Finding Africa’s lost soldiers in Myanmar

An interview with foreign correspondent Barnaby Philips, the author of Another Man’s War

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Published in Mizzima Weekly on 23 April 2015

Troop Inspection, Nigeria. Photo courtesy of Jill Hopwood
Troop Inspection, Nigeria. Photo courtesy of Jill Hopwood

The unforgettable story of two Nigerian soldiers hidden by a Rohingya family for eight months during the Second World War went unknown beyond those involved for more than six decades. Nor was it was only these two soldiers who were forgotten. Despite comprising a million men and inflicting a crushing defeat on the Japanese, the Fourteenth Army dubbed itself the ‘Forgotten Army’ because the Allied campaign elsewhere in the world attracted more attention – both then and now.

It was the foreign correspondent Barnaby Phillips who put right the oversight by documenting the extraordinary tale of human fortitude and kindness in a 2011 documentary for Al Jazeera – the material for which was so rich that he went on to write Another Man’s War, which was published in 2014.

But firstly, why did Africans take part in another man’s war – and why so many? Phillips quotes Burma campaign veteran Captain Carfrae, who said the Nigerians “found themselves in a forbidding country pitted against strangers altogether irrelevant to them, a people they hadn’t known to exist and with whom they could have no conceivable quarrel until we made our enmity theirs…”

During an interview with Mizzima at the Irrawaddy Literature Festival on March 30, Phillips said, “They were fighting a war between a fading empire and the Japanese – neither of whom was the rightful owner of the country in which they were in.”

Author Barnaby Phillips
Author Barnaby Phillips

Initially, African men were conscripted, with missionary schools and prisons emptied out by emirs. The high rate of desertions soon proved the strategy ineffective and was replaced by plentiful British propaganda about Hitler, which Phillips described as “pretty effective.”

For Isaac Fadoyebo and David Kargbo, it was less an ideological decision than a practical one; war was seemingly the best option available to them at the time. Soldiers were promised a shilling a day, which was more than a teacher earned in Nigeria, and they were also enticed by the prospect of learning new skills, such as operating a wireless radio. Isaac was only 16 when he signed up in 1943 to become a medical orderly.

“There was no military band, no cheering – they were just shipped out uncelebrated,” Phillips said.

Isaac arrived in Myanmar a year after Yangon had fallen to the Japanese. Yet the British were determined to continue on with the battle, as Phillips writes, because: “A successful offensive would not only remove the threat of a Japanese advance up the Bengali coast to Calcutta, but could also provide a launch pad for the British to make an eventual attack on the Burmese capital, Rangoon.”

Of the 120,000 Nigerians who enlisted, around a third served in Myanmar, with the majority sent to what was then Arakan State. Isaac and David were among them.

“The Africans were sent to an area where malaria, typhoid, dysentery and the like were rife and the vegetation extremely harsh. The theory was that Africans were good at fighting in jungles – even though they’d spent their lives in the dry savannah,” Phillips wryly remarked during his talk at the literature festival.

Conditions were made tougher still by the fact there was zero ground relief. Supplies were dropped haphazardly from the air – sometimes fatally.

Recruiting in northern Nigeria. Photo courtesy of Jill Hopwood.
Recruiting in northern Nigeria. Photo courtesy of Jill Hopwood.

On 2 March 1944, the 14th Army was ambushed by Japanese soldiers on the opposite side of the Kaladan River. Isaac was shot in the leg while his comrades fell down dead around him. As he writhed in pain, a medical officer called Captain Brown returned to tend to the wounded and dying at great personal risk. Just as he was reviving Isaac with a mug of water, the Japanese crossed the river and lead Captain Brown out of sight. His coat was found hanging in a tree a week later, but he was never seen again and is presumed to have been tortured and executed. This was one of Isaac’s most painful recollections when Phillips first spoke to him, 67 years later.

Isaac was bleeding profusely and was certain he was about to die, which was why he was left untouched by the Japanese. He told me that “he wasn’t worth a bullet to finish him off,” Phillips explained.

While Rakhine Buddhists supported the Japanese on the basis of ‘Asia for Asians’ and their complete disdain for British colonial rule, Rohingya Muslims had placed their bets on the British – which unbeknown to them, was a dying empire. It was thus extremely lucky that Isaac fell wounded in a Muslim village. Local villagers began feeding Isaac in a makeshift hut and later brought in another wounded soldier from Sierra Leone, David Kargbo – Isaac thought this was most likely for companionship. However Isaac was in insufferable pain as the maggots ate away at the ghastly, infected wound on his femur. The two soldiers were stranded in Japanese-controlled territory and it took some time for it to sink in that a dry offensive and rescue operation wouldn’t be contemplated by the British until the dry season began many months later.

