Chapter 16. Within Barbed Wires Once Again

I was a prisoner again on July 16, 1943. This time it was under strict surveillance. At Santiong, the policemen were given special orders not to allow me to leave the camp and I could not even go to the bazaar to buy my own food. By now the Japanese had stopped supplying food and were giving money instead. Money did not go very far as everything had become so expensive. In an eating  house, for example, a cup of coffee cost one guilder. A guilder was one hundred cents, and our total allowance for a day was just 60 cents !  The old men were excused work and stayed in the camo.

By now, the Japanese were convinced that most of the men were ignorant and illiterate and could do no harm, and so they were allowed to go to work without police supervision and to move about freely in the bazaar. On their way back from work they would go to the bazaar to buy food. They quickly made friends with the Bataks (people of the province of Tapanuli) and got to know how they could make extra money. The Indonesian policemen, who guarded the camp, were very good to us and, with one exception, never tried to bully us. The exception was evil personified and we hated to see him come on duty.

One afternoon, when the rest of the camp prisoners had gone to work, the old men, Abdul Karim and myself were left in the camp. Abdul Karim was not well and was trying to sleep. A policeman came and shouted at the old men to get up and clean the camp. Karim woke up and told him not to make a noise inside the hut. After a short and violent argument, the policeman drew his sword. It was too much for me. I leapt up, followed by Karim, and we chased the coward out of the hut. He stood waving his sword and threatened to flog us.

In the meantime, a second policeman, who was on duty with him, came along and sent his colleague back to the station. Later in the evening, Karim and I were taken to the police station for questioning by the Indonesian police officer in charge. He warned us that it would be very difficult for us if we ever attempted to attack a policeman again. Any complaints we had should be made to him. He let us off with a warning. We always found him sympathetic towards us. On this occasion a relief was sent to replace the policeman who had provoked us.

For me life at Santiong was very dull especially after my taste of freedom in Padang. When the men had gone to work and Karim had gone to the office to collect our allowances, I helped the old men to cook as I had nothing better to do. I carried water from the bathing place for them and peeled potatoes and did other odd jobs. Sometimes I even tried my hand at cooking and proved quite good at it. Anyway, those who ate the food never complained. Rahman, the steward, Abdur Rashid, the cargo gunner and Abdul Aziz, the ship’s bhandari (cook for the ship’s crew) were given permission to work in Khaleel’s bakery, and although I was no longer able to visit him, he often sent cakes for me when they came back to camp in the evening.

When I was not helping the old men, I occupied myself in reciting the Qu’ran, as a ritual, without understanding a word; and devoting my time performing optional prayers.

My prayers began to give me a real pleasure, a pleasure that made me feel free at heart. Unfortunately, I did not have much religious knowledge, but my friend Karim taught me the rudiments of Islam. He and I became inseparable friends. We shared money and clothes, we ate together and we helped each other whenever the need arose.

Karim had become very friendly with the head clerk, Hutabarat, who gave him our daily allowance, and through him he managed to get permission for me to leave the camp during the day. I only went out on Fridays to the Mosque to join the congregation, after which Khaleel met me at a Chinese Restaurant end treated me to a cup of coffee. He would give me money to take back with me to the camp.

I do not know how anyone in my place would have felt under the circumstances. I preferred to stay in the camp and say my prayers rather than walk about the streets followed by spies and never for a moment able to escape from the war atmosphere. My prayers and my religious exercises gave me a measure of peace that I could find nowhere else. Unfortunately, the Holy Quran, available to me to read, did not have a translation. I realised that most Muslim children of my generation did not get the right type of religious education as I have already mentioned..

In Padang, under the tutelage of Jailani’s brother, the Arabic scholar, I had learned the true meaning of all the passages we recited in our prayers. I had found myself greatly attracted by my study. Now, in the prison camp I made up my mind to memorize as much as I could of the Holy Book, resolving to find out later, whenever I got the opportunity, the meaning of all the passages that I had committed to memory. From that time onward, the time I spent as a prisoner no longer appeared as a waste of my youth. So absorbed did I become in my devotion that a time came when I could not even sleep at night. I passed most of the night in prayer. From prayer I drew a tremendous amount of moral courage. It made me firm in my faith and belief in God and confirmed my resolve to live truthfully and dutifully, no matter what might happen in the future.

In October 1943 the steam tug returned from its visit to Singapore. Our men who had accompanied it were well clothed, and, as usual, they brought clothes for their relatives in the camp. Eagerly Karim and I questioned them about the progress of the war, but they were too ignorant to be able to tell us anything. The one person whom we could count on for news, Khaleque, a saloon boy who had gone on the tug as a fireman, had not returned He had met some people of his own village in Singapore and had deserted the tug Many of us were sorry that he had not returned for he was a strong and intelligent young man and very helpful in the camp. When I was very ill at Hilibadalo, he used to carry me from my bed to the lavatory He had been very keen on learning English and had joined the crowd of topasses (sweepers) when I used to give them English lessons in the jungle.

