Homecoming for Iban fallen warriors

A History Channel documentary highlights one man’s mission to return the remains of fallen Sarawakian soldiers to their homeland, writes Aref Omar

AS Malaysians get ready to celebrate their nation’s 55th Merdeka this Aug 31, those who sacrificed their lives for the security of the country are remembered.With this in mind, History Channel will be airing a new documentary, Last Journey To Sarawak, about the forgotten heroes from the Sarawak Rangers and Iban Trackers who died in battle and were never given proper burials.

It focuses on the efforts of one valiant serviceman in the Malaysian army Lieutenant Colonel (Rtd) Robert Rizal Abdullah to return the remains of 21 fallen warriors to their homeland in Sarawak.

The retired soldier made this his mission after he read the plea of a Sarawakian woman who had spotted on a blog that the grave of an Iban tracker was on a roadside in Alor Star.

“My heart bled when I saw the picture. I vowed to take the matter up to the highest authority,” said Robert in a phone interview.

The 64-year-old patriot of Iban descent got his chance late 2008 at his book launch by Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud in Kuching, where Robert told him about his plan to bring back the remains of the Sarawak

Rangers and Iban Trackers for a proper heroes burial. The matter was later taken up to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, who made a pledge to help out.

It was reported that of the 21 killed in action between 1951 and 1963 during the country’s first emergency to fight the communists, the remains of only 12 were found.

Four were laid to rest at the Batu Gajah Christian cemetery, another four at the Cheras Christian cemetery in Kuala Lumpur, two in the Kamunting Road Christian cemetery in Taiping and the remaining two at the Kranji Military Cemetery in Singapore.

Of those whose remains were not found, eight had their names etched at the Terendak Military Camp in Malacca and the last one was that of Ungkok anak Jugam, whose gravestone was the one by the roadside in Alor Star.

Robert explained that Ungkok’s gravestone was moved to the side of the road when a dual highway was built more than a decade ago.

The project was named Operasi Mai Pulai (Operation Coming Home in Iban language) and Robert worked tirelessly with the Defence Ministry, the Sarawak Government, local ranger regiments, the police and medical personnel.

“The success of this project is a personal victory and the documentary which chronicles this event gives me great satisfaction,” said Robert.

He added that the final burial ceremony in Kuching recently, attended by the families of the fallen heroes, was a very moving affair.

“I was asked to give a little speech for the burial and I just couldn’t hold back my tears,” he said.

Robert explained that he was doing this for the future generations of Ibans to remember the sacrifices of their forefathers and what they had done.

“It is a legacy of the young Ibans,” he said.

Robert, who has four grandchildren, lives in Taiping with his wife, Raja Noriah Raja Shahrome, a great grand-daughter of the late Sultan Abdullah Muhammad Shah II who ruled Perak between 1874 and 1876.

Born in Sri Aman, Sarawak, Robert’s mother died when he was a baby and his father, a farmer, passed on when he was 15. His eldest brother, a policeman in the 1950s, took care of him and brought Robert along to wherever he was posted.

Robert grew up in several places and eventually Kuala Lumpur, where he started his studies at the Royal Military College in 1967.

“Ever since I was a boy I’d wanted to join the army,” he said, adding that he was also fascinated by the folklore of the Iban warriors.

“I’d ask my elders to tell me their stories and legends, which I remember would carry on late into the night but I didn’t care, I was really interested,” said Robert, who was bornRobert Madang Langi.

A fierce Iban warrior himself, Robert was awarded the Panglima Gagah Berani (PGB) medal, the nation’s second highest military gallantry award, after a courageous attack on communist terrorists in 1973.

“It was Oct 1973, I was based in Kuching and had just been promoted to Captain,” he said, adding that he commanded a company in the 3rd Battalion of the Malaysian Rangers.

“We received orders to locate and engage a group of communists and were airlifted into the remote area by helicopter.”

Robert and his team tracked the communists in the dense rainforest jungle for a week, with intermittent fire fights in between, before discovering their camp at night, which housed 70 communists.

“I split my team into two groups and waited until early morning before leading an assault force on the camp,” he said.

Robert left the army after 25 years of service in 1992 when the communist threat had subsided.

Last Journey To Sarawak premieres on Aug 26 at 10pm on History Channel (Astro Channel 555) with repeats on Aug 28 at 10pm and on Aug 31 at 11pm.
Read more: Homecoming for fallen warriors – Showbiz – New Straits Times http://www.nst.com.my/life-times/showbiz/homecoming-for-fallen-warriors-1.122919#ixzz24L788g5f




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