Chapter 19. Walking out of the Sibolga Central Jail with Haji Zain-ul-Abedeen

It was the end of September, 1944. Ramadhan had come and gone. We had prayed for freedom but we were still behind prison bars. However, it was the 1st of October , 1944, we were getting ready for our midday meal, when the door opened and the jailor announced that the four of us were to report to the jail office with the cane mat and the jug supplied to us by the jail. As we entered the office, I was surprised to see Haji Zain-ul-Abedin, a prominent and wealthy Indian of Sibolga, sitting next to a  Japanese officer. On seeing us, this officer stood up and  taking his sword out of the scabbard, told us  in an angry voice that if we ever contemplated an escape we would be executed. In future, he said, the Haji would be responsible for us and we were to listen to him. We then followed Haji Zain-ul-Abedin out of the office — free men again.

While walking towards the Santiong camp Haji Zain-al-Abedeen told me that he had been called by this high ranking Japanese officer and told that there was no further need to keep us in the jail, and that, we should join the other prisoners. They were taking this action, he was told, with the hope that the Haji would take full responsibility for our conduct and behaviour. The kind and thorough gentleman that the Haji was, he agreed to take that responsibility, which he did, only to help us get out of the jail.

Before we reached Santiong, we met some of our men working on the road. A few women from the neighbouring houses rushed out to greet us. They offered us fruits and sweets and shook hands with us as was the custom there. Later, we met all the other prisoners and every one of them gave me some money. We saw our ship’s barber Sikander who had opened a shop in the town and was doing well. He came to see me. I had my head shaved clean but left my beard six inches long. The problem of food was settled in no time by Khaleel. Once again that good and generous man did everything in his power to help me. Fearing for his safety, I did not go to his place, but, he kept in touch with all that happened to me and sent me food twice a day.

What could I have done without that food I do not know. I had grown too weak to go out to work to earn my living as the other prisoners were doing. Khaleel sometimes sent me sweets for my breakfast bought from a hawker. Very often a small boy from the neighbourhood would bring me something and say his mother had sent it for me.

We had four Brahmin (High cast Hindus) sweetmeat makers on board the Chilka to cater for the deck passengers. Mahabir Singh was the oldest and the cleanest. I gladly accepted whatever he gave me. All four of them had had a very tough time, but from the beginning Abdul Karim had looked after them. As no Brahmin eats food cooked by people of a different caste or religion, this amazingly good organizer had seen to it that they got the right food in the camp. He had arranged for them to be given dry rations which they cooked themselves in their own pots and pans.

After a couple of months, when I had gained some strength, I thought it was not correct that 1 continued to receive food from Khaleel without doing anything in return for him. When he assured me he had no objection to my going to his house, I went along every morning to help him in the bakery. The old gentleman of great humour, Abdul Jalil, better known to us as Khan Sahib, entertained us with his poetry. He was considered the best baker in Tapanuli and his cheerful company did much toward hastening my complete recovery.

By the middle of November, 1944 life at the camp had taken a decided turn for the better for all of us. Sadly, old Ramazan passed away at the age of sixty-six. He was sick and in hospital for two months before he died. There was no white cloth to make his shroud and none could be found in the bazaar. Eventually, an Indonesian agreed to sell us some privately for a 100 guilders a yard. Rahman had saved some money and he paid 300 guilders for three yards of white cloth. Under ordinary circumstances it was worth no more than 20 guilders. Old Ramazan had to be buried in a burial ground reserved for convicts, but at least we were able to get him a shroud.

A few days later, the Japanese ordered us to move into another camp as Santiong would in future be used for government coolies. Fortunately, the new camp was not much further away. By this time, most of the men were doing private business in the bazaar, some selling peanuts and others working in a Japanese-controlled sawmill. 1 was working for Khaleel.

Khaleel continued to provide me with my food, but he did not have enough room in his house for me to sleep. When Ishaque, one of the better class of khalasis, opened a coffee shop I asked him to let me stay in it instead of in the camp. Ishaque lived alone and welcomed the idea. Every evening after my last prayer which I said in the mosque, I would go to his shop and help him serve coffee and sweets to his customers. When the shop closed, I laid my mat and pillow on one of his tables and went to sleep. I was becoming a restaurateur as well as a baker!

The beginning of 1945 saw the Japanese making elaborate preparations for the defence of the island. Around Sibolga they made use of every bit of rock and hill to install heavy guns aimed at enemy troops trying to land there. Everyone was afraid that if the Allies did attempt to occupy the island, the whole town would be blown to bits. Once or twice we did have air raid warnings and Allied planes flew over us but did not do any damage.

It was at this time that I met a Japanese sergeant whom I had once met at Khaleel’s bakery where he had come to buy bread.. Thereafter, whenever he saw me he made it a point to have a brief chat with me. He spoke English fairly well. I had met a few others who, like him, were civilians before the war and were familiar with well-known English songs popular at that time. A couple of them showed me photographs of their wives and children in Tokyo. They had no hesitation in expressing how very sorry they were that a war was on and we were on opposite sides. There were occasions at Sibolga, when I was aboard the Tapanuli Maru, when we sat and sang famous English songs together. However, it seemed that the war situation had taken an adverse turn for the Japanese. One day the sergeant was on a bicycle and saw me walking on the road. He stopped and asked me how I was and in a voice, scarcely above a whisper, told me that he dared not be seen speaking to me in English. He looked very frightened, said good-bye and rode away.

My chief affliction at the time was a skin disease which had spread all over my body. It had started as ringworm in the jungles of Nias, and had become chronic while I was in jail. Shortly after I got out of jail, a visitor to Khaleel’s, Abbas Mohammad, a Punjabi merchant from Sidempuan, 60 miles from Sibolga, knew the chief medical officer at the hospital in Sibolga. He very kindly took me to a doctor who treated me with a series of intravenous injections. Unfortunately, they had little effect.

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