by Theo Hanrath
This is the story of a seven-year old boy who was living in the city of Palembang on the island of Sumatra when the Second World War broke out. One day, as a normal outing, this boy was riding on his little scooter to his friend who was living only a couple of blocks away when the reality of war was at hand, the air raid sirens went off and, within a few minutes, there were the Japanese planes overhead followed by Dutch fighter planes, resulting in a complete dog fight, to the amazement and excitement of this little boy who thought this was a wonderful experience — until the bullets hit the pavement in front of him.
Not knowing the dangers involved, he went hiding in the nearest garden hedge, and it was at that moment he realized that this was a first encounter with an absolute war event.
The Japanese invaded Palembang's harbour on Sumatra in February 1941 and quickly secured the island after bitter fighting cleared. The boy and his mother, together with his three younger sisters, travelled east to the island of Java. First to an uncle's sugar plantation near the city of Tegal where they stayed for approximately four months, then to the mountainous city of Bandung in West Java, and finally to a bungalow on the outskirts of Bandung. The youngest child was just one year old.
The mother noticed that the Japanese military were picking up people left, right and centre, randomly. She made little backpacks for each of the children with lots of goodies, so if picked up, they had all the necessities on hand.
Knowing that the soldiers were stripping colonials of all their belongings, the mother hid her jewellery and money, including her wedding band, in the stuffing of the boy's tiny teddy bear. She told the boy to keep that bear with him at all times, but he did not know the reason why at that time.
Then one day a dump truck drove up and parked outside their bungalow and, after breaking down the front door, the Japanese soldiers stripped the family of all their valuables and ordered them into the truck. But the Japanese soldiers let the children keep the knapsacks and the teddy bear.
The whole family was transported to the local jail and stayed there under the most horrible conditions for about three weeks, after which the boy was separated from his mother and sent to a concentration camp called Tjikudapateuh, a well-known, horrifying place. He immediately went into a hunter-and-scavenger mode, soon "liberating" a woven mat, called a tikar, to sleep on.
The new internees were quickly put to work, and the wiry boy, small for his age, was assigned lighter labour — stuffing sandbags, collecting garbage and doing road repairs.
Soon, he acquired a new nickname, Jangkrik, which is Malay for cricket. He was very skinny, small, fearless and fast. So fast, that he once stole some food from under the noses of Japanese guards who had fallen asleep after eating.
The boy sneaked up on them and nabbed a piece of meat, some rice and a bottle of sake wine — at least, he thought. But when the Jangkrik was far enough away to safely take a swig, he nearly spat it out. It was soy sauce. "But it came in very handy," the Jangkrik laughs, "when we caught some birds or animals we could cook them in it."
It was in this camp that the Jangkrik met his mentor: an Australian soldier he knew only as Jones. Jones had been badly beaten by guards, and the young boy looked after him. In turn, Jones taught the Jangkrik how to read and write, both forbidden activities in the camp.
After several months, the boy learned that his mother was in a camp close by, so close in fact that only a two-lane road separated them. He tried all kinds of ways to get across, which was totally impossible. Then one day, he was sitting in his barracks and noticed a manhole on the footpath. The manhole was just big enough for a child to get through.
The Jangkrik was young, so he really didn't see the danger in things. He lifted the lid off the manhole and went into the sanitary sewer, and phew! It was smelly, full of rats and sanitary waste. But he wanted to see where that pipe went. He came to a fork in the pipe, guessed at the direction and decided to go straight ahead. At the end he saw another manhole cover, lifted it carefully and found himself in a corner of the women's camp Tjihapit. The reunion with his mother was one of muted joy. He learned that she'd managed to provide for her daughters despite a broken knee — and that his sister still had his teddy bear.
He travelled through the sewer pipes several times until he decided it was safer to stop before he would get caught. He had witnessed brutal acts in these camps: civilians being used as bayonet targets, in Tjihapit he saw women whipped to death with a cat-o'-nine-tails, and men having their skulls slowly crushed in Tjikudapateuh. The worst happened when, one day, he had climbed to his favourite lookout on top of the camp's eight-foot wall. Hidden behind a tree, he saw the Japanese beheading two POWs with samurai swords. The Jangkrik never was sick when he went into the sewer, but he was when he climbed down from that wall.
Soon after, word spread in whispers throughout the camp that the internees were going to be moved to another camp by train. The men and boys were lined up and told to march along the railroad tracks, tracks that many of the Allied POWs had been forced to repair during the war.
"There were so many POWs and boys — and not many Japanese guarding," the Jangkrik remembers. The wily Jangkrik watched as his mentor, Jones, slipped into the brush — this was the last time he saw Jones — then he himself blended in with the group of women and children working by the side of the railroad. "I was hoping they would go back to the same concentration camp as my mother," says the Jangkrik. "Luckily, they did. And a happy reunion followed at the Tjihapit concentration camp."
That little boy called the Jangkrik was me — Theo Hanrath.
Story copyright © Theo Hanrath, 2005, 2010
All text on this site copyright © 2005, 2010 by Ria Koster, except as otherwise noted.