By A Jessie Michael
It was 11.00 p.m. On the third storey of Luther House on Utara Road, in the furthest corner of the corridor that skirted the whole left wing on each floor, Chris was on night watch, braving the mosquitoes and watching for strangers that might walk up the pitch dark entrance approach from the main road just a few hundred meters away with only an unlit torch for company. His fellow students stayed quiet in the meeting room downstairs, whispering and waiting for their turn to patrol the building.
It was not meant to be like this at all. They were twenty students from their campus Christian Society on a pre-semester formation camp. Such live-in camps were always better than attending lectures. In such camps they talked and brainstormed and changed and grew. The group was fired with the anticipation of examining liberation theology and the documents of Vatican II and the students burned with a newfound energy that questioned all that they had been taught. They had meticulously organised the speakers and the forums – rebel priests, political science advisors and lecturers, politicians – people who would split their young brains and say things otherwise left unsaid in classrooms and in the public arena.
How exciting that the camp was taking place on Malaysian election week – the election that might be the game changer for the nation, according to the experts. And only the day before, as the poll counts came rolling in, one of the students had procured a transistor and given running commentaries on the results. It was clearly a game changer – the non-race-based opposition groups were leading. The ruling Alliance, with the dominating Malay party and its weaker Chinese and Indian partners, polled only 48 percent of the vote, although it retained a majority in the legislature. The students’ evening forum would be quite a fiery one, of what direction the country could be expected to move in.
However, the harried telephone call had come in at 3.00 p.m. The main speaker would not be able to attend. There were roadblocks in the city and talk of gangs causing violence. The caller advised caution about anyone venturing into the streets. Within minutes, the early guests for the forum were sent off in their own cars and advised to book into a hotel or a friend’s house in case of roadblocks. The transistor became the student group’s focal point. The announcements came fast and furious – racial riots, curfews.
The camp leaders, their chaplain, and their host, the pastor of Luther House huddled to discuss the situation and decided that the students stay put. Campus was barely three kilometres away but there was no transport and there was rampaging on Pantai Road just outside the campus.
Then the sirens began. They were ceaseless. From the highest points of Luther House on the low hill could be seen the tops of ambulances, fire trucks and police cars frantically running on either side of Pantai Road, sirens screaming and lights flashing red, blue and yellow. Flames flared sporadically in the distance with black smoke twisting high upward, thick, and then dissipating into the greyness of the dull sky, the acrid smell of it pervading the air.
The twenty students and their chaplain were left as unwitting guests of the pastor of Luther House. There was enough food for a couple of days, if rationed well. The camp programme had disintegrated but there was a different fever in the air – the excitement of violent change. This was real. They were living the change but did not know what to make of it. They met periodically during the day, all afire, to discuss the transistor news. They knew a national emergency had been announced and the army had taken over all operations, imposing curfews in the city of Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya; but besides announcements of curfews and warnings of penalties for breaking curfew, news was censored, the interim between announcements filled only with calm, happy music. The students phoned home to reassure parents of their safety. They kept busy organising cooking schedules, watches, patrols. No lights were allowed. Complete blackout at night so as not to attract rioters. And no noise. Only the sirens. Ceaseless. And intermittent gunshots.
On the morning of the elections, Murad, Bakri and Sulaiman, all college mates and too young to vote, had left the campus to see a movie in town. It was late evening when they caught the bus back to Pantai Road from where they could walk into campus. However, the bus was roadblocked at the entrance to Pantai Road, not by police, but by rough youths shouting at the passengers to go home on foot. People tumbled out of the bus in panic and scattered. The bus driver abandoned the bus. The three boys ran down Jalan Pantai only to be met by another cluster of men yelling incoherently and throwing firebombs into buses and cars already trapped on the street. It was a free for all. The shouting was in Malay and Chinese and it was hard to tell what they were shouting about. While some people dodged into back lanes and buildings, the three boys lost track of each other. It was every man for himself and Sulaiman could only think of the campus gates perhaps just half a kilometre away.
He got to the edge of the road and huddled behind a torched car and a smoking bus. He was almost in the bus when he heard crude shouting coming from around the corner. Instinctively he dived under the bus, crept to the centre and lay flat. Feet passed him but no one saw him. He was safe but fear now came in nauseous waves and he began shaking. From his low vantage point he could see only groups of feet running hither and thither at short intervals. Just when he thought he might peep out a little more to see if the coast was clear the shouting began again. Running feet. Just one pair. Running fast. Desperate. And hot on those heels, a mad crowd- maybe ten pairs of feet. The shouting rose to a crescendo. “Get him. Chop him”
Then a begging voice “Don’t! Please Don’t! Help! O God”,
Then ten pairs of feet walked back and Sulaiman now saw the machetes held downwards and dripping blood. He closed his eyes to utter a prayer for the soul of the butchered one, but no words came. He pulled at his hair to recall the prayer, however, his fear posed to be a barrier. He knew he could not show himself. He could not make sense of what was happening. Light turned to dusk and dusk to dark. There was a yellow flare, running feet, pungent smoke choking him and still he dared not move. The car in front of the bus was burning. Would it explode? Sirens. Ambulance or police or the fire brigade? Feet running away. If he crawled out would they nab him as the perpetrator? The car still burned. The sirens faded away, gone elsewhere, and then they began again till they rang relentless in his ears. He did not know when he fell asleep.
