Not everyone was lucky enough to get away by the few boats or planes that the British government had arranged to evacuate the mass of people to India. Europeans and Eurasians were given priority and many Goans passed off as Anglo-Indians because they were Christians who spoke English fluently and wore Western clothes. Some of them possessed Portuguese passports too.
Many other Indians were denied berths on the ships and even some able-bodied young Goan men were not permitted to get on ships or planes with other family members. The fragmentation of families added to the insecurity and uncertainty. The fear factor was intense as more bombings by Japanese planes created panic and pandemonium. So, thousands decided to walk across the border to India rather than face the dread of living under Japanese rule in Burma.
They had to obtain permits from the camp-in-charge and go in groups. The routes were unmapped and known only to the indigenous people who lived in the area. One route was across the Chindwin River, via Kalewa and Tamu to Imphal. There were two routes. The “white route” – the easier, shorter route – was mainly for the British and some Anglo-Indians. Most Indians were given permits to use the “black route”, which was more difficult and did not have many camps on the way.
Another route, far north through the Hukawng Valley to Ledo, was a longer, much more risky one, and hundreds died on the way. This route was used by many people who had come to get on the plane at Myitkyina, the last functioning airport just before it was bombed, and by Indians who were not given permits for the Kalewa–Imphal route. A few Indians also made it from Arakan District to Chittagong in present-day Bangladesh.
Various survivors tell of the lack of a systematic plan for civilian evacuation. The Government of British Burma failed to provide proper estimates of people in transit and the British Government of India did not make adequate arrangements to assist the refugees. Along the way, local people and civilian volunteers provided food packets and helped some of the groups of trekkers through transit camps.
At the camps on the “white route” the refugees were given some fresh food, medicines and shelter for the night. But they could not stop there for long as the next group would be on its way to rest at the camp.
It was a hard trek over the mountains. Not only was the terrain rough and inadequately mapped, but the jungle was malarial and full of leeches, snakes and wild animals. Fear, hunger and sickness tested their physical and mental endurance to its limit. It is not known exactly how many hundreds lost their lives.
Those that survived were ravaged by disease and starvation. Many suffered from extreme weakness and could not continue the journey. No one could stop to bury the dead and even family members had to be left wherever they lay down to die. Survivors had to walk through the stench of bloated, decaying bodies. In spite of the physical hardships and the mental suffering, people survived to tell the story of the trek.
Donald Menezes, who was a lively teenager at that time, writes about his experiences of the trek quite matter-of-factly and without any self-pity.
“Meanwhile, as the Japanese advance continued up Central Burma the order was given for evacuation of Upper Burma. So we prepared for the Great Burma Trek through jungle and mountain, the route by which half-a-million people returned to India, with thousands perishing on the way.
“One day before the trek started, we heard a strange rumbling sound and our house on a low hill shook as in an earthquake. Looking out of our windows, we saw about forty elephants marching past, with European women and children perched upon their howdahs. They were the families of the forest officers of the Bombay Burma Trading Co., which was evacuating its staff.
“On April 7, 1942, we moved, as evacuation started on the ‘white route’. Up river we went by paddle-wheeler, and then disembarked at Ywa, a bamboo-and-mat river camp in the midst of dense jungle. At Ywa a mountain stream empties into the Chindwin River. The whole Chindwin valley is inhabited by Chins, an ethnic tribe that looked somewhere between Chinese, Tibetan and Burmese. For three days in Ywa, we enjoyed the delights and hardships of jungle life.
“On April 10th, we embarked at early morn on a convoy of small river boats, and were poled upstream along this swift mountain stream. We struggled up a series of rapids in a narrow valley between steeply rising and thickly forested hills, the scenery magnificent and the air cool and bracing. The forests were alive with parrots and other colourful jungle birds and monkeys. Sometimes we saw the pugmarks of tigers near our camps. We set out every morning at seven, breaking for a lunch consisting of dal, rice and Japanese sardines, and then pushed on so as to reach a government camp by sunset, where a hot dinner of unvarying dal, rice and sardines awaited us.
