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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