Smuggling to Survive
by Bart van Nooten
After supper, my mother left the room to do the dishes in the sink that we shared with 18 other people in the house in the civilian prison camp. My younger brother and I remained sitting at the table under the only window. The room had been partitioned off into two sections by means of a large, freestanding clothes closet. In one section my mother had her bed, a creaky, wooden affair, hammered together in a hurry by an inexperienced carpenter. It was covered with a thick mattress filled with kapok. My younger brother and I slept on the other side of the partition on the floor on a mattress which we rolled up by day. Mealtimes were the highlights of the day, and especially supper meant a plate of warm food. The food was prepared in a central soup kitchen in massive iron cauldrons heated over a wood fire, inside a large open enclosure built of thick bamboo posts and covered with dried palm leaves. The camp contained largely women, girls, and boys below the age of 13. Older boys were periodically rounded up by the authorities and shipped out to men's camps. That had happened to my older brother, who had turned 13 the year before. One morning, he bravely took leave from us and marched to the gate to join the other boys that had to leave. We did not hear from him until after the war, two years later.
The mealtimes were special because we were always hungry. We were not allowed to cook, and we got highly inadequate food from the soup kitchen. Close to mealtime, we children had to collect the meals from the soup kitchen in a saucepan which we gingerly carried home, where my mother would carefully scoop the contents onto three plates. The food was usually soup with a little rice. The rice was good, but the soups I remember were terrible. One reason for that was that the Japanese had hired Indonesian contractors to supply the camp with produce and meat, but these people skimmed a lot of the money that they received to buy the food. They gave us the absolute cheapest swill they could get away with. If one of us happened to find a tiny piece of meat in the soup it was greeted with great glee, although it rarely amounted to more than a sliver of cow gut, boiled to a stringy pulp. We were obsessed with dreams of eating. At times, I ruefully recalled how before the war I had tossed part of a sandwich I did not like into the wastebasket during lunchtime at school. How could I have done such a foolish thing? I am sure everybody in the camp had similar regrets.
My mother was a very important person in our lives. We were one of five families living in this little five-room house and although we children got along well with one another, the pressure of the confinement often told on the adults. The atmosphere was very important. In the colonial life society was rigidly stratified, with money being the main criterion of superiority, and social position another. Skin colour was not too important in the Dutch East Indies. The Japanese army, of course, could not care less about the precious Dutch customs and had herded everybody who was even remotely white into an area of the town where they could confine us within a high barbed wire fence and a second fence made of woven bamboo, so that we could not look in the "free world," nor could we be seen by the Indonesians. Within our house we had women from every class of society and every rank of the military. My mother, who prided herself on having married a dentist, often sensed slights and barbs that were a puzzle to us children. But she took her child-raising duties very seriously and fought like a lioness to get our share of the dole.
The food situation grew worse. My brother John got very thin and I myself suffered bouts of a terrible dysentery which put me in the hospital for a week. Medicines were largely unavailable and the nights I lay awake on my crib with the terrible cramps raging through my guts and my mother powerlessly praying by my bedside can never be forgotten.
In despair, she set out to try and smuggle food in from outside the camp. It was a dangerous undertaking, but it led to some of the best memories I have of that period. Through contacts here and there she managed to send a note to our former housemaid who was living outside the camp. The woman in turn found a young man who was willing to smuggle food into the camp if he got paid in silver, gold or jewellery. Those commodities were actually contraband and the Japanese held periodic unannounced searched to find hidden caches. During these raids they would order everybody, sick or healthy, to line up on the street outside their house. A patrol of soldiers would then go through the whole house, overturning cabinets and lamps, cutting open mattresses, looking inside cupboards while collecting anything of value. So it would seem impossible for any internee to still have gold or silver left to pay the smugglers. Nevertheless, some women, including my mother, had devised ways to conceal a few precious objects. When we moved into the camp, my mother had brought with her a bar of solid gold, weighing one kilogram and measuring perhaps two inches by four inches. It shone with a powerful gleam and helped to reassure us that after the war we would still be rich. At first she had found a crack inside the cupboard door to hide it in, but after a few Japanese raids she realized her luck was not going to hold out. So after a palaver with us children one evening, she announced: "You kids have to look after the gold bar!" We did not know what she meant, but the next morning she found a little red paint and a paint brush and painted the gold bar a brilliant red. She let it dry and placed it in our box of toys, which contained also wooden blocks of a similar appearance. The Japanese soldiers never noticed it.
With us getting hungrier and sick, however, she decided to use part of the bar to pay the smugglers. She managed to cut it into smaller pieces. All we had to do was wait for the smugglers. They were supposed to come at night and would enter through a large sewer pipe that stretched the length of the camp. The Japanese, in fact, had blocked it with barbed wire, but that had been some time ago and it was getting rotten. With a little effort one could crawl through it. The risk the smugglers took was enormous. If they were caught they would have been beheaded publicly. But they were poor and could sell the gold to rich Chinese merchants or exchange it for clothes.
Then it happened one night that my brother was woken up by a soft tap-tap-tap noise on the wooden window shutter. My mother had heard it too and came from around her side of the partition to ask in a low voice: "Siapa itu?" (Who is there?). An equally low voice identified the tapper as a certain Musa, who had been sent by our former housemaid. Slowly, my mother opened the shutter, still afraid of a trap. It was a pitch-dark night, new moon no doubt. She lit a match and the light fell on the white teeth of the grinning face of a giant of a man, stark naked, covered with black grease and, best of all, lugging a huge bundle of unidentified goods on his back. He had a smaller helper with him who also carried a bundle.
We cleared away our mattress and the men climbed through the window and put their bundles down. Then the bargaining started. They carefully unrolled one bundle which contained a huge slab of smoked bacon, several pounds of coffee, sugar, canned sweetened milk, rolls of native tobacco and a number of foodstuffs that I cannot recall anymore, nor can I remember what was in the other bundle. It was like the scene of the smugglers' cave in the book Treasure Island, except that food was the treasure here and the gold carelessly changed hands.
The smugglers came back once more after that and thereafter we never heard from them. We had feasts for many days to come and shared the loot with a few select friends. It probably helped us survive the next few months when the food situation deteriorated even more. Personally, the incident had one lasting beneficial effect on my life, because a few days after the first smugglers' visit I thought I would try out the tobacco when my mother was not in the room. I did not realize that this was raw and very strong tobacco, for I had read so many stories of manly pirates and sturdy Dutch sailors who chewed tobacco constantly that, at age 12, this use of tobacco might have looked like a shortcut to manhood. Unfortunately, just as I was chewing a rather substantial wad, my mother came in. I knew what was going to happen if she knew the truth. Her house slipper had a sting to it, as I had found out before. So I just turned to the wall and swallowed the wad. Needless to say I got violently sick, threw up and since that day have always loathed tobacco.
Story copyright © Bart van Nooten, 2005, 2010
All text on this site copyright © 2005, 2010 by Ria Koster, except as otherwise noted.