Australian Confrontation veteran reunites with Iban tracker’s family

Private Don Cameron (second left) with Iban tracker Unchat Unyong in Kuching in 1965. Photos courtesy of Paul Rosenzweig

KUCHING, Sept 29: In the town of Sibu, a special reunion recently took place between an Australian military veteran who served during the Confrontation and the family of an Iban tracker he served with in the mountains near Kampung Gumbang in 1965.

On Sept 10, Don Cameron, who today is the South Australia & Northern Territory Branch of the National Malaya & Borneo Veterans Association Australia Inc (NMBVAA) vice president, and his wife Jenny flew all the way to Sibu to meet the family of the late Iban tracker Unchat Unyong.

Accompanied by NMBVAA branch president Major Paul Rosenzweig OAM (ret’d) and one Crisel Rosenzweig, they were greeted with flowers, scarves and bead necklaces by late Unchat’s son Nyala, his wife Terina Dari, and their twin children Rewina and Justin.

At the beginning of September, Don and Paul had conducted a private reconnaissance and liaison visit to Sarawak to plan for a commemorative service NMBVAA will conduct at the Sarawak Heroes Memorial Park in August 2023 jointly with New Zealand counterparts.

Don (right) and wife Jenny (left) in a photo with (from second left) Terina, Rewina, Justin and Nyala.

In a media release today, Paul revealed that Unchat and another Iban tracker Balling Ajong were attached to Don’s platoon during the Indonesian Confrontation with Malaysia in 1965.

Even though Don did not get to meet Unchat who had passed away in Kapit in June 2021 and Balling who died in 2012, he said that seeing Nyala today was like seeing a young Unchat from 57 years ago.

Paul, who is an Australian military historian, emphasised that this reunion was important in recalling the service of both the Commonwealth forces and the Iban Trackers during the Malayan wars.

“Many Ibans had been recruited as trackers during the Malayan Emergency (1948-60), and then during the Confrontation they contributed more than any other local community to their own country’s defence.

“In Sarawak in 1965 and 1966, during Confrontation, the Australian rifle companies patrolled a 20km stretch of the border, on both sides. These patrols were supported by highly effective Iban trackers,” he said.

While he noted that very little has been recorded of the Iban trackers, and almost no official records still exist, Paul recognised that the Ibans are traditionally a warrior race, originally comprised the majority of the population of Sarawak, living mainly in the lowlands in longhouses along the main rivers and their tributaries.

The most significant characteristic of Iban culture, he added, is the practice of several family units living together yet independently in a longhouse.

Paul also took a photograph of veteran Don with Unchat’s son and grandchildren. Don had also brought with him a photograph taken in 1965 when he and other members of 6 Platoon had come from Gumbang to Kuching on recreation leave to watch the horse races.

“Those who saw the 1965 photo of Unchat and compared it with the image of Nyala and Unchat’s grandson Justin remarked on the striking resemblance between them all.

“The family resemblance shows the Iban tradition being passed down the generations. Agi idup, agi ngelaban! This is the motto of the Ibans in Sarawak — ‘Still Alive, Still Fight’ or ‘Fight to the Death’,” he added.

Don (left) with Unchat’s son Nyala.

The fruitful journey to find long-lost pals

Don and his wife managed to locate the families of both the Iban trackers with the help of Serani Eli from the Kapit District Council using the addresses and information on handwritten notes provided by Balling and Unchat from 1965.

“Ibans do not use surnames or family names, but rather a patronymic which indicates the person’s descendancy from their father using the term ‘anak’ (child of). Balling anak Ajong, for example, has the meaning ‘Balling, the son of Ajong’.

“In 1965, Balling gave his address as care of ‘T.RH. Mangah, Sg Marirai Ballih, Kapit, Sarawak, Malaysia’. This represents Tuai Rumah Mangah, the Iban longhouse headman named Mangah, in a longhouse located on the Marirai Ballih River in the area of Kapit,” Paul shared.

Similarly, Unchat gave his address as care of “T.RH. Unyong, Sg Bena Sot, Kapit, Sarawak, Malaysia” which indicated that Unchat’s father was Tuai Rumah Unyong, the headman of the Iban longhouse located on the Bena Sot River in the area of Kapit.