As Murad and Bakri ran into the wild bunch on Pantai Road they had realised they could not pass unless they were thought to be part of the unruly crowd. “Let’s pretend,” they said and yelled and screamed. They picked rocks off the ground and threw them at the damaged cars but made sure they were heading towards campus. Once close enough to the campus gates manned by police and campus guards and away from the violence, they sprinted blindly without looking back, pulled their student IDs’ out of their pockets and blabbered at the guards. Only then did they realise that Sulaiman was not with them. The guards would not let them go back for him. “They are killing people out there. They are wild. They don’t care who they are killing!” The boys were in tears, but the guards were adamant and escorted them back to their college.
In their rooms they prayed desperately for Sulaiman’s safety. They felt they had abandoned him. They refused to answer the curious questions of their friends who wanted to know details of their escape. How were they to tell that they pretended to be rioters to escape to safety and did not notice that they lost their friend? They went looking for Sulaiman’s sister who also lived on campus, hoping Sulaiman was there. But he was not. They told her their story, barely able to look her in the eyes as she burst into hysterical tears.
On the second day, the transistor at Luther House broadcast that there were short curfew lifts for people to shop for provisions within their housing areas. The students felt safer when the sirens were blaring as it meant a lawful presence of a police car, an ambulance or fire engine. They were restless to be back in the safety of the campus grounds.
Chris, the camp organiser, knew he had to take a risk to go out to the main road during a curfew lift and hitch a ride to the campus on any vehicle passing by. He had worries that he could not voice. They were too vulnerable in the building; too close to the main road and the burning and rioting in the village not two kilometres away. He walked off casually, promising to contact the police to arrange for them to return to the campus. Chris prayed as he walked. This street, Utara Road, was clean. There had been no reports of violence on it, but anything could happen now that the curfew had lifted. He hoped a police car would pass. Anything would be good, even a fire engine. Within ten minutes an army jeep passed, and someone shouted his name. Chris froze in shock as the jeep screeched to a halt in front of him. It was his territorial army commandant ordering him to duty. All uniformed personnel had been called up.
Chris was quick. He negotiated. His uniform was at home, he needed to get there, but could he buy provisions for his aged and stranded parents on the way? And could the territorial army please send a truck to rescue the stranded students up in Luther House before they got attacked or starved?
In half an hour his parents were provided for, he was in fatigues and there was a truck at Luther house to ferry the students back to the campus an oasis of safety amidst the carnage. Music all day and college dances for two weeks till order was restored in the country. Keep them happy, feed them well. No classes. No talks. No news. No thinking. No changing. No growing. The ignorance was bliss.
For now, he had to go with his colleagues to check out the damage on Pantai Road.
The jeep Chris was in with three uniformed colleagues drove into Pantai Road. Their job was to assist the army wherever needed. Pantai Road and the adjacent village were a hotbed of rioters. The curfew kept people off the streets. Shoot on sight was the order. The jeep trawled the street, which was strewn with rocks, shattered glass and with half dozen burnt motorbikes, five scorched cars and three buses still warm from smouldering. The air smelt of petrol, burnt rubber and death but there were no bodies. At one spot there was a dark shadow on the ground, trailing off towards the sloping edge of the road. Blood. Someone had removed a body. A dog barked. Can’t curfew a dog. Should they shoot the dog? But the dog was barking at a torched bus. Or rather barking at something under the bus. They shooed the dog away and went on all fours to see. It was a young man. Motionless. They dragged the body out. No marks of assault. No burns. Probably asphyxiation from fumes from the bus. Slightly bloated. Not rotted. Someone thought of examining his pockets. A student ID. Sulaiman bin Roshidi. University of Malaya.
Chris cursed. Another body bag to join the thousands already piled in the hospital morgue.
A. Jessie Michael is a retired Associate Professor of English from Malaysia and a writer of short stories and poems. She has written winning short stories for local magazines and newspaper competitions and received honourable mentions in the AsiaWeek Short Story Competitions. She has worked with writers’ groups in Melbourne, Australia and Suzhou, China. Her stories have also appeared in The Gombak Review, 22 Asian Short Stories (2015), Bitter Root Sweet Fruit andKitaab (2019) She has published an anthology of short stories Snapshots, with two other writers and most recently her own anthology The Madman and Other Stories (2016).
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