Slave to the Japanese: Nonagenarian tells Malaysians to cherish freedom, peace and harmony

Badrul Kamal Zakaria

MUAR: Samsudin Yatim knows what it feels like to be a slave, to be without even basic freedoms and forced to work without pay.

Even at 93, with more than seven decades having passed, he remembers everything clearly: the backbreaking work, the shortage of food, the complete absence of any sort of medicine, the deaths which occurred all around him.

“Our lives were torturous. My friends and I were made into slaves by the Japanese Imperial Army in New Britain Island (in the Bismarck Archipelago of Papua New Guinea) during World War 2.

“There were about 1,000 of us who were forced to open up farms on the island to provide food for the army of the Land of the Rising Sun. Our lives then is hard to explain in words.”

Samsudin said he was rounded up by the Japanese early in 1942, when the Imperial Army arrived in Muar.

When Singapore fell, he and the others were taken there.

“At first, they told us that we would be working for the army, but they actually meant that we would be their slaves. We were brought to Singapore in their warships. There were about 1,000 of us, men and women... Malay, Chinese, Indian.

“From there, we were taken to Sumatera, Tanjung Periuk and Surabaya, then to Palau before ending up in New Britain. I stayed on New Britain throughout the remainder of World War 2,” he said when met at his house here.

Samsudin said the terrain on New Britain was hilly, while the shores were covered in mangrove forests.

On New Britain, the Japanese put their new slaves to work planting potatoes, yams and rice, meant solely for the consumption of Japanese troops.

“We were forced to work without pay. It was a hard life... just imagine a single kilogramme of rice had to be shared among 20 people.

“We slept in bamboo shacks with lalang used for the roof. We really lived a tortured existence... only God knows how it was.

“They didn’t care about us at all, since we were forced labourers. There was no medicine. If you fell sick or were in pain, you just had to bear with it.

“Many died from disease. And if you died, you would be buried without any sort of rites, whether you are Muslim or non-Muslim,” he said.

Besides the horrors they faced at the hands of the Japanese, the forced labourers also had to deal with Allied attacks on the island.

“These white men (the Allies) did not land (on the island), they attacked from the air. The aircraft with just one engine would use their machine guns, the ones with two would fire missiles and the ones with four would drop bombs. Anyone hit would be obliterated.

“If an air attack occurred, we would run helter-skelter... if there was a drain nearby, we would jump into the drain. We hid wherever we thought it would be safe.

“If there is one thing I will never forget is when two of my friends and I tried to hide behind a tree. An aircraft came and fired its machine guns. I was in the middle and I survived, but my two friends, one on either side of me, were killed.”

Samsudin said he cried every night as he missed his family. Every night he would also pray that the war would end and he would be able to return home.

“The night before the Japanese surrendered, there was a large-scale attack on the island. I can’t describe how scared I felt. But the Japanese knew they were defeated... many of the soldiers, especially the officers, began to commit suicide either by shooting themselves or cutting open their bellies with their swords.”

The next morning, said Samsudin, they saw a flotilla of Allied warships near the shores of the island. Troops began landing and they knew that the war was over.

It was time for their freedom to be returned. It was time for them to return.

It was the last time Samsudin ever took his freedom for granted, and the nonagenarian hopes that Malaysians cherish their freedom and the peace and harmony the country now enjoys. © New Straits Times Press (M) Bhd