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Fragments of a Journey

A Fistful of Life

Fragments by Jose de Koster, Blog 8

Fragments of a Journey

A Fistful of Life

Blog 8

Many apologies to the followers of my blog for not having written earier. It has bee a long time since blogs but unforeseen circumstances have got in the way. here is the next instalments. Happy reading. If you like what you read, please tick the 'like' box and better still, send a comment.




A convoy of tanks,

Kempeitai and razzia,

father imprisoned.



Early one morning, my brother, Ed came running into my room, yelling, “Listen! Can you hear them? This is a different sound. Different from the Yanks, different from the Dutch. These are Japanese planes.They're here.”

For quite some time, conversation amongst adults consisted of discussion of war, initially the war far away in Europe. With tyres screeching on the soft asphalt, the truck skidded to a sharp halt, stirring sleeping birds in the midday heat. A soldier in KNIL (Royal Netherlands East Indies army, a military force maintained in the colony) uniform jumped out of the truck and began running albeit rather slowly and seemingly exhaustedly, towards the kampong road.Before he reached the kampong, he discarded his uniform so by the time he entered, he was dressed only in his kattock (underpants).The reason for his peculiar behaviour became clear the following day when sounds of clanging up the road in Sophia Street heralded the arrival of tanks turning into Wilhemina Street and coming to a shuddering halt. White flags with a red ball mounted to the tanks, flew in the breeze, soldiers in yellow-green uniforms appeared on either side of the tanks, shouting in a guttural language never heard before in our quiet cul de sac. As they lined the street, we stood silently watching our new rulers. My first impression of the Japanese army filled me with a sense of eeriness – strange guttural sounds, eyes that could not be seen under their caps from which, at the back, hung flaps of cloth in the style of Foreign Legion caps as worn by Beau Geste in the movies I had watched. However, there was no Digby Geste here to help his more famous brother, Beau, no soft voice of Gary Cooper – instead, a convoy of conquerors dressed in foreign colours with foreign voices, officers with samurai swords hanging at their sides, so very different from the previous military occupants in our town.The day those little round tanks came rumbling into sight, men in yellowish uniforms filling the turrets, others marching behind, that day innocence was strangled in me. Suddenly I knew that life has teeth and the teeth are those of death.

Fragment : The Madurese

Fixed bayonets entering with a shout so ferocious

it made my blood crawl when in the park

a Madurese was bayonetted to death

because he had laughed.

Three steps forward and jab. Shout at the jab.

Blood-grimaced face but not a sound out of his dying Madurese mouth.

Died with the pride of his being intact.



In the preceding few months, we were invaded by British, Australian and American soldiers who had lined the streets, had slept in and under trucks to escape the unfamiliar heat, had occasionally scuffled with each other to kill the tension and boredom. Many households in the neighbourhood had taken these soldiers, especially those who were older and weary-looking, extending their hospitality by providing food and shelter. They had been sent to protect the Dutch colonials from a possible invasion by the Japanese. Having failed miserably in that regard, they were then sent off to Singapore. Looking back, it now seems to me that they were warriors of a long gone era when a sort of innocence still hung along the tree-lined streets.

Slowly, days changed the tone of our lives. I remember sitting on the bank of the river at the back of our village and down below, musing how everything was changing except for the river. It continued to flow, never stopping for a second, constant and steadfast even while humanity was changing colour. New order, harsh times! This thirteen year old boy was suddenly filled with a new kind of fear, an alien instinctive fear such as, I imagine, that felt by animals knowing they are observed by predators yet not knowing where the hunger that stalks them lives. Is this the beginning of understanding war?

We watched men being dragged behind horses and trucks struggling to keep alive, allied soldiers caught in the mountains surrounding us; we saw, behind our house on Rampal, a New Zealand sapper dragged behind a horse, his shirt ripped to smithereens, his body a bloodied mess; we observed men tied to trees used for bayonet practice. And not a sound issued from my lips, only silent screams and and a shrinking gut. Again, for the second time, I became aware of the horror of death.

The first time occurred many years previously when a Chinese kelontong (peddlar) fell into a tiger trap set by my grandfather to kill a rogue tiger which terrorised the area. For a brief instant he must have felt the same fear before screaming in pain as the bamboo spears pierced his body in a dozen different places. When the screams died down and we approached the hole, we saw, in the black velvet of the night, the vague outline of a twitching body which, they presumed, was the body of a tiger in its death throes. It was not until a light was produced and shone on the dead man draped with his goods that our mistake was realised. I was about ten or eleven, experiencing death for the first time. Here was a man, I thought, going about his business, probably never giving a thought about life or death until suddenly, the earth opened up under him and he fell in, gored to death by what must have seemed to his, innumerable bamboo spears. Never again, would he go about selling his cloth. That same moment, the fear of death crept through me, squeezing my innards hard and stabbing, stabbing my chest, a wild pain silencing the scream running through my body. That day was probably also the death of my childhood and the innocence of youth.

The residents of our street mostly kept to themselves except when they gathered outside our house to listen to my mother playing the piano but we children continued to play together, often cowboys and Indians but the manner of the game changed. Our boisterousness and yells of “Bang-bang” whilst pointing toy or makeshift guns were no longer. We no longer pointed, even with our fingers and the word “bang-bang” was quietly spoken. After all, one never knew if the japanese were watching. At first, we did not notice the slow thinning out of our members. Firstly the British and other foreigner we then the Indisch and Totoks (those born in the Indies and those who came from Holland respectively) then the odd Indo (mixed blood) until only we, my mother and brothers were left.


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It is the anniversary of Guus de Koster on Monday 13th September. I came across this page while trying to find videos of him acting. I am one of his Great Granddaughters -Hope. I remember Jose coming over from the Blue Mountains to Auckland to visit my Papa. I have fond memories of Jose teaching me how to paint. Thank you for creating this space where we can come and remember them.
Please keep in touch or share any photos you have.
Take care!


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