Chapter 21. The Union Jack – what are the British like ?

The sun was setting as an old bus laden with passengers entered Sibolga. The public bus stand, where I was dropped off, stood at the corner of the entrance to the big bazaar. Adjacent to it, surrounded by the barbed wire, was a beautiful mosque, considered to be the finest in that part of the world.

My luggage consisted of a small bundle containing a few pieces of clothing and a pillow. Holding it under my arms, I made for the mosque knowing  Baziur Rahman, would be there at that time of the day. He received me with tears of joy.

Only prisoners such as ourselves could understand what the cessation of hostilities meant. We reviewed briefly the last four years of our lives, thinking of all those who had helped us during our difficult times. Needless to say, Khaleel topped the list of our benefactors, and it was to his house that we instinctively made our way.

On the road, we met many of our acquaintances, and all of them smiled and told me that I would be home very soon. There were some who even pointed out that it was time for me to shave my six-inch beard. Khaleel was very happy to see us, but hidden behind his happy talk I could feel a sadness that we would be leaving him soon..

The beating of the drum at the mosque told us that it was time to break our fast. Meals at Khaleel’s were always delicious, but that day, our reunion dinner seemed to taste even better. A few days later was Eid, perhaps one of the happiest ever. Happy in the complete sense of the word, not just for me or the rest of the prisoners, but for the whole population of Sibolga who celebrated the day as they had never done before.

For me, it was a day when I visited friends. A number of khalasis and firemen had married, and they urged me to come and meet their wives. There were the Indonesians I knew who called me to their houses and forced me to taste the rich food specially prepared for the occasion. All those who had never dared to speak to me before, now came up and shook my hand.

By now, I had picked up quite a lot of the Indonesian language and spoke whenever I could. Those who had never heard me speak it before wondered how I had managed to learn so much in such a short time. The festivities of Eid came to an end and the next few days saw everyone back at their jobs. I was back at Khaleel’s bakery. We now eagerly awaited the arrival of the Allied army.

The Japanese, on the other hand, seemed to have lost all the vigour they had formerly possessed. Wherever we went we saw them standing about in listless groups. All their bravado had gone and they spoke to each other in low tones. A number of them asked us what the British were like and what sort of treatment would be given to them. Some of their higher officials committed suicide. As for the military police, not one of them was to be seen and with them had vanished the Indonesian personnel of the department.

The Indonesian whose company was most sought after by all in Sibolga was the interpreter. A number of innocent citizens felt that the beatings they got from the Japanese was entirely due to him. It seemed that he was well aware of the sudden increase in his unpopularity for he disappeared soon after the cessation of hostilities. Where could he go? Too many of his own countrymen were after him, anxious to chop off his head at the first opportunity.

A Minado friend of mine, who had been in jail with me, told me that after I had left the jail, Suak had undergone the most appalling torture and had been forced to confess that he was a British spy. The Japanese executed him in the jungle outside Sibolga. With all his faults, Suak and I had been good friends.

Even after he had told the Japanese that I had been planning to escape with him, we had remained good friends. I had tried then to convince him that he was not to blame for betraying either myself or the khalasis . Poor Suak, during the last days that I had been with him in jail, he had grown very thin although he had been a very well-built young man. May his soul rest in peace.

One day the Chinese merchant who had been in jail with me invited me to a lunch which he was giving for all those who had been in jail in Sibolga — a reunion of friends of the difficult days. Twenty- five men of many different nationalities, assembled in his house and when they were all seated, I was asked to read a prayer. I read a few verses of the Qur’an and prayed for the welfare of all. My prayer was followed by a prayer from a Chinese gentleman who was a Christian. None of us found any difficulty in joining in one another’s prayer.

This was no ordinary congregation. Everyone present could offer his thanks to God for his survival. Every one of us had been through very difficult times. Each one of us could understand the other’s feelings, for we knew what it was to live and suffer. Everyone of us had discovered some virtue in humanity even at the lowest level of life. The world outside a prison camp can know nothing of what a prisoner feels and thinks.

A few mornings later, in spite of being weak, I was in Khaleel’s bakery, beating the eggs for the cake and feeling a wonderful sense of achievement as the whipped eggs rose to the top of the tub. I used to get great pleasure that my effort would evolve into something which men, women and children would eat with delight. What was my physical condition that morning which was to be a turning point in my life? I wore a shirt I was certain was given to me by Khaleel.

It was torn and well-patched. The red loongee (sarong) too, I remember, had a few patches. My face and beard was full of the cake mixture that I had been beating. Bazlur Rahman, of course, was sitting in his usual corner greasing tins and Mrs.Khaleel was helping him. Her three-year old daughter was running to and fro. Khan Sahib and Rashid were hard at work putting the finishing touches to another tub of the cake mixture. Khaleel stood near the oven door, carefully watching the fire as he prepared something very special. None of us knew that the morning would bring good news for us.

