Chapter 17. In the Sibolga Central Jail with Convicts – Number 5

MAN proposes and God disposes. How true the saying is! But, we must remember that the Lord Almighty, the Supreme Ruler of the universe, knows a lot more than we do about what is best for us. He is the best of all planners, and although we may think that by not fulfilling our wishes the Almighty’s dispositions are not in our best interests, in retrospect the change had been for the better. So it had been for me; in spite of all the hardships I had undergone, I still am of the opinion that it had all been for my good.

I went to sleep that night with the thought that I should awaken with the happy feeling that I was going to the Arabic professor to learn something which had for me become an obsession. Something else was in store for me — something not at all pleasant.

I had slept for just four hours when I was woken by someone tapping my feet. For a moment I could not believe what I was seeing. I sat up with a jerk. My early visitors were eight members of the Japanese military police. One of them, apparently the leader, held a torch in his hand and a long roll of paper with names written on it. He made sure that I was the person he was looking for and then asked me to follow him.

He gave me just enough time to put on my trousers — I was sleeping in my shirt and under pants — and to grab my loongi (sarong) and a black Malayan cap. While all this was going on, the rest of the men woke up, and Karim, who was sleeping next to me, sat up and looked aghast. I wondered what thoughts were flashing through his mind at that moment. One of the Japanese soldiers jumped up on the machan where I was sleeping and threw the pillow aside to see if I had any secret papers underneath it. Having satisfied themselves that I had none, they led me out of the hut.

Out in the open there were 15 soldiers, their guns with fixed bayonets aimed at us. One of them held a Chinese man whom I recognised later to be Lohot, a clerk in the shipping office. They tied my hands behind my back with a strong rope and led the two of us into the street.

“NOW” I said to myself, “What have I done wrong? Where have I slipped up?” I thought and thought, over and over again, but could not decide what crime I had committed. It was in the early hours of the morning and still very dark; the street was deserted save for our small party. The houses on both sides were locked and not a beam of light came from anywhere. There was not a soul in sight. All our neighbours who had always smiled whenever I passed them and had consoled and told me to have patience, were now asleep while the Orangpooti (white man), as they called me, was taken prisoner.

Our party stopped half-way down the street and some of the soldiers surrounded a house while the officers went and knocked at the front door. They called at the inmates to collect a telegram. But the inmates were very clever. The man tried to run away, while his wife kept shouting, “Wait, I am opening the door”. Postmen at night have no patience, they believe in breaking in the door! The Chinaman was caught before he could jump out of the back window. Had he jumped any way, he would have found armed soldiers to greet him. Now there was one more of us. Obviously, the Japanese were rounding up the last of the suspects whose names had been given to them by the Indonesian secret service.

I could not understand why this calamity had befallen me. I tried to think of the sins I might have committed that Allah should punish me in this way. It could not have happened. I reminded myself, unless the Lord had willed it. I resolved instead to be patient and ask His forgiveness and pray for deliverance from the hands of the Japanese.

I made up my mind that whatever might happen,I would remain true and faithful to the Lord, my Creator. I realised that I might be taken to a cell and never see the sun rise again. How then would I know the direction of the Ka’ba (the Sacred House, which is a rectangular building) in Makkah, (Saudi Arabia) towards which Muslims, wherever they may be, bow  and prostrate while performing their daily prayers.? I forgot all of my other worries and concentrated on remembering the direction of Makkah, every time we took a turn, which is towards the west from Sumatra.the west.

We were taken to the office of the military police, where a high-ranking Japanese officer registered our names and gave orders to the soldiers to unfasten the ropes with which our hands were tied. A soldier was told to take me away. He held a rifle with one hand and with the other, he held my wrist as tight as he could. I wondered where we were bound for and I quickly found out. There was the jail ahead of us. How often had I walked past it when I was still working on the tug! Khaleel’s house was near it and I had seen the convicts many times being taken out for work in the morning and brought back again after work in the evening. I had never dreamt that those massive gates would one day close behind me.

