Life and death on the tracks

In this con­clu­sion to our sto­ries record­ing the mem­o­ries of those who sur­vived work­ing on WWII’s in­fa­mous Death Rail­way, two men talk about fam­ily mem­bers they were forced to leave be­hind along that deadly line 75 years ago.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Insight - By DINA MURAD and MEI MEI CHU star2@thestar.com.my

EL­LAN Kan­nian turned 100 in March; he has lost his eye­sight and suf­fers from Alzheimer’s – but the hor­rors he ex­pe­ri­enced on the Death Rail­way re­main vivid in his mind.

De­spite his age, he’s quick to come up with a sar­cas­tic jibe when we first ask him to de­scribe the or­deal: “I was very happy,” he says with a small chuckle – but the smile fades when we ask him to tell us how he be­came in­volved in the in­fa­mous pro­ject.

In 1942, El­lan was work­ing on a rub­ber es­tate in Klang when the Ja­panese called for one man from each fam­ily on the es­tate to take part in the con­struc­tion of a new rail­way that would link Ban Pong, Thai­land, and Than­byuza­yat, Burma (now Myan­mar), to carry sup­plies to the Ja­panese Army.

Fear­ing for the safety of their fam­i­lies should they refuse, El­lan, his brother, and a brother-in-law went to where the line was to be­gin in Ban Pong at the ar­range­ment of their Bri­tish es­tate man­ager.

The three men trav­elled to Thai­land on goods car­riages meant for 30 peo­ple – but the work­ers were packed in un­til there were about a hun­dred peo­ple in each car­riage.

It was the first inkling that the “good life” he had been promised would be­come a life filled with abuse, star­va­tion, and death.

“The mo­ment we reached there, we were beaten be­cause we didn’t un­der­stand their (the Ja­panese sol­diers’) in­struc­tions,” El­lan says dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view at his home in Kuala Se­lan­gor.

If the labour­ers – called ro­musha by the Ja­panese – did not die from sheer ex­haus­tion or dis­eases, they died from drink­ing pol­luted river wa­ter.

“All the dead bod­ies were around us but we would still take the wa­ter (to drink). What could we do?” he says, hold­ing his hands up in the air fa­tal­is­ti­cally.

The con­tam­i­nated river lo­cated be­side the tracks was not just the only source of drink­ing wa­ter but it was also used as a toi­let by the hun­dreds of thou­sands work­ing on the rail­way. Corpses were of­ten seen float­ing down­stream or rot­ting on the banks where they had been dropped.

When the river flowed by bam­boo groves, the plants’ sharp, fine bris­tles, or mi­ang, would mix with the wa­ter which the labour­ers would then drink – and the mi­ang would cause tears in the stom­ach and in­testines that would even­tu­ally kill the men.

Ac­tu­ally, it didn’t take much for death to visit due to the ab­hor­rent liv­ing con­di­tions; for in­stance, de­spite the gru­elling phys­i­cal labour, the ro­musha were only given one meal a day, and of­ten the rice in that meal was laced with chalk to stretch it fur­ther. Most of the labour­ers suf­fered from bloat­ing of the stom­ach and legs and others died af­ter un­con­trolled vom­it­ing, ac­cord­ing to El­lan.

In­deed, ac­cord­ing to Aus­tralian war records (hell­fire-pass.com­mem­o­ra­tion.gov.au), though Al­lied pris­on­ers of war worked along­side the ro­musha, it was the lat­ter who died in far higher num­bers.

El­lan says he started out lay­ing sleeper tracks but was later put in charge of en­gine main­te­nance due to his ex­per­tise in han­dling lis­ter en­gines (slow-run­ning en­gines used to drive elec­tric gen­er­a­tors or ir­ri­ga­tion pumps) from his days on the es­tate.

— SA­MUEL ONG/ The Star

El­lan (left) and Raven­dran. It was the thought of see­ing his fa­ther again that kept a young El­lan go­ing through the hor­rors of the Death Rail­way.

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