Posts Tagged ‘railway’

Scars of the Burma railway trauma that never healed

October 17th, 2014

This week, the railway made the headlines after The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a moving novel by Richard Flanagan, the son of a Burma PoW, won the Man Booker Prize. Today marks the 71st anniversary of the line’s completion, in 1943, but every day is a milestone for Mr Seiker.

“It never leaves me,” says Mr Seiker, still remarkably lucid at 98. “In the early days, I had terrible nightmares – and I still have them.” The exhibits he has laid out on the dining table of his home in Worcester catalogue man’s inhumanity to man: his sketches that speak of brutality no words could capture, an iron spike from the original line to remind him of all the friends he lost.

At the end of the table lies the latest addition: a copy of his book about his wartime experience – in Mandarin. The book, Lest We Forget, which he first published in 1995, had sold well locally and online, and many readers have been moved to write to Mr Seiker. But it could hardly have been described as a publishing sensation. Until now.

The story began in January, when Mr Seiker saw a comment piece in this newspaper by the Chinese ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming. He agreed with the argument – that Japan’s refusal to face up to its aggressive past posed a serious threat to world peace – and wrote to tell the ambassador so, expecting no reply.

Yet, within a week, the embassy’s press attaché was dispatched to Worcester. Not only did he bring a lengthy response from the ambassador, but he wanted permission to publish the correspondence in the Chinese media. By the end of the fortnight, Mr Seiker had been interviewed by two Chinese newspapers and a film crew was preparing a documentary about his experiences.

“There were taxis turning up all the time and camera wires all over the place,” says Mr Seiker, showing me a photograph of the attaché presenting his wife Liz with a bouquet of flowers.

Despite this flurry of interest, Mr Seiker was alive to the danger that he could be exploited by the Chinese regime. “I made it quite clear that the moment I even suspected that, I would kill it. I put that in writing.” He was careful not to endorse China’s leaders in any of his appearances, but was happy to share his fears that Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is risking conflict by flirting with militarism.

One of the sketches from Fred Seiker’s book, showing his condition before and after the PoW camp

Most of all, he was content that his memories of the war were reaching a wider audience. It is wider still now that the Mandarin translation of his book has been published by the People’s Publishing House. It was launched to great fanfare at the Beijing International Book Fair in August, when 3,000 copies were sold on the first day. A Chinese studio has even mooted a film.

“The whole thing is too ridiculous for words,” insists Mr Seiker. “I am just an ordinary bloke living in Worcester.”

Hardly. Born in Rotterdam in 1915, he followed his father, Frederick, into engineering, and was serving in the Dutch Merchant Navy when the war broke out. He was on the Indonesian island of Java when the Japanese invaded in 1942. Taken prisoner along with 18,000 other Dutchmen, he was forced to spend the next year building the railway, and almost two years after that never knowing when he would be free again.

Conditions were a kind of “hell on wheels”, he says. In one terrifying passage of his book, he remembers how Japanese guards left the men to die when cholera broke out in camp. Those who were not afflicted were forced to burn the remains of their fallen comrades. “Death becomes acceptable as a routine,” he wrote. “Words cannot describe the horror of the dying – and the living.”

And yet, incredibly, he claims the experience was a “privilege”. He has, he agrees, “experienced the most degrading behaviour by one human being to another”. But he has also felt the power of the “unconquerable spirit of civilised man”.

“I have seen humanity at its very best and at the same time at its nadir. You were in a situation where you would die for your mates and they would die for you. Some statement, isn’t it? But, believe me, at the time, it was true.”

Fred Seiker now, at his home in Worcester

His ordeal eventually ended when the men realised their guards had left, a few days after American airmen dropped the first of the two atom bombs that forced Japan to surrender. “I just stood there, tears running down my face, being free again.”

He moved to Grays, in Essex, to marry Edna, whom he had met before the war. The marriage gave him a daughter, but it was not happy. Like many Burma veterans, he struggled to reconcile his memories with civilian life. After one bad experience, when he felt his stories of the war were not believed by friends, he never spoke of his time in Burma. Trying to cope with such awful memories alone affected him badly, and he now says he became a “bastard”, “snarling at the slightest thing”.

His marriage fell apart, but when he met Liz, she slowly “got me out of a terrible state”. It took decades, but by 1995, the 50th anniversary of the war’s conclusion, he was ready to speak of his experiences. “I know what life means, so small things mean a lot,” he explains. “You never live until you have almost died.”


World War Two

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