[ACNS, by Rachel Farmer] Archbishops from Australia and the UK joined leaders from the Church of East Asia in a memorial service in Sabah, Borneo, to pray for peace as they remembered the 2,400-plus victims who were marched to their death at the end of World War II. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Archbishop of Melbourne, Philip Freier joined in the special service on 5 October, at the Kundesang War Memorial.
Speaking after the service, Archbishop Justin said that the reflection garden, including stone plaques inscribed with the names of all those who died, was an extraordinary place, which enabled him to think about each person who had died and the family and loved-ones they had left behind.
He said: “war brings these terrible tragedies – we can be proud of the enormous sacrifice, for their suffering, beyond our comprehension, but we must be committed to finding other ways to deal with our differences.”
Some 641 British soldiers and 1,787 Anzac soldiers died in 1945, during the Japanese occupation. They were taken from prisoner of war camps, where they had been pushed to the edge of survival, and then forced to march 260 km inland to Ranau. Only a handful of soldiers managed to escape and survive these infamous Sandakan Death Marches.
The service of remembrance included moments of silence and prayers for peace.
Established in 1962 by a local family, the Kundesang Memorial was one of the first to commemorate the Australian and British prisoners of war who died in Sandakan, and also remembers the people of North Borneo who risked their lives to help the POWs.
Designed by a local architect, it is made up of four interlocking but separate gardens to represent the homelands of those who died: an Australian Garden, a formal English Garden of roses, a Borneo Garden with wild flowers of Kinabalu, and at the top level, a Contemplation Garden with a reflection pool and pergola.
Dr Philip Freier said he felt privileged to be there and take part in the service. “It’s a weighty remembrance of loss and the suffering of war – it’s been very touching to hear the local people talk about their respect for the sacrifice that was made.”
He said the service and the memorial highlighted the reconciliation that is possible in Christ.
“We’ve been here today with Australians, English [and] people from many contexts worshipping with Japanese Christians, with no sense of blame at all, because we recognise these seeds of evil within all of us and it’s only in the mercy of God that we can be freed as people from repeating these awful and barbarous things.”