Isaac and David passed themselves off as Muslims in the hope that it would foster a stronger sense of brotherhood in their desperately precarious situation. They were painfully aware that it would take just one local to turn them into the Japanese. They grew more nervous still when a villager robbed them of their military attire, which they assumed would be presented as evidence as to their whereabouts. Then the parcels of food and herbs from villagers, who were themselves poor villagers, dried up altogether. Twelve days passed before a local man called Shuyiman approached them. He took one look at the sorry state they were in and promised to do all he could to care for them. He first tried to repair their leaking shack and later brought them into his family home. Had the presence of David and Isaac been discovered by the Japanese, Shuyiman and his entire family would have been executed; possibly tortured first. There were several close calls, as Japanese soldiers routinely inspected village homes: with one exception, Shuyiman concealed the level of danger he was in from his two guests – whom by now he considered his friends.

Nigerian names on the War Memorial at the Taukkyan Cemetery outside Yangon. Photo courtesy of Barnaby Philips
Nigerian names on the War Memorial at the Taukkyan Cemetery outside Yangon. Photo courtesy of Barnaby Philips

Nine months later, Isaac and David were rescued by the British and flown to India for treatment before returning home to a heroes’ welcome. However as Phillips wrote, “The West Africans’ campaigns were barely covered by the Allied war correspondents and photographers, for whom they had no glamour. British soldiers in Burma famously dubbed themselves ‘The Forgotten Army’, but what did that make West Africans? John Hamilton wrote with frustration that they were the ‘forgotten flank of the forgotten corps of the ‘Forgotten Army.’”

Both Isaac and David’s families were convinced they were ghosts, as they’d long been listed as missing in action. It was only when Isaac’s family threw dust on him that their fears were allayed – David wasn’t let inside the family home until he lit up a cigarette on the doorstep.

The fact that Isaac was permanently maimed didn’t dispirit him: he set about building his post-war life with determined enthusiasm.

“What I like about his story is that Isaac moved on after the war – he went on to become a successful civil servant and travelled to the UK in the sixties and seventies. He had a car and nice house, and was able to provide his children with opportunities he’d never had. He wasn’t a victim and he didn’t die a bitter man,” Phillips told Mizzima.

However Isaac did carry certain regrets – chiefly the lack of contact with Shuyiman and his family, for whom he felt intense gratitude. One of the last things he did before his death in 2012 was to build a home in his ancestral village in their memory.

Phillips was BBC’s Nigeria correspondent between 1998 and 2001, during which time he had heard whispers about the ‘Burma Boys’, as they were known locally.

“I was intrigued but didn’t do much about it to be honest – I left Nigeria and later, Africa. It ate away at me until the late 2000s, when I realised it would be great material for a book or a documentary,” he said.

Phillips found Isaac’s 60 page memoir in London’s Imperial War Museum and promptly contacted David Killingray, the historian whose hands it had ended up in.

Isaac Fadoyebo. Photo courtesy of Chris Olivotos
Isaac Fadoyebo. Photo courtesy of Chris Olivotos

Killingray told Phillips that the last time he’d spoken to Isaac was a decade ago – both doubted he was still alive. Phillips asked a friend in Nigeria to deliver a letter to the address Isaac was last listed at – and was overjoyed to discover he was alive – and had a phone.

“I called the number and a strong voice came through in fluent English. I explained who I was and he cut me off and said, ‘Mr Phillips, when are you coming?’”

Phillips returned to Nigeria in 2010 to film the documentary and travelled to Myanmar the next year with the faint hope of tracking down Shuyiman’s family to deliver a letter and photographs from Isaac. Once again, Barnaby’s timing had been critical: he arrived in Sittwe before sectarian violence broke out in May 2012, which would have made his mission impossible.

Despite being equipped with the vaguest approximations as to the location of Shuyiman’s village, as Isaac himself was uniformed about where he’d spent those nine months, Phillips succeeded in finding the village. Shuyiman and his wife had passed away several years back, but his children remembered the two African soldiers vividly and recalled how often their parents had spoken about them. They broke down in tears when they saw Isaac’s photo and said that they too had been thinking of him all these years.

Isaac was overjoyed to learn that his letter had been delivered to the family to whom he owed his life. He was finally able to express his emotions when Phillips connected them by phone using a London-based Rohingya translator – though he said the line between Lagos and Rakhine State was expectedly riddled with crackles.

Phillip’s book is also fascinating by way of the surprising parallels he draws between modern day Myanmar and Nigeria, which for decades after the Second World War had been beset by political turmoil and corruption – but for whom much optimism is now held.

The victims of the story, Phillips concludes, is Shuyiman’s family.

“Their lives haven’t changed for the better and they remain a persecuted minority. They continue to live in the same village [whose name Phillips does not disclose] and successive generations live on as poor farmers.”

“Although they didn’t end up in IDP camps, they said they felt imprisoned in their village. When I spoke to them in 2012 they said ‘This is our land we will stay here.’ But by mid-2014, Shuyiman’s grandson was saying that they were going to try to leave – perhaps to Bangladesh, where they are not welcome. That is the sad part of the story,” he said.

‘Another Man’s War’ is available on Amazon and the paperback edition will be released in June.

The documentary Burma Boy won a Golden Eagle award in 2012 and can be viewed on Youtube.

2 comments on “Finding Africa’s lost soldiers in Myanmar”

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