A cream-coloured Chrysler Plymouth drew up outside Khaleel’s house and we recognized it as that belonging to Toean Besar Takotchi, the Japanese Commissioner of Sibolga. His head clerk, whom I have mentioned earlier, was in the car. He came towards us, followed closely behind by Idris Meah, the man in charge of the firemen on the Chilka.

Hoetabarat, the head clerk, had picked him up from our camp. He then told us that Toean Besar Takotchi wanted to see Bazl-ur-Rahman and myself. How times had changed! He had commanded us to go to his office many a time, but never had he sent so much as a bullock cart to fetch us. But, today, there was a Plymouth to take us to the Japanese Emperor’s representative in Sibolga.

We sat at the back of that magnificently upholstered car. My clothes were far inferior to the leather covering the seat. I had forgotten how comfortable it was to sit in a luxury car. Sure enough, Takotchi was on the steps of the office, waiting to receive us. He greeted us with a smile and bowing in the typical Japanese manner, led us inside where he very politely asked us to sit on the sofa.

Still smiling, he began to talk, very softly and in the friendliest possible way. “Three British officers,” he told us, “are coming to Sibolga tomorrow to take you back to your country”. He then went on to say that we should assemble in our camp, wearing our best clothes and looking as neat and clean as possible. He said he would come himself and personally inspect us at three in the afternoon. I reminded him that for most of us our ‘best clothes’ were not much better than the ones he could see us wearing. His reply was a soft “asodiska”, which translates to “Oh! I see”.

We returned to Khaleel’s full of a joy that only our hearts could feel. I told the tindal (assistant boatswain) to round up the men and to make sure that they got to the camp at 3 p.m. I told him to get them to try and settle up any debts they owed to Indonesian friends and shop keepers. I went around myself to meet the wives of the men who had married local girls and asked them if they wanted to come with us. I found four of the seven Indonesian girls who wanted to go with their husbands. The good news of our freedom and imminent departure spread like wild fire amongst our men.

At 3 p.m. when we were all at the camp, three Japanese trucks arrived bringing shirts, trousers, shoes and socks, pillows, towels, tooth brushes and soap which the Japanese officers distributed amongst us. The shoes were very big and did not fit most of us. Although I took my share of the clothing, I continued to wear the white shirt and pyjamas given to me at Sidempuan.

The following afternoon we assembled once again at the camp with all the Japanese officers present. A little after 3 p.m. a Dodge car was driven into the camp, and we had the wonderful sight of the UNION JACK fluttering on its bonnet. The car stopped outside the camp entrance and three British officers stepped out.

They walked towards us, taking no notice whatsoever of the saluting Japanese officers. The leader, a captain in the R.A.M.C (Royal Army Medical Corp) faced us and began speaking to us in very good Urdu. He told us that we would be taken to Padang by car the following morning, and from there would be flown to Singapore and on to India. He next inspected the very sick prisoners and met the four Indonesian wives, giving them permission to travel with us.

That night I took Khaleel to visit Captain Edwards and his colleagues in the bungalow where they were spending the night. Khaleel had baked a nice big cake which he presented to Captain Edwards. I took the opportunity to relate to the captain all that happened and the most gallant part that Khaleel and other Indians living in Sibolga, Padang and Sidempuan had played.

They had all helped in their own way when we were in need. Captain Edwards very kindly wrote a letter addressed to the person concerned in the Allied Command who was to take charge of Sibolga. He related what I had mentioned to him about Khaleel so that he would be given all the help and support he required.

The following morning eight trucks stood outside our camp, and men and women from all parts of Sibolga swarmed the streets to bid us farewell. At 9 a.m. the British officers gave orders for us to board the trucks. I lined the men up and as I called out their names, they got on to the truck. Getting them boarded was no easy matter. Each one of them, on his way to the truck, shook hands with as many of the people as possible.

Everything was moving along quite well until a shriek attracted my attention. It came from an old lady, the mother of Asma, one of the local brides accompanying us. She was hanging on to her daughter for dear life. “My daughter shall not go to India”, she screamed. Asma was trying her best to free herself from her mother’s embrace and she too was crying her head off.

All the other brides had taken their seats and now the old lady turned to me, pleading with me to let Asma remain with her. I could not interfere. I told her that if she had not wanted Asma to leave her, then she should not have given her in marriage to an Indian. It was obvious that the girl wanted to accompany her husband. She twisted herself free of her mother and rushed towards the truck where her husband was sitting and quickly boarded it.

At exactly 10 a.m. when we were ready and the captain could give the order for the trucks to move, the Japanese drivers obeyed with alacrity and immediately the first truck moved forward, the others following at correct intervals. The starting of the trucks was a signal for a great cheer from the Indonesians. As we drove through the streets lined everywhere with people, there were cries of “Selamat Djalan. Selamat Djalan”, (Go in peace).