Bismillahir Rahman nir Rahim”, (In the name of God, most gracious most merciful) I said as I stepped inside the gate. In the office, a grim-faced Japanese officer told me to hand over my wrist watch and purse. My purse was empty, but I felt very sorry to part with my watch for I had got it after three years of hard work. It was a prize I received for being the “Best Signaller” in the Dufferin in 1941. It is amazing how this watch remained intact and nothing happened to it although I had burns on my hands and forearms. It left a mark on my wrist. As far as I remember, someone took it off in the lifeboat and put it inside the pocket of the white shorts that I was wearing at the time. My name and the inscription “best signaller” were inscribed at the back of it.

Two Japanese soldiers and an Indonesian took charge of me and told me to get out of the office. The Indonesian had a heavy bunch of keys which he swung to and fro, and looked very important as he opened the big door of Room No.1. This was the largest of the twelve rooms inside the jail. As soon as I went in, the door shut behind me. The room had high walls on all sides and there was a little opening near the ceiling through which I could see the dawn breaking. There was a window with iron bars facing the front but it was shut.  

I was not the only occupant of the massive cell; two Eurasians had had the honour of entering it before me. We greeted each other with a smile and I took up a place in the north-west corner of the room. All along the north and west sides of the wall there were six-inch planks. There were cane mats to sleep on, but no pillows or blankets. Dawn had broken, and it was time for morning prayers. I faced the Ka’ba and performed ,Fajr, the morning prayer..

When the morning sun was well above the horizon, and the men, women and children in every nook and corner of Sibolga were wide awake, the front window of our room was opened to let in the sun’s rays without which human beings would wilt and fade away. We were to have sun shine in our grim prison and surprisingly, fresh water. In one corner of the room was a big tub with a tap. There was fresh water for drinking and washing, and a big wooden pot for sanitary purposes. Things could have been a lot worse, I thought to myself, not knowing how many of us were soon to be living in that one room.

While I was engrossed in my prayers, a few more suspects were brought in. When it was bright daylight, suspected spies came by the droves. Every five or ten minutes we would hear the jingling of the keys and then the door would open to let in one, two or even more prisoners at a time. They were well-to-do young men, working in the local post office.

I could not help being amused at the weird assortment of clothing worn by the prisoners: some in under pants, others in shorts or loongies (sarongs). I could tell from the look of bewilderment on their faces that their arrest had, like my own, been absolutely unexpected. We could not talk to each other, as the Japanese soldier guarding our door had given strict orders that there should be no talking or whispering.

Later in the morning all the occupants of Room 1 were taken to the little office inside the jail where our height and weight were taken. We were each given a number to pin on to our shirts and were told that in future our numbers would be used instead of our names. My number was 5.

In order to make the narrative easier, I should explain the way the Japanese cross-examine a prisoner, The Japanese military police, better known  as Kempe Tai, are officers who deal with crime and secret service work. They are the men who inflict punishment on prisoners, and they have the right to punish any soldier of the Japanese Army to maintain discipline. They are a fierce-looking band and even the Japanese soldiers are frightened of them. In Sumatra, they had a very big organisation with headquarters at Boekit Tingi, the capital.

When the Steam Tug Tapanuli Maru was sunk by an Allied submarine, and that too so close to the port of Sibolga in the province of Tapanuli, Japanese intelligence officers from all over Sumatra, and some from Singapore, were summoned to assemble in Sibolga to investigate into the cause of the disaster. They worked in pairs, each pair being responsible for cross examining 10 to 12 prisoners. The investigation was speeded up considerably. Cross examination  o suspects was held either in the office of the military police, or actually in the houses where the officers were staying. A truck would call at the prison gate to collect prisoners and then drop them off at the houses of their respective examiners.

All 12 rooms in the jail were now occupied – the twelfth room by two Minado women. Prisoners were housed in such a way that no two persons, connected in the same case, could see or talk to each other. The practice of using numbers instead of names was intended to prevent people in the other rooms knowing who was being cafled. While a prisoner was being taken out of a room, the windows of all other rooms were kept shut.

The prisoners were divided into two groups: people who were suspected of being individual spies, (in which category I belonged) and those who were accused of running a secret service organisation for the Allies, in which were soldiers of the ex-Dutch army and a few wealthy Chinamen. Some of them, like my friend Suak, had friends in both groups..

