Labuan Island

The morning is humid and busy in Labuan. Fishing and cargo boats cut in and out of the small harbour while street vendors sell their wares on noisy corners.  Footpath cafes buzz with local gossip and laughter.

A kindly, old taxi driver motions me over to where he is sheltering under a tree.  He tells me his price and we climb into his dented 1970s cab.  My driver indicates he speaks little English by holding his thumb and first finger close together, however, when I tell him I want to visit the Allied war cemetery and memorial, he immediately understands.

We drive a few miles inland, past palm trees, low lying government buildings and modest homes on stilts.  The cemetery is flanked by thick jungle and a football field.  Like all war cemeteries it is a quiet place; contemplative.  A stark contradiction to the calamity it recalls.

I am the only visitor and a gardener stops his work, nods and smiles at me.  The cemetery is a gift from the people of Borneo to those who died in either captivity or in battle against the Japanese during World War Two.  Those bodies able to be moved from their original graves anywhere in Borneo, have found their final resting place here.  Young British, Australian, New Zealander, Indian and Malayan military and civilian men lie beneath the lovingly manicured lawns.  The cemetery contains nearly 4,000 burials.  Over half are unidentified and their headstones state simply, ‘Known unto God’.

My great uncle Joe is most probably one of the unidentified.  Captured at the fall of Singapore, he died in Sandakan Prisoner of War Camp, on Borneo’s east coast, just before Japanese surrender.

In the memorial dedicated to Australian and local forces, which stands inside the cemetery grounds opposite a large stone crucifix with sword attached, his name is struck in gold.

I feel connected with the soil on which I’m walking.  But this is a lonely place.  It must be so, for it holds young men far from home.  Along with my parents who visited two years ago, I am one of the few members of our extended family to have made the pilgrimage to Labuan.  I grew up in a ‘get on with life, don’t talk about the war’, time.

I climb back into the cab and point to the cemetery.  ‘My uncle’, I say.  My driver understands and nods respectfully.

We drive twenty minutes further to the other side of the island.  The jungle is thick and menacing, however, in places it gives way to shanty communities, roadside fruit stalls and shining multi-national edifices.  On the sandy shore of the South China Sea, the Peace Park commemorates the surrender of the Japanese on Borneo, July 1945.  Built by the Japanese government in 1983, again in obvious irony, it features tranquil ponds, shaded gazebos and quiet sitting areas.  The words ‘Peace is the best’ are carved in stone in both English and Japanese.

My cab driver drops me at the airport, first constructed by Allied POWs during Japanese Occupation. With a few hours to spare before my flight back to Kota Kinabalu, I walk to a nearby mosque.  I arrive, dripping with sweat, and discover an adjoining school.  Students and teachers are immersed in the clatter of lunchtime.

I attract giggles, curious looks and welcoming nods when I place my shoes on a pile and enter the mosque.  Men and women, probably the teachers, are sitting separately on the tiled foyer floor, eating.  I ascend a spiralling, inviting staircase and discover the main prayer area.  It is empty save for a handful of men and about one hundred floor fans.

I head downstairs towards the front of the mosque and am approached by a man who has been sitting on a mat sharing lunch with his family.  He offers his hand and tells me he is not originally from Labuan, however, came to the island some years ago in search of employment.  He works for a foreign oil company while his wife is a teacher at the school where his children also attend.  His face lights in fascination when I tell him where I am from and that I am also a teacher.

I put on my shoes and head for the gate.  The queue to the school canteen has grown longer.  A group of boys call out, ‘Hello, my friend’.  I turn around and they wave and smile.




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