When I open my eyes, I am finally greeted by daylight streaming through the curtains in my cousin’s room. Though my body could use more sleep, I’m relieved that it is no longer night, no longer dark in every corner of the room. I of course had a nightmare, which usually wouldn’t affect me too much.
But I always believed that the worst nightmares are about the people you love the most. While growing up, my mother told my sister and me a superstition: never repeat a nightmare aloud, especially when the nightmare is about someone else. If you say it out loud, it might come true. But this nightmare had already come true.
It certainly didn’t alleviate my nerves when I woke up from the dream in the wee hours of the morning, while the room was dark and the rest of my uncle’s house was dead silent. I’ve always been a bit afraid of the dark, but far away from home, I felt even more disoriented and vulnerable to my imagination and to the thoughts funneling through my head.
No matter how much I tried to think of happy thoughts and fall back asleep, Maggie’s story kept pulsating at the back of my mind.
I had been in Toronto for only one week by the time I had interviewed Maggie. I had just started the summer’s round of interviews, and by this point, I had only interviewed Ying Sheng Ahpak, Andy Ahpak, and two of my father’s siblings. We needed more.
Moses Ahpak and Ying Sheng Ahpak introduced me to Maggie. While interviewing them, they had mentioned her sister—Maggie’s youngest sister was the one who was born on the train to Rajasthan.
While taking notes as Maggie told her story and occasionally fell into conversation with the others, I waited for any trademark details that would make this story uniquely Maggie’s story. Not surprisingly, I end up recording many of the same details among all the ex-internee stories, and understandably, many ex-internees are hesitant about disclosing their memories and emotions. In many other cases, bad memories have already been blocked out.
But in Maggie’s case, even the worst memories remained.
Maggie had been about 12 years old when she was taken to the camp with her parents and two sisters. As an adolescent growing up in the camp, she remembered a lot of the people in the camp—and in particular, she remembered another 12-year-old girl with whom she used to play. The girl had been brought to the camp with her father; it was assumed that her mother had either died or had not been incarcerated.
It wasn’t long before Maggie’s friend had fallen sick. Maggie remembers that it was something minor—a cold or a fever—yet the girl was taken to the infirmary for treatment.
It was known around the camp that the infirmary had two doctors—one was fairly qualified while the other was regarded as “questionable” by many internees. Regardless of qualifications though, the two doctors were not allowed to provide prescription medication or antibiotics and only had access to over-the-counter medication.
It so happened that the girl was given over to the care of the “questionable” doctor. Her condition did not improve, and within a matter of days, the doctor announced that the girl had died. Her body was laid in a coffin and the coffin was buried. No one told Maggie what had happened to her friend. She asked around, and finally, a camp guard came forth and told her that the girl had died and had been buried.
It was traumatic enough for a young twelve-year-old girl to learn that her playmate had died so silently and suddenly, without proper mourning or ceremony. But the camp guard continued to tell Maggie what else he knew of the little girl. The night that the girl had been buried, the guard had been on duty within sight of the grave plot.
And then he heard the screams traveling from beneath the grave.
The camp guard was faced with two possible scenarios. It was possible that the girl was dead and that his imagination was getting the best of him. And then it was also possible that the girl was indeed alive and screaming, for her life depended on it.
Faced with two possible scenarios, he figured he had two choices. He could either assume that it was just his imagination and go on and remain at his post, or he could have run to get someone else and ask if they heard the screams as well.
Human nature would perhaps urge one to imagine the worst case scenario—that the girl had been buried alive—and act upon it. But what happens when there is no accountability for such deaths? What happens when an individual is given power over another individual?
The camp guard had a conscience, but he neither ignored the girl nor ran to help her. Instead, he waited until the morning to tell camp officials of what he had possibly witnessed. Camp officials immediately went to the grave plot and dug up the coffin.
To be continued