Captain Edwards had told me to accompany him in his car after all the trucks had left. I shook hands with the people pressing around the car and then climbed on to the back seat with Lt.Prosser. The captain himself was at the wheel. Toean Takotchi had gone ahead to see that everything was in order for the trucks to pass and we saw him on his way back. He stopped his car and when I got out of the car to shake hands with him, he wished me the best of luck, adding that he was glad to hand us over to the British officers. We had, he said, been a fearful responsibility. Now that he had got rid of us he was feeling light hearted and happy.

We arrived at noon in Sidempuan and I went straight to Hakim Sahib’s house. There was just enough time for a quick lunch with Gani and the rest of the family. I managed to see as many of my friends as I could. I found that Abbas’ wife was very ill and at my request, Captain Edwards went into see her. There was very little hope for life, he told me later, and she was much too ill to be moved or he would have had her flown to a hospital in India.

It was at Sidempuan that I had spent the last part of my stay in peace and tranquility. I was emotionally moved as I bid goodbye to all those who had been part of my life there; those who had gone out of their way to make me feel at home. Of course, there was Khaleel who had followed our convoy to Sidempuan. He was in tears, just as I was, when we bade each other farewell. His sad little figure faded away in the distance as those of the many who kept waving to us.

That night we halted at a small town, Kotanopan. Arrangements had been made so that our food and a meal was awaiting us in the empty police barracks which was to be our living quarters too, for the night. Early the next morning we began a drive that was to last the whole day. We stopped for a short while on the way. Captain Edwards stopped the car beneath a shady tree, just long enough for us to eat a few tins of our ‘K’ rations. Then, on again to overtake the trucks just before our arrival in Boekit Tinngi at 5 p.m. We ordered tea for everyone in a hotel, and then the trucks moved off to Padang.

Abdul Karim had been awaiting our arrival in Boekit Tinngi. When the convoy of trucks left for Padang, Captain Edwards very kindly allowed me to stay back with Karim for a night. It enabled me to meet Karim’s friends and see something of this beautiful hill station the next day before leaving for Padang.

In Padang the central jail had been cleared of all convicts and turned into a transit camp for recovered prisoners of war. We were accommodated quite comfortably. During our stay I was very happy to see Jailani and his family once again, as well as other friends who had helped me. I do not remember how long we were there. Every day three or four aeroplanes with loads of British and Australian prisoners were flown to Singapore.

Suddenly, one evening we were informed to get ready to move the following morning. A couple of days before we were instructed not to move out of the camp as there was trouble in the city. There were protests by the Indonesian movement for independence. We learnt that the situation had become quite grave and extra planes were used to evacuate us as soon as possible. Karim and I were most disappointed as we were deprived of the opportunity to say goodbye to our friends, especially Jailani and his family who had been so kind to me and had given me shelter when I had needed it the most.

The next morning a fleet of buses took us to the airport where three Dakota aircraft were waiting to fly us. This was going to be my first airplane flight and I felt very excited. It was unbelievable that, at last, I was on my way home!

In two hours we had arrived at Singapore. We were met by members of the NAAFI organisation who distributed cigarettes and sweets amongst us. We were driven by trucks to Buller’s camp, the transit camp for Indians recovered from Japanese-occupied territories. We met our comrades who had been flown out before us.

The following morning a major general of the British Army addressed us. When the address was over and I was walking back to my quarters, a very handsome young captain of the Indian Army walked up to me and said :“Assalamu Alaikum, Maulana Sahib”. I recognized him immediately. What a coincidence that with hundreds of people moving around I should meet someone who knew me. What was even more amazing was that he had recognized me in spite of my beard and my appearance which had no similarity to what I looked like before the war.

It was Shamim Yazdani, someone from Calcutta whom I knew very well. I had first met him at Uncle Nooruddin’s and later accompanied him to watch hockey matches at the maidan. He was a very good hockey goal keeper. He hugged me heartily and introduced me to Squadron Leader Quddus of the Indian Air Force who was with him. Both were posted as public relations officers in their respective services.

It was for the first time, after over three and a half years, I was getting first-hand information about my parents and other members of the family. I remember asking him specifically if my maternal grandfather (Nawabzada Khwaja Atiqullah) was alive, and I was sorry to learn that he had passed away earlier that year. After he had answered as many questions as he could, he said he would send a cable as soon as possible to inform my family that I was alive, safe and well.

He came that evening with Quddus and another friend and with permission from the Camp Commandant, took me out for dinner. The other friend was M.H.Askari who later became a public relations officer for the Pakistan Navy and retired as a commander. He was a highly respected journalist in Karachi. He passed away a few years ago.

Meanwhile, batches of men from the transit camp were sent to India everyday by air or by sea. After two weeks my turn had not yet come. Shamim used his influence with the Camp Commandant who put me in charge of a batch of soldiers who were being flown to Madras by a sea plane. Unfortunately, the plane could not take off that morning due to bad weather and my departure was further delayed. We waited in another transit camp. Eventually, we were flown to Rangoon via Kuala Lampur and Penang.

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