Trail to Salagum
by Ahmad Shaid Sallim
Early morning breeze touched my hair as I walked down slowly from the stairs of our sayrap house, yawning. The wind is cold and calm. Rather comforting aura surrounds me. Maybe it’s five in the morning, or six, I don’t know. All I remember was the ambiance of good and peaceful morn. I watch the whole sky spread in a bluish dark color with a pint of cloud gray ash beneath it. The sun’s shine slowly flash its rays to the hills and tree tops. From there, it runs towards my face. I stretched my hand upward and bend my back backwards, a habit of mine every morning. I want to sleep again, but Amboh might scold me if I will go back to my sleeping mat. Except for me, Mother, Ayah and Appah, all of them were sleeping. I sat at a wooden bench in front of me on the left side of our staircase. Mother was at the kitchen cooking apam for my siblings. Ayah took his old rifle and went to the woods. “Is he going hunt again?” Not too far from where I seated, I saw my grandfather preparing his stuff at the front yard. Appah saw me. He told me to come closer and said that I should take my breakfast. Well, to be honest I don’t really like the taste of the black coffee, I told him that I already drank a glass of water. He prepares some pyuto and sweet potatoes, some leftovers from last night, for our journey. He wrapped the food carefully in a heated banana leaves and put inside of a rattan basket. With his usual tools like barong, kapa and his old rattan hat, we began our trek to the logging camp. I was a little more than a youth during those times, I forgot exactly how old I was that day. It was the last time I really enjoyed my childhood. A memory that will forever be etched in my memories. We began our journey on foot, treading in ancient goat path passing great bamboo trees by the river.
As we reached our destination, a little less than an hour maybe, we heard the noise of big trees felled, machines whirring and the yelling of the workers at the camp. The usual sounds we hear whenever we come there. It was a logging camp owned and held by the Americans. There were plenty of huge old trees all over the place. They were not afraid of spirits and malevolent jinns that inhabits the place. Scary fellows, I say.
The workers were actively doing their assigned tasks. Lively and enthusiastic. We saw Pah Uddin, our neighbor next door, scaling up those big trees with his tools. He greeted and waved his hand to us from atop, Appah did the same. We put down our knapsacks and started to gather firewood. We chopped those dangling branches from felled trees with our barung and kapa, a tool which I am fully used to. The Americans would allow us to pick up those at one condition. We help them whenever they need additional hands in clearing those thick shrubs around the camp. We only do that in a weekly basis, and they would pay us for that. They only take those big logs, highly-prized lumber to be carried away from here. We resigned ourselves with these small stems and the branches, these were enough for us.
Firewood gathering was one of his other ventures. Appah had a small plot of land full of sweet potatoes, cassavas and bananas back in the village. He sometimes fish in the coast, and trapped wild deer at the back woods near our home.
“Why do we have to collect and sell these stack of kindling when we have enough foods grown back home?” I asked him while picking the woods.
“You know my dear son, I grew up where there is no white man can be sighted.”
“Even a single Kastila’ is nowhere to be found. When the Milikan arrives and squatted our lands, it is as if they stole the land from us.”
“The land was toiled by my grandfather and he inherited it from his grandfather!” He recalls. He changed his demeanor. He seemed to be melancholic and sober when he relate me his tale. He laments the fate of his uncles and cousins when they resisted the Americans some forty years ago. He is fortunate to live up until this day. Had he joined their struggle, he too, will perished alongside them.
“But when you grow your own food, collect your own firewood, that skill can never be stolen.”
As we are collecting the chopped firewood in the sack, there was a group of workers behind us whispering about something. We overheard them talking about certain attack or raid, I don’t know. We are curious. “What attack? Who will attack us?” I asked Appah. We saw them immediately get back to their work when the American lumberjack came told them to do so.
They got back to work and I saw Appah watched them as they dispersed. Maybe he listened to their story, curious too. “Does he heard them talking a while ago about the attack? Does he know it too?” I am totally bewildered at the same time. Two hours passed, we gathered enough firewood and rest a little, sudden loud explosion trembled the ground – BOOM!