“Using this information, Don and Jenny hopefully emailed Kapit District Council in Sarawak asking for assistance to locate the families in August 2022. They were surprised to receive a very prompt email reply from Serani Eli of Kapit District Council.

“Serani had found that the widow of Unchat was living in the same longhouse from 57 years ago, although Unchat himself had died in Kapit in June 2021. It took a little longer though to find Balling’s family – Balling had died in 2012 and the family had moved,” he said.

Paul (back row, right in green shirt) and Don (back row, left in green shirt) with Nyala and family during the reunion party. Also seen is Serani (left).

Serani facilitated a meeting in Sibu while Don and his wife Jenny were visiting Kuching. Kapit is located about 140km upstream from Sibu, along the Rajang River. From Kapit to Sibu is about a four-hour drive, or a shorter boat ride.

“Unfortunately the widow of Balling was too unwell to travel, and the daughter of Balling, now living in the coastal town of Bintulu, was unable to be released from her work and could not attend,” Paul added.

However Serani accompanied Unchat’s son and family to Sibu to meet with Don and Jenny.

Unchat’s 73-year-old widow Banuh Itum was unable to make the journey from Kapit to Sibu, but sent her best wishes to veteran Don.

A walk down history

In 1965, during the Indonesian Confrontation with Malaysia, Don, who was then a Private, served with 6 Platoon, ‘B’ Company of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, according to Paul.

After Australian ground troops were committed to West Brigade, which was conducting counter-insurgency operations in the First Division of Sarawak on Feb 13, 1965, the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR) based at Terendak Camp on the Malay Peninsula was warned for deployment.

Don was a member of the advance party which flew from Singapore to Kuching on February 15.

The main body arrived in Kuching on March 23. On that day, 3RAR assumed responsibility for the Bau sector and 23 kilometres of border, and ‘B’ Company assumed responsibility from the Gurkha company at Kampung Gumbang near the Sarawak-Kalimantan border.

Their fortified position was at a nearby site which the Australians called “Bukit Knuckle” based on the distinctive features of the rock mountain in the near distance.

The battalion had 24 Iban trackers from Sarawak attached for operational duty. Six of them were assigned to ‘B’ Company, with Nabau Gerasi selected by the trackers themselves to be their leader.

The two Iban Trackers attached to Don’s platoon were Balling Ajong and Unchat Unyong.

Members of 6 Platoon, ‘B’ Company, 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment at Bau in 1965, ready to be flown by helicopter back to the ‘Bukit Knuckle’ fortified rifle company patrol base adjacent to Kampong Gumbang near the Sarawak-Kalimantan border. Iban tracker Unchat Unyong is seen front row, first left while fellow Iban tracker Balling Ajong is at front row, second right.

Australia’s commitment to operations on the Malay Peninsula, in northern Borneo and in the contiguous waters of Malaysia and Singapore including the Straits of Malacca, fell within the context of its membership of the British Commonwealth Far East Strategic Reserve (BCFESR).

In particular, throughout 1965 and 1966, Australian ground troops were assigned to the West Brigade which was based in the First Division of Sarawak.

Australian soldiers occupied a series of defensive positions, responsible for defending their allocated areas of responsibility within Sarawak and on the Sarawak-Kalimantan border.

Each of the two successive Australian infantry battalions defended the lines of approach from Indonesian territory to Kuching by taking responsibility for a sector of the Sarawak-Indonesian border, at least 20km in length. The mission of the Commonwealth military forces was to deny any intrusion into Sarawak.

The Australian infantry battalions established and occupied fortified company and platoon patrol bases astride some of the traditional trading routes between Indonesian Kalimantan and Bau/Kuching. Their task was to protect the Sarawak capital by defending the approaches to Bau which was recognised as “the key to the door of Kuching”.

The primary defensive effort was the development and occupation of three fortified rifle company patrol bases, with each forward company responsible for about seven kilometres or more of the Sarawak-Kalimantan border. — DayakDaily