seemed nothing left for me but to join the tug when it came back to Padang. What a difference from the life the Japanese were offering me. To have to go out once more in that small craft in rough seas, soaked with rain, suffering from lack of sleep and among a crowd of men that I was only too happy to be away from! I reminded myself, I had joined the tug to help the men who had been stranded in Nias Island and now it was Allah’s Will that I should stay on.

Fortunately, everything turned out perfectly for me. On July 15, 1943, Suak, the Minado, came over to Jailani’s place and told me the tug had arrived. There was now a Japanese officer in charge of the shipping department and he had come to Padang in the tug. He wanted to see me.

Although I had finally decided to return to the tug, now that the time came, I felt hesitant to leave the company of the kind Jailani and the easy life that I had been enjoying in Padang. I do not believe that there is any one who really likes leaving the comforts of land to go to sea in a small craft, but I had no choice in the matter. I said goodbye to Jailani and all others who had been so good to me. I thanked them for all their help and kindness and then — very reluctantly — went aboard the tug.

The little sea-going vessel was very small. The crew and I had absolutely nothing in common, but I could not avoid sitting with them. It was not that I have any objection to mixing with people; that was emphatically not the reason. But, these men were peculiar in their habits, vicious and jealous of me. I realised, in retrospect, that the peace I had left behind in Padang had come from being away from men of this nature. I was now back in their midst, and even more unwelcome than before.

Towards the end of July we were back in Sibolga and were told that the tug was proceeding to Singapore for dry-docking, and the Japanese officer was accompanying her. The officer showed me a new chart which he had brought for the express purpose of navigating the tug to Singapore. I saw my chance to get away from the tug for ever, and told him that not only was I not acquainted with the waters on the east coast of Sumatra but that I lacked the practical experience to take the tug to Singapore.

The Japanese officer did everything he could to make me change my mind. He promised to do all he could for me if only I agreed to go with him. But, I felt convinced that the time had come for me to take this opportunity to leave the tug. I did not budge an inch from what I had told him. The Japanese officer realized that there was nothing he could do to get me to take the tug to Singapore. A week later, an Indonesian was brought in to take over from me, and I was sent to the camp at Santiong.


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