Gush of winds follows as the bomb touched the ground earlier. Loud cracks of falling of great trees were heard all over the place. Fainted breathes and deep exclaiming nearly succumbed all men present. A long deafening silence followed.
We were all confused and dazed at the same time. The situation is getting tense. I sensed an eerie, unpleasant mood surrounding us. I have a bad feeling. Mr. Holland stood up abruptly and shouted: “Go home boys! Our job is done, we will see each at the port.” He suddenly went down from the log he used as a platform, right after his announcement and quickly turned his back. He grabbed his things and papers from the table inside his make-shift tent and put them in his bag pack. I clearly remembered his voice. I know a little English only enough to understand his message. He wanted us to leave immediately, maybe. Appah came running to us and told to pack our things and go home immediately. We saw Mr. Holland and his Christian foreman went fast to their vehicle. He is shaking while his foreman started the vehicle, they seemed to be terrified too. They drove fast went ahead of us.
The trucks remaing were heavily loaded with logs, and the fleeing men had to find some space and sat atop of it. There was no space for the rest us as most of the workers was already there. We have no choice but to take our journey back by foot with some unfortunate workers. I took the last glimpse of the logging camp as we left. The memories of chainsaw buzzing the trees and axe-cut wood chipped down continue to linger on my fading memory.
As we trailed them at the back, Appah asked one of the workers if they have any idea about the explosion. Other men ignored him and there was a long period of silence. Out of nowhere, someone in the group shouted “It’s the Jipon!”
His voice shrilled and sounded afraid. We are all shocked by his announcement!
The three of us hold our rattan bags tightly and walked fast as we can while trailing behind them. We don’t know what we were doing and why we were fleeing. We were just following them.
“How about the sack? The firewoods?” Sahun asked Appah. We left those at the camp. Do we need to get it back? “Do we have to get our things back?” I asked the old man. Appah just glanced at us for a moment and grabbed our little hands tightly. We continued our journey in silence.
While we were running, I remember someone in particular…
Two days before that fateful incident, we went to Port Holland with my friend Sahun. Back in those days, you can hardly call it a town. The port is situated at eastern side of Tandu’, beside the hill they call now Salakot. At the front of the port is the island of Gaunan. We came to see Mr. Amato, he was a worker in the saw mill. He was the operator of that huge crane in the port. His job was to put those logs tied in a big iron chains and lift it up in a long metallic rod that looks like a long arm with an iron hook fixated on its end. He then controls the machine to put those logs to the ship. He is very good at it. We popularly called that machine in our own native word – tang’ngang-ngang or scorpion, because it looks like one.
Mr. Amato was popular among the kids at the port. Everyone in the shop knew him. We were all fond of his stories about his adventures. He’s a Jipon. Allow me to describe him first. Mr. Amato is a jolly, middle-aged man with small face and a thin semi-grayish moustache. He had a lean body, but not that muscular as the other man in the saw mill. He looked like a Chinese shopkeeper, except that he is not shabby and stingy. He had those same squint eyes and yellowish skin. We used to call him lannang, though he disliked being called one. He always told us that they were of a different race, culture, and language. He looked the same to me though, and everyone at the shop believed the same too. He had already learned our local language and spoke it fluently, and someone told us that he had lived here for almost a decade. He was generous and friendly to us, he always gives us sweets from his homeland whenever we visit him. In his free time, all the kids present were gathered around him, forming a circle under the shade of huge tree near the port. Sahun and I were always present. We came to listen to his stories again. We were all fond of it.
We came to see Mr. Amato, he was a worker in the saw mill. He was the operator of that huge crane in the port. His job was to put those logs tied in a big iron chains and lift it up in a long metallic rod that looks like a long arm with an iron hook fixated on its end. He then controls the machine to put those logs to the ship. He is very good at it. We popularly called that machine in our own native word – tang’ngang-ngang or scorpion, because it looks like one.
