Voices from the War

War, bloodshed, guns and anguish- it is difficult to believe something as ghastly could have taken place on an island as tranquil and lovely as Sentosa. Tranquil, that is, as it must have been between the end of the Second World War and the invasion of the island by commercial predators. Even now, though, there are large pockets on the island that do not swarm with pleasure-seeking multitudes (of which we were undeniably a part- even so), which do not seem to draw crowds with the tenacity of gift shops placed strategically at the exit of every major attraction- theatre, gallery, park.

Fort Siloso is a relatively quiet section of the island (or so it was yesterday, thanks maybe to the heavy rain that suddenly started to fall, dauting potential families of visitors, but not strong enough to prevent us from running across the road to the entrance), and we were taken to the buildings by a quaint green bus, reminiscent of the past century and its glories. Don’t let the word ‘Fort’ mislead you as it did me- I’d expected a castle of sorts, huge intricate doors, gates and all, but it was more a military establishment. It was built by the British to defend Singapore and other Asian establishments from Japanese invasion, but that didn’t deter Japan from capturing Singapore during WW II.

Now, as a tourist spot, Fort Siloso offers you enough glimpses of history to send shivers down your spine- pictures of emaciated soldiers, people ravaged by war and running helter-skelter to protect themselves from raids and firing, stern, cold men sitting across tables and signing treaties for control over people whom they could later kill and torture according to their whims. A cottage has been remodelled to depict the various sections on ships that carried soldiers to Singapore- the sleeping quarters, the kitchen, the laundry and the tailor’s. Large fans sweep through the silent air in the room, their shadows falling eerily across the dimly-lit objects. As you step into the room, speakers play the voice of British generals shouting out orders mercilessly in harsh tones. You see the ingratiating smile on the face of the native tailor as he fits the Britisher, hoping, perhaps, for one kind word.

Large guns dot the hillside. How hard can it get to imagine ships wending their way into the harbour, spilling out tired, spent soldiers, or balls of fire being spouted out by the great guns and causing massive destruction to life and property? Through the rain, we got a spectacular glimpse of the harbour, the grey skies, the clouds hovering over the skyscrapers. The skies were menacingly grey as we looked up through the thick foliage, making our way to the Surrender Chambers. This is perhaps historically the most important part of the fort, featuring the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese: lifelike effigies of men at tables, working out (or destroying) the future of a people who had unwittingly been entrapped in the power struggles of two unconnected nations. Fort Siloso also served as a PoW camp after the British surrendered; imagine being isolated in dungeons on a secluded island, away from all civilisation and humanity, at the mercy of cruel men.

We peeked into a couple of underground chambers, but didn’t go through the tunnels for lack of time- it was creepy and musty in there, with the doors open and the lizards crawling across the walls- you don’t need high powers of imagination to think how it must have been back then, guns firing all around, never knowing when you’d be attacked. The fort indeed brings back to life the sounds and the sights of the war- the authoritarian voices, the stony eyes of murderers, the anguished cries of pain and separation, the mothers’ wailing, the children’s screaming- and the eternal question about the futility of it all, and why we still have so much faith in violence as the best solution to the problems of boundaries and territories. We’re either incorrigible, or incredibly stupid, as opposed to all our claims of being the most intelligent species on the planet.

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