In 1943 war was raging in Europe and the Pacific. The Asian mainland was itself crumbling under the might of the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy, with 1941-42 seeing the fall of Burma, Malaysia and Singapore.
Even the isolated Maldives was feeling the effects of war. Food shortages led to people eating bark from trees, a national suffering that would later become known as ‘Bodu Thadhu’, directly translated as ‘ big famine’.
The British had beefed up their presence in the country. The admiralty felt Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) unsuitable to for a base after the fall of Singapore, so a naval base was established in Seenu Gan on the southernmost tip of the Maldives. This would be many Maldivians only exposure to the war.
That was not the case for the 40 unfortunate passengers aboard the ‘Yoahanbarass’, a cargo vessel running regular trips from Seenu Hithadhoo.
The Yoahanbarass was captained by Ibrahim Didi and was carrying cargo. Little did the crew know that the Japanese navy planned to invade the Maldives, and use it as a stepping stone into India – the thick Burmese jungle was deemed too harsh to cross and alternative routes were being sought – and so Captain Didi and his crew and were being tracked by a submarine.
On the seventh night after they had left Hithadhoo, Yoahanbarass was rammed by the Japanese submarine – many on board had never seen such a vessel before. The submarine surfaced and one of the passengers died when machine gun fire was sprayed across the deck. Japanese officers demanded that the person in charge to come on board.
This is where a the story takes a twist. A single decision saved one man’s life, and condemned the other to death. The person in charge of Yoahanbarass was Mohamed Ali Didi, brother of none other than Abdulla Afeef, the man who would become president of (the short-lived) United Suvadive Republic.
Panicking, Mohamed Ali Didi urged someone else to own up to being in charge. Mohamed Manikufan stood up and went over to the Japanese, later recalling how he was bundled into a tiny room on the submarine. It was the last he would ever see of the Yoahanbarass.
Meanwhile, back on deck, Captain Didi and the rest of the passenger and crew of Yoahanbarass were brought onto the deck of the submarine. Didi was also taken on board with the Japanese, and the hatch was closed.
Although no official record was made, Didi claimed the submarine dived, drowning everyone left on deck, including Mohamed Ali Didi.
Another vessel later arrived on the scene to find the Yoahanbarass sinking. The captain reported lots of sharks and debris, but no bodies were ever found.
After a short trip, Mohamed Manikufan and Didi found themselves in Japanese-occupied Singapore. Imprisoned in the same cells as British and American prisoners-of-war (POWs), they were subjected to torture and interrogation.
The Japanese wanted to know the British strength at Gan, how many personnel, naval vessels and planes they had. Not knowing the answers to these questions, they were subjected to more torture. Nails were ripped and routine beatings were administered.
In addition to this, the two Maldivians bore witness to the cruelties inflicted on the other POWs. They later recalled about how badly burnt American pilots were brought in and chucked into tiny cells, how officers slowly killed English soldiers.
Both Mohamed Manikufan and Captain Didi survived their ordeal in prison until Japan surrendered Singapore on 15 August 1945. The English soldiers liberated all the prisoners.
However, Mohamed Manikufan and Didi did not find their way home until Mohamed Amin was President of Maldives in 1953. People back home did not know the story of the Yoahanbarass, nor did they know that these men were still alive until they returned.
After arriving back in the Maldives, both men returned to living normal lives. Both have since passed away, but their story is kept alive.