Mr. Amato was popular among the kids at the port. Everyone in the shop knew him. We were all fond of his stories about his adventures. He’s a Jipon. Allow me to describe him first. Mr. Amato is a jolly, middle-aged man with small face and a thin semi-grayish moustache. He had a lean body, but not that muscular as the other man in the saw mill. He looked like a Chinese shopkeeper, except that he is not shabby and stingy. He had those same squint eyes and yellowish skin. We used to call him lannang, though he disliked being called one. He always told us that they were of a different race, culture, and language. He looked the same to me though, and everyone at the shop believed the same too. He had already learned our local language and spoke it fluently, and someone told us that he had lived here for almost a decade. He was generous and friendly to us, he gave us candy from his homeland whenever we visited him. In his free time, all the kids present were gathered around him, forming a circle under the shade of huge tree near the port. Sahun and I were always present. We came to listen to his stories again. We were all fond of it.
The ground was still shaking, Sahun and I were asking each other what just happened. He lost his usual funny attitude. I saw him break his tears and started sobbing. I almost cry too, but I am too shy to let Sahun that I am crying too. He might tease me again. Appah consoled us by patting our back softly and told us to man up. He grabbed our hands tightly. We left the camp a little while ago, still in foot. Suddenly, we heard those whirring sounds at the sky again. We paused for a moment. We are cautiously inspecting our surrounding.
A few distance away, we saw huge throngs of people fleeing, running towards us! They’re heading towards us! They all looked terrified. I know these people. They were from my village! I looked at Appah, I saw him gritting his teeth. I told him that these people were from our village! He nodded, maybe he already knew, by the looks of his eyes. He stared at them as if he was asking questions. Some ignored him, others chose to passed us by. I sympathize with them, they were busy fleeing for their lives too. With solitude, these people just went straight and ignored us. Amongst the crowd, someone recognized us.
It’s Babo Pirusa together with her grandchildren, they saw us. Babo waved her hand, signaling us to come for them. Appah asked them a few questions and quick to dismount from the vehicle. He knew already what happened to our village.
Appah was silent. Maybe he was thinking shall we arrive there. We didn’t have enough time to ask more questions. We were at the crossroads. A life and death situation. Everyone was panicking, some were shouting hysterically. The men we trailed from the back all went to their houses to pick their families. Only a few of us remained and proceeded further. The fleeing crowd we saw earlier brought whatever they can. Some families were even carrying their halfed-cooked rice in tungkang while fleeing! We saw a lot of them with few clothes and belongings. In the middle of confusion, we heard loud gunshots! We sensed that the enemy is getting closer to us. I am getting more worried on our way back home. Were Amboh and Ayah really okay? My younger siblings? Are they safe now? Our chicken? Our goats? Appah’s garden? Will it be there? I saw the thick bamboo trees from afar. At last, we were getting closer to our home.
We were panting heavily and gasping for our breath when we arrived. We run fast the moment we saw the bamboo trees. My heart was beating fast. I never run fast as I did that time in my whole life. I could not believe it. Is this for real? Why do we have to suffer from these? I pinched my cheek very hard and felt the pain, thinking I am just in bad dream. I am not dreaming and this is real.
We summoned our strength and plan the next action. While resting, Appah told us to hide in the shrubs. We sat down and think our next move. To our left, we saw the path way leading to our house. It’s quite recognizable from here. I saw our nipa roof rising prominently from afar. We peek behind the shrubs and saw a group of people circling around our house. We can’t see it clearly from here. We need to come closer. Appah told us to crouch our back and crawl our way there. He went ahead while bending his back and hide in the trees to avoid detection. Few steps, a little distance from where we started to crawl, we heard gun shots! My God! This time, it was somewhere around us. I heard screams and wailing. We lowered our heads and had to kiss the ground. I slightly move my head up and slowly open my eyes to see what just happened. In just a matter of instant, we lose sight of Appah. I saw Sahun numbing and mumbling and whispering words I can’t understand.