The year ended and a new one began. There was no sign of the war coming to an end and the Japanese always proclaimed that they were advancing. News was censored so effectively, that those living on the west coast of Sumatra did not even know what was happening on the east Day after day Indonesian recruits were being given intensive training and sent to the front There were many rumours about the growing force of the Indian National Army at Singapore. Thank God, Sumatra was still safe from the I.N.A. although the Indian Independence League had set up its offices in the island long ago.

Thank God, too, that the men in our camp were so ignorant that never once did the Japanese try to persuade them to join the I.N.A. The men themselves were under the impression that they might never return to India, and if they did have to go back one day, it was in the distant future. Meanwhile, they succumbed to the charms of the Indonesian girls and a few of them got married to them. Surprisingly, the Japanese officers did not mind them getting married to the locals and even gave them permission to live outside the camp. Even a khalasi who had one eye managed to get a wife. Unfortunately, she left him a few days after their marriage. News such as this amused us. From time to time poor Karim was dragged into their domestic quarrels and had a trying time settling their affairs.

While a number of the firemen were making merry with their pretty Indonesian wives, their chief, the tindal, the chief engineer on the steam tug was arrested by the Japanese for telling an Indonesian that the Allies would invade the East Indies. He had been betrayed by the Indonesian pilot, who stayed permanently on board the tug and who was a member of the Japanese secret service.

The news alarmed us a great deal because we thought he might pull us in too. Fear once again haunted me, but I kept my faith in God and prayed that all might be well. At this time certain changes took place, and a serang , who was an old man and who had managed so far to keep away from the tug, was now put in charge. A few others, who were his relatives were also taken aboard. Among them were two firemen who were very pious and good natured and not at all like the majority of the men who had been such a nuisance in the camp. None of them had ever expected to serve on the tug. It was their destiny to die at sea, for scarcely had a couple of weeks passed when the news came that the two men with their serang had been called to their eternal home.

It happened on February 6, 1944.  Karim and I were strolling up and down the yard in front of the camp and the others were sitting in groups waiting for the evening prayer, when we heard gunfire. We thought that the Japanese were practicing as they usually did. Then, old Ramzan pointed out that the shots had a rebound, which meant that they could not be blank. Karim went to the town to find out what had happened. Later in the evening we heard that the tug, with a sailing boat in tow, was leaving the harbour when an Allied submarine broke surface and sent her to the bottom of the sea. Five of our men were killed, two were injured and the rest were picked up by the Japanese. A number of Japanese soldiers lost their lives, too.

The Allies had broken the sea blockade! The sinking of the tug, tragic though it was, could only mean one thing. The news was a great blow to the Japanese who until now had managed to convince the people of the island that no Allied vessel could come within 400 miles of Sumatra. To counteract the effect of the good news on the population, the Japanese immediately staged a round-up of suspected Allied spies. Shamelessly, the Indonesian members of the secret service took pride in betraying their own countrymen and stood by while they were being beaten up by the Japanese. They submitted also, a long list of the names of all the people they thought might just possibly be spies — my own name amongst them.

The first ones to suffer in this drive, however, were the Minadoes, the Ambonese and the Javanese who had been in the Dutch army. Most of them had been employed as policemen after the Japanese occupation of Sumatra. Now they were all caught and interned. Among the internees was Suak, my friend on the tug, who I was pretty certain was not a spy.

The arrests made the whole town, especially the Chinese, feel uneasy. They were scared and kept away from the suspected. There was a worried, tense look on everyone’s face, but preparations went ahead for Pasar Malam (night carnival) to be held in the bazaar. The holding of the carnival was part of the Japanese strategy to have some sort of amusement when things were not going well on the war front—and believe me, it had a tremendous effect on the Indonesians.

We were now in the month of March. In spite of the state of unrest in the town, I was not frightened and was deeply interested in my prayers. At my request Karim tried his best to find someone who would translate the Qur’an for me. Many Indonesians knew Arabic, but I wanted to find a man with a thorough knowledge of the book. Soon after, Karim met a professor who had been to Makkah and was an Arabic scholar. Karim had been very much impressed by his learning and told me all about him. He promised to take me to him the next day so that I could have my first lesson. We chatted until midnight. I was so unmutterably happy that, at last, a way had been found for me to learn the message the Holy Qur’an had to give me.

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