Traces of War

Surviviors of the Burma and Sumatra railways.

During WWII, the Japanese built a railway near the Burmese-Thai border, as well as one on the island of Sumatra. To this end, they used both Allied prisoners of war and
local Asians. The latter were the so-called romushas, civilians pressed into service. The living and working conditions of these forced laborers were abominable. Over 60,000 Allied prisoners of war worked on the 414 kilometers-long Burma railroad, among them about 18,000 men from the Netherlands. Out of the total work force, about 20% died. Around 6500 POWs, mainly Dutchmen, were put to work on the 220 kilometers of the Sumatra (or Pekanbaru) railway. One third of their number did not live to see the end of the war. There were also some 100,000 Javanese forced laborers working on the Pekanbaru railway line, while an additional 160,000 romushas were put to work in Burma. According to experts, between 50 and 80% of these died. A number of them didn't even reach the labor camps, but died on the way. One such instance was when the Japanese transport "Junyo Maru" was torpedoed off Western Sumatra. This was the third-largest maritime disaster in history, in which about 4,000 romushas and 1500 POWs lost their lives.

More than half a century later, photographer Jan Banning went in search of the aftermath of the war by exploring the consequences of these experiences of individual survivors. His project, entitled Traces of War, consists of photographic portraits with an accompanying interview of twenty four survivors, men who worked as forced laborers on these railroads. These survivors comprise sixteen former prisoners of war of whom fifteen are Dutch and one is Indonesian, as well as eight Indonesian former romushas living on Sumatra and Java. They have been photographed bare-chested, the way they worked during the war.

This project is highly personal: Banning's grandfather worked on the Burma railway and his father worked on the Sumatra line. Banning’s father is one of the 24 portrayed men.