I waited for that man to reveal his face to us.
“Unding, do you sense anything?” Sahun asked me.
“That man carrying a long dagger seemed to be their leader.” I told him.
“Do you think he’s familiar?” Sahun replied.
“I am afraid he’s not him. And also, be quiet!”
I really don’t want to believe he’s the same person as he. I hoped he was not among them. It will be unbearable now if it was.
A few moment passed, we saw them gathered the villagers in front of our house. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe what I saw. They herd the villagers as if they were animals! My eyes gets teary now. I want to shout and beg them to stop. I saw our neighbor tied in a goat’s leash. Tied in a goat’s leash! Tuhan Ku. They brought every men of the village caught in front of him. He inspects them one by one, as if he was looking for someone. He let them speak after he asked some questions, and gagged them after with a piece of cloth. In his broken English, he interrogates them if there was any remaining Milikan in the area. If he was not satisfied, his men butted them with their rifle. Our neighbor agonized in pain when he was hit at stomach when he was not able to answer his question. I imagined his pain while seeing them from here. A true horrible sight. They also confiscate all the weapons they found in our village. Barong, budjak and old musils and stacked it all in front of my poor people.
I am getting more anxious and frightened by this sight. I am desperately looking for Ayah and Appah. Where are they? I quivered in terror and wanted fled right away.“Remember, your grandfather instructed us to leave if we don’t saw him right after!” Sahun retaliated.
“I can’t leave knowing that they were taken prisoner now!” I lose my patience and released a loud clamorous plea, alerting the enemies. They immediately saw our location and run towards us, we are petrified. With two others behind our back, they cornered us like a rat and ordered us to raise our hand, while pointing their guns. One soldier kick my back, my face immediately felled to the ground.
Sahun was restrained while his arms hold tightly. We are dragged and presented to their leader.
To my shock and surprise, finally, I saw their leader’s face. My body turned cold, ice-frozen. At that very moment, my life was shattered and broken to pieces. I want to end my life that day. I want to be swallowed by the earth I am standing in. I am betrayed and humiliated by the truth I discovered.
“M-mister Amato!?” I uttered those awful words. He finally turned his face to us. I saw Sahun mortified and shocked too at the same time.
“Is this true, Mr. Amato!?” I asked him in my tongue. He understand me. He chose not to. My mouth is shaking in anger, fear and hatred. He quickly turned away his face the very moment I asked in at that situation. Shamelessly arrested, baffled and confounded by the very fact, awkward and humiliated. Then I saw one of his men violently pulled my grandfather in his very feet. My Appah was caught by these devils, so as my father.
“Appah! Ayah!” I called out. I want to punch him so bad. “Why you do this to us!?” I begged him to answer me. I saw Appah holding his stomach agonizing in pain. Ayah tried his very best to hold the pain he received also. I saw him slowly rubbing his back. He was beaten too, groaning from the pain.
“Why you did this to us?” I asked him once again. What I saw is a man of lean body, small face and thin grayish moustache. He is the same age as Ayah, I suspect. I looked at him closely, to see if he was still the same friend we knew. But what I saw was his “true” self. Cold-blooded eyes. He is no longer himself. He is out of his shell. A demon. His cold demeanor bring chills to my spine. Scary man.
Appah looked at me, he’s trying to say a word, but this one devil hit him right away before he can do so. Ayah tried to rescue him but to no avail. He too received a painful rifle butt again. This time at his forehead. I tried to break free and help them. I am willing to sacrifice my young life in exchange for Appah and Ayah.
This demon took a deep breath and slowly turned his face to me. Inches away, he took steps and face forward to me. I am pinned down hardly by one of his henchmen, I cannot move freely. I am ready. I’ll spat his face if he come closer to me.
The man stoop down and lowered his legs. He started to speak to me. His civility almost deluded me. He mumbled the words in our native tongue. I didn’t pay attention to it. I did not look directly to his eyes. Instead, I took focus on his well-polished boots. I almost spat it with the remaining saliva I had, though I am thirsty at that moment. It didn’t happened at all. I am alluded by his dignified speech.