“Towing our boats up the rapids was a thrilling experience. We were handed tow-ropes attached to the bows and sides of the boats and wading waist or chest deep, climbing, slipping and sliding on rocks amidst cascading water, we hauled the boats upstream over the rapids. The boatmen manoeuvred the boats, holding the bows straight against the onrushing white water by pressing with their poles against the rocks. It was dangerous work. But it kept us in high spirits. Playing with danger always gives one a high.
“Our first night halt on the stream was at Yenan, an abandoned oil camp on petroleum oil fields. We had barely settled down to sleep in our bungalow, when we heard a commotion and shots at the water’s edge. We became alarmed. Was this an attack by armed dacoits? Such attacks had been reported. We pushed the women and children to inner rooms and took up positions near the doors. Two had revolvers; the rest had sticks. After a while, we heard reassuring shouts and laughter and we relaxed. It had turned out that a party of boatmen returning downstream espied their compatriots and decided to camp beside them.
“Our Gurkha guard ordered the leading boatman to stop, fearing they were dacoits.
“Seeing him unarmed but still advancing, the Gurkha threw down his rifle and leapt on the man’s chest with both boots. Immediately the other boatmen rushed up with their steel-spiked poles. Upon this, the second Gurkha guard fired warning shots and the whole camp sprang up in alarm. At this point, it was the presence of mind of one Krishna, a dark and dashing hunter, that saved the situation. Son of a Burmese mother and a millionaire Tamilian father, he rushed into the middle of the developing fray shouting in Burmese and Hindustani and successfully averted bloodshed.
“The valley got greener, narrower and steeper as we moved up. At camp Telangya, progress by boat was no longer possible. The drop from one level to another was almost like a waterfall. It was indescribably beautiful, a perfect picnic spot, like the Hampshire Falls near Maymyo in the hill station where I was born. Between one rapid and the next, the water was like a large swimming pool, deep and quiet. I showed off my swimming with the few who could swim. Some of the Anglo-Indian and Anglo-Burmese girls looked gorgeous in their swimsuits. I echoed the sentiment of the Great Moghul in his summer palace in Kashmir: ‘If there is a heaven upon earth, it is here; it is here.’
“No more boats now; we marched on foot. From camp Hlezeik we marched through a dry forest. Dry leaves and twigs crackled underfoot. High overhead, the trees arched as if forming a great Gothic cathedral. Then we hit the road to Tamu, the last town on Burma’s border with India. The road ended at Tamu. The lack of a road link with India proved a strategic weakness in the war.
“One branch of the Kalewa–Tamu road was known as the ‘black route’ and thousands of Indians perished on this route from typhoid, cholera, dysentery and other illnesses. My uncle, Dr Victor D’Cruz, Chief Medical Officer for the route, had not only to attend to the dying but even to personally bury the dead. People were afraid to touch the corpses for fear of contagion. But my uncle was a tough leathery officer inured to death and suffering.
“As cars and trucks passed us on the road, they threw up clouds of choking dust that added to the discomfort of our parched throats and dry nostrils. By one of the road culverts, I saw a stagnant pool. I was desperate for water, and the pool looked cool and inviting. I knew the risks, but I parted the vegetation and drank the cool water. It tasted like the nectar of the gods. But for years subsequently, I suffered severely from cerebral malaria. Of course I could have got malaria from mosquito bites too.
“Tamu, a town in northwest Burma on the border with what today is Manipur in India, was then a graveyard of abandoned cars, trucks and buses.
A coolie strike was on for higher wages and smaller backpack loads. The camp reached overflow point and separated families caught up with one another. Then the Commandant ordered the able-bodied to move on, carrying whatever they wanted on their backs. My sister Muriel was flat on her back with acute malaria, so my grandfather who was allotted a doolie – a stretcher carried by four coolies – gave it up to her. But they did not move till the strike ended.