We were all assembled, each with a number, each sitting in his allotted place, each waiting for the dreaded summons, and each with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. In my case, this was caused less by anxiety than by hunger, for we had not eaten anything that morning. That other people were feeling the same could be seen by their faces, which lit up every time the jingling of the bunch of keys was heard. At last the door opened and instead of the usual frightened suspect, in came two convicts, carrying several metal bowls. In each bowl was a handful of rice, some boiled leaves and two pieces of tapioca root which tasted rather like potatoes. The rice contained a quantity of salt so little as to be negligible.

I received my plate with a terima kasih (thank you), and began to eat what I had been given. It was not the first time that I had eaten this kind of food. I was the youngest in the room, just twenty years old, and  felt that I had more experience than the others, many of whom looked at their plates and burst into tears. Some ate up the tapioca and left the rice and leaves and then began to cry. Very few of them finished the whole plate. I had no mug for drinking water, so I went to the tub and washed my hands in the plate. I drank the water left over which I could not bear to throw away. Then, sitting in my corner, I thanked Allah for the food I had been given.

In the afternoon six more men, brought in from Sibolga, entered our room. Three of them were wealthy Chinese merchants, one was a Batak policeman and of the two others, one was a farmer and the other a very old zamindar (Agriculturist). The old man joined me in prayer; and within a few days I had many companions. Some of the young men who had stayed away from me at the beginning were now in need of the comfort and solace of religion. Once they were inside the jail they needed prayer to sustain them. Our last meal was served at four in the afternoon, the same sort of meal that we had had at eleven.

As the days went by, there was to be the same deterioration in quality, the same total disappearance of salt as in my previous experiences as a prisoner. Every evening, just before sun set, the jailers would come into our room to count us, and we would be given an opportunity to fill up our tub with fresh water from the tap outside. We had to empty and clean the wooden pot so that we could use it during the night. For these duties we organised ourselves in pairs, each pair taking turns at filling up the tub or cleaning the dirty pot.

The first night, after I had finished my evening prayers, I settled down to get some sleep. The cane mat on which I lay was not long enough for me as it measured only four feet by two-and-a- half. A good portion of my legs stuck out on the wooden plank. I had no pillows and rested my head on my black, half an inch thick Malayan cap. At times I tried laying my head on my arms, but then my circulation would not function properly.

It was fairly cold and I had no blankets to cover myself. My loongyi served the purpose to a certain extent. There was dead silence in the room, but still sleep would not come. The electric light burned all night long which made sleep even more difficult. My thoughts wandered back to Santiong, I remembered everyone there, “How,” I wondered, “was Abdul Karim?” What good friends we had become and now we were separated, not knowing when, if at all, we would meet again!

My thoughts went back a little further, beyond Hilibadalo and Goonoongsitoli, beyond Sister Hank Visker and the village hospital, even beyond the Chilka. I pictured myself in Calcutta, at home with my parents and my brothers and sisters. What would they be thinking? Most probably they had given me up for dead. Yet, I was alive, alive but in deadly peril. Would 1 ever get back to them? How could I get back to them when there was no hope of escaping from here?

I realised suddenly that 1 was allowing myself to become a victim of futile thoughts. Had I forgotten my Maker? Forgotten God, the Beneficent and Merciful, who had kept me alive on a lifeboat when I was badly wounded and without food for six days. He, who had rescued me from death in the jungles of Nias, who had been with me throughout the last three years, never allowing me to be hungry even when I had no means of buying food. Now, because another calamity had befallen me, should I forget Him? “No,” I said to myself vehemently, “1 must look to Him for help and guidance. I then closed my eyes and prayed to Him:

“0 Lord, the Most High, the Most Gracious and Merciful, there is no other God but You — the One and the True. 0 Lord, who hath power over all things, have mercy on me; give me, I beseech Thee, the moral courage and patience to bear whatever comes my way without betraying my faith in You. 0 Lord, forgive me for my past deeds, for You are Most Merciful and Forgiving. I am yet young; let me return to my parents once again: give me the chance to live in this world and serve You as best I can. 0 Maker of the Earth and the Heavens, have Mercy on my comrades who are sharing my misfortunes and save us all from the hands of these tormentors, and may no other soul — not even my worst enemy — fall into the clutches of these evil people. 0 Lord, I pray to Thee to show me the right path and help me keep myself away from all sins: send me consolation so that I may be cheerful even inside this jail”.

I had tears in my eyes as I prayed, but I felt relief and contentment fill me as though a heavy load had been lifted from my body. I fell into a deep sleep.

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