I came across Hovinga’s and Farrell’s work online while investigating my great grandfather’s life and death. Beyond my own family interest the story of the Pekanbaru Railway seemed to me to be a story worth telling. So, in May 2017 we flew into Pekanbaru and met up with Jamie for three days of trainspotting. We started our first day close to town. Dirk died in the notorious Camp Two – a low lying swamp of mangroves and jungle. No sign of the camp is left there now, just an undecorated few acres of jungle surrounded on all sides by the growing city of Pekanbaru. The graves of the prisoners who died there were exhumed soon after the war and the remains repatriated to Java, but the site remains undeveloped. I’m sure, in time, that someone will build a supermarket or a mall on this place of so much sadness but, for now, the ground stands empty – just a swampy tangle of mangrove roots in the shadow of tall trees.
Standing in the jungle with the sound of insects vying with the traffic and the local mosques it was hard to reconcile this place with the few photos we have of Dirk – a strong, tall man with oiled hair and a white suit. After all, I never met him and neither did my mother or her siblings. I suppose understanding his story is just a piece of the larger puzzle of our family history – a mosaic of fragments that make up the picture of what it is to be an Australian in the 21st century. Although Dirk wasn’t Australian, all of his descendents call this country home and his story reminds me that the history of many countries contribute to Australian history.
The day after we visited Camp Two we drove through the mountains to the site of another camp that has been left largely undisturbed since 1945. We swam in the nearby river and wandered around the area, climbing up onto the embankment where the line once ran. We found a small piece of rusted metal and Jamie explained that it was a spike from the railway line – just one of many that he has found over the years. We also found shards of pottery, glazed with a Japanese print, hand made bricks and the rusted out remains of a fireman’s lamp. It was then that the history seemed most real. The waste and the lives of men and women lost.
On our flight from Pekanbaru to Padang we sat next to a young Indonesian man who asked (by pointing and smiling) if we would pose for a photo with him. We agreed and, as we taxied down the runway, he posted it to his Facebook page. It was just one of many Sumatran moments that made me realise that we are not all that different, under the skin. Just as our history is never truly our own, we all have more in common than we may at first believe. After all, we are not states and countries and religious beliefs, we are people – just people, living out the brief passage of time that has been given to us.