“Meanwhile, an Akyab boy and his sister, Agnes Fernandes, asked my help to carry his large radio set. In the process we lost the tail-end of our party and found ourselves following an Indian party, going on an altogether different route. As the light failed we halted, knowing we were lost. And the night was soon upon us. Suddenly, Agnes, who was chirping like a sparrow, panicked. She began to cry hysterically. It had at last dawned upon her that the jungle was not only full of wild animals but also of dangerous two-legged ones. Visions of rape and murder came upon her. But we men took charge. We had to play it cool. We told her quietly and firmly to ‘shut up’.
“A faint moonlight peeked through the trees and the surrounding gloom. The night was silent except for the occasional squawk of a bird, the chatter of a monkey or the grunt of a jackal.
“Half-an-hour later, providentially, we heard the lowing of bulls and the creak of wheels. It was a party of Chin cartmen homeward bound for Tamu. Quickly, we explained our situation, and they readily took us back to Tamu on their carts. The camp Commandant was furious when we got back and gave us a severe scolding. He ordered us to move out first thing in the morning.
“At daybreak, we set out again, but only after throwing away the radio that had caused all the trouble and by midday, we reached Camp Middleton.
Some members agreed to take us to our original party who were still there and they were glad to see that we were safe. They had had a mishap. A young woman attempted a shortcut over a hill. An Indian guard on the road, seeing her, tried to molest her. But when he put his hand over her mouth, she bit his finger to the bone and would not let go. The man finally broke free and fled. He was later caught and punished. But the girl was badly shaken and had to rest.
“After lunch, I raced on and caught up with Aunt Emily and Arnold. They were so glad to see me safe and hear of my adventure. Up hill and down dale we raced until we heard the sound of bulldozers and crashing trees. From the top of the hill, we saw the red gash of a road on the next green hill, where the Indian Army engineers were pushing a road through the jungle. We soon met the engineers, who warmly welcomed us. They put us on empty trucks and sent us on to their base at Palel, in Manipur. At sundown we arrived at Palel, were given a hot meal and shown our billets in a cattle shed. It was the height of the hot season, but because of the elevation of Manipur, the weather was cold. At night we were glad to cover ourselves with straw to keep warm.
“The next day, buses transported us to Imphal, capital of Manipur, which is a kind of Shangri-la in the hills, with a quaint old civilisation, a well-organised market and beautiful handicraft industries. The people appeared to be a mixture of Bengali and Burmese. Here was an ample supply of clothing and blankets collected by the Red Cross and made available to the Burma refugees.
“After two or three days, we were again transported by buses over high mountains and dangerous roads to the Indian railhead at Dimapur in the Assam valley. After a night in camp, a train took us to Pandu on the mighty Brahmaputra, a river which bears a rare male name and means ‘son of Brahma’ in Sanskrit.
“We crossed the river in a magnificent ferry, with a splendid bar, all shiny brass work and sparkling glassware. It was built to suit the lifestyle of the Assam tea planters. The ferry had just brought up a contingent of Indian troops, who were moving to the front. The mustachioed officers, with their swords, turbans, revolvers and Sten guns, looked magnificent. The Brahmaputra, one of the major rivers of Asia, looked like an immense sea, with the orb of the sun sinking down into it. A feature of the crossing were the ‘manatees’ [river dolphins] that leapt twenty feet out of the water and plopped back into it. These water animals resembled fat pigs, only bigger. On the other side was Amingaon, a tidy riverside town.
“From there, the train raced to Calcutta on the Indian Railways broad-gauge railway. We arrived in Calcutta around midnight. The Great Burma Trek was over. It was April 30, 1942. It had lasted three weeks.”
Excerpted with permission from New Songs of the Survivors: The Exodus of Indians from Burma, Yvonne Vaz Ezdani, Speaking Tiger Books.