Eventually, he said this final words to me: “I am gonna let you free. You and Sahun.” He then ordered his men to free us at once. The soldier who nailed me down started to loosen a bit.
“I am gonna let you escape, but only you and your friend.” He repeated.
I cannot say anything after that. I am bemused by his statements. I withered like an old branch of tree. I cannot even move my body. Sahun was freed from his leash. He stood up and surprisingly grabbed my hand and offered me to stand up. My legs was weaken by prolong predicament I endured while shaking in humiliation.
“Our friendship took a rather peculiar way, Unding.” He retorts. I sensed a sad emotion from his answer. Though I am seething in anger, I can still feel his remorse. I almost agreed with him. Due to unwarranted circumstances and pre-determined fate, old friends now became enemies.
Even though we were freed, I cannot go beyond the barricade of man standing guard near Ayah and Appah and the rest of my people, who is just a feet away from us. My people’s loud groan and sobbed emanated the whole scene. The violence subsided.
He patted at my back. Like the old Mr. Amato, he smiled rather nervously to us.
“Run my child, run away from here!” Appah howled. I can sense his pain and misery. “We cannot, O Ayah, not without you!” I sobbed.
“My loving child, sweet boy, follow your Ayah’s order.” Appah adjoined Ayah’s heed. “We shall be alright, my loving grandchild. Get away from here!”
Appah then fixed his curled posture and seated properly, with dignity and pride, against the will of his captors who tried to stop him. Lastly, he bade his last command. He uttered his goodbye to me and declared war against his captors and enemies. Until now, his words marked encouragement and reminded me his last act of bravery.
“I survived the battles and wars against the Kastila, fought the Americans and their superior weapons forty years ago. This yellow men shall not bring dishonor to me. I’d rather be captured and killed while defending all of you than flee for my selfish comfort and safety!” Appah loudly decreed. Amato’s men were astounded. A loud shout of takbir by the villagers roared all over the place. The Japanese was alarmed and threatened by the old man’s declaration. The men started to resist against their captors.
It’s only natural for him. He came from the lineage of brave men and Kadatuan. As a barrio lieutenant and a son of Panglima, he too, was a patriot to his homeland and a leader to his people. A man who performed Parang Sabil in the past. I saw Mr. Amato pulled out his pistol and fired shots to the sky. The villagers couldn’t be stopped by mere gunshot. His men fixed their bayonets and pointed their rifles to Appah and the rest of them. They were all resistant. I was conquered by the loud shouts and gunshots. The rest of the villagers started to jolt out and tried to overpower their guards. In great confusion, Sahun pulled me away by hand and told me to run. “It’s our time to run way from here!”
Before I ultimately say goodbye to him, I pointed east to Appah. He smiled at me while I run away. Ayah looked at me like a proud father he is. I waved back. I gathered all my courage not to let a single tear drop on the ground during that moment. We run away, then took a swift plight away from our village. I catch glimpse of Amato. He was preoccupied by the commotion. I saw his eyes towards our direction, he bowed his head and swiftly turned his back. We run swiftly. I never turned again. More gunshots was heard. Several man followed us behind, fortunate enough to escape the disturbance. We passed by the bamboo trees and run to the east.
“We are heading east Unding, to Salagum!” Sahun reminded me. “Remember their words, their sacrifices must not gone to naught!” I watched the sky above me. Its twelve passed four of the afternoon. It is the same blue sky I saw earlier that day. But the dawn is near. Another journey to take for our safety. Amato said earlier that women and children of the village took the sea route. Will I meet mother and my siblings again? I must come back and find them. Insya Allah.
I watch the whole sky spread in a bluish dark color with a pint of cloud gray ash beneath it. The sun’s rays slowly withdrew from the hills and tree tops.
Back at the crossroads again, we met a group of people with the same fate as we. They asked me where we headed to: “To the east, To Salagum!”