The British who fought in Burma became known as the ‘Forgotten Army’ because this was a neglected theatre of the second world war. Barnaby Phillips’s tale is about the African forces fighting across this green hell — ‘the forgotten flank of the forgotten corps of the Forgotten Army’.
At the age of 16 Isaac Fadoyebo left his village in colonial Nigeria and joined Britain’s call for recruits in the war. Hitler did regard black people as ‘semi-apes’, but Britain enrolled 500,000 Africans to fight for a cause they barely understood against enemies on the other side of the world. Isaac was sent not to battle the Nazis in Europe, as many other Africans were, but to Burma, whose inhabitants were also caught up in a conflict that wasn’t theirs.
Some British generals assumed the Africans were suited to jungle warfare — even if they hailed from arid savannahs. African troops enjoyed promoting the idea that they ate human flesh to terrify their enemies, when most were devoutly religious. Among the 26,380 Allied forces who died in Burma, many were Africans. They won General Slim’s admiration, yet Isaac and his comrades never even received campaign medals. ‘No one has sung their praise in this campaign,’ wrote a British officer with Orde Wingate’s Chindits, several thousand of whom were black Africans. ‘But their unwearied, unselfish and Christ-like service will not be forgotten by the men who came to rely on them.’
In March 1944 Isaac’s medical unit, the 29th Casualty Clearing Station, part of the 81st Division of the Royal West African Frontier Force advancing through the Arakan, was on the Kaladan river when it was caught in a Japanese ambush.
The Japanese found Isaac alive, surrounded by the bodies of men who had been machine-gunned. With bullet wounds and a smashed femur, Isaac was left to die. Later a comrade appeared called David Kargbo, from Sierra Leone. He was hurt, but fit enough to run off by himself, yet he never abandoned Isaac. They hid in the jungle, where a few metres away they heard another African soldier succumb to his injuries before jackals ate him. With stinking untreated wounds and no medicines at all, tortured by heat, leeches, mosquitoes and monsoon rains, evading Japanese patrols, Isaac and David survived like this for nine months. It’s an extraordinary story of moral fortitude and strength of character, calling to mind two other forest war classics —Spencer Chapman’s The Jungle is Neutral and George MacDonald Fraser’s Burma memoir Quartered Safe Out Here.
They survived, thanks to the local people — poor Rohingya Muslims — who fed them. One man especially, Shuyiman, cared for the men, eventually hiding them in his basha hut where they lived with his family in the village of Mairong.
Shuyiman might have calculated that by saving Africans he was backing the right side and could expect a reward. To ingratiate themselves the men claimed to be Muslims, even though to revive their spirits daily they sang ‘Abide with Me’. Had the Japanese caught them, they certainly would have killed Shuyiman and his people. In a village nearby the Japanese had executed a chief accused of informing for the British by pinioning him to the ground with bayonets before skinning him alive and rubbing salt into his flesh.
It seems clear that Shuyiman saved them mainly because it was the right thing to do. This is the ‘common bond of humanity’ celebrated in Phillips’s tale: ‘Courage and friendship that transcended time and distance and race, and shone through the horror of a world war’. Two black Africans saved by a family of Burmese Muslims, hardly able to communicate, from opposite ends of the world, caught up in a war that wasn’t theirs; as Phillips calls it, ‘an unlikely but beautiful thing’.
After nine months they were reunited with a British unit and sent home, David to Sierra Leone, never to be seen again, and Isaac to Nigeria. When he arrived in his father’s village, people threw dust at him to check that he wasn’t a ghost. After fleeting fame in the local newspapers he settled down to a ‘lifetime spent largely in respectable obscurity’.
For 15 years Barnaby Phillips was a BBC correspondent in West Africa, for me a familiar and distinctive voice on the radio. I was always struck by the quality of his reporting, even while the Africa Service was in decline. In this book he captures nuances of Nigeria that only a man who knows and loves a place and people can. He also is fortunate in that he stumbled on this tale in the library of the Imperial War Museum, where he found Isaac’s own 60-page Burma memoir, A Stroke of Unbelievable Luck. Drawing on accounts of mainly British veterans, Phillips imaginatively conjures the atmosphere of wartime Nigeria, troopships and trains across India and marches into the Arakanese jungle. A great deal of Isaac comes through as the excellent storyteller he must have been.
Phillips tracked Isaac down in Lagos. Covering Nigeria’s post-independence story must have been a pretty depressing career for a BBC man. It’s a tale of looted petro-dollars, civil strife and a demographic explosion that replaces the elegance of old Lagos with something ‘noisier, uglier and far less manageable’. You can sense that Phillips needs to hear about redemption — and at this point the story really takes off.
An octogenarian, Isaac recalls that in the heat of their frontline rescue he and David had not been able to thank Shuyiman or say goodbye. This had weighed heavily on him. And so Phillips gets Isaac to write a letter, and sets off for Burma. Much had happened in nearly seven decades: ‘A war had ended, an empire had fallen, civil wars had started and stopped and started again, there had been a coup, years of repression and many natural disasters…’
At least Nigerians have taken life on with style compared to the miserable lunacy of Burma’s postwar history. ‘Lagos, na so so enjoyment, you get money, you no get money: whether you have money or not, Lagos is a place to enjoy life.’ Contrastingly, Phillips quotes a Burmese historian whose view is that ‘Burma is a place where the second world war never really ended.’ Dictatorships, relentless civil wars with Burma’s minorities, the Saffron Revolution — it has all culminated in yet more rounds of violence this decade.
Phillips locates the village of Mairong, but he cannot get there because of military operations nearby. The Muslim Rohingyas who rescued David and Isaac are once again being attacked, this time not by the Japanese but by government-backed Buddhist militias — a humanitarian catastrophe that the Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi refuses to condemn.
Miraculously, Phillips meets the grandchildren of the long dead Shuyiman and in a hurried, secretive meeting he is able to hand over Isaac’s letter. The family tell Phillips: ‘Our parents said those men were in trouble; they needed help, otherwise they were going to die.’ This is an extraordinary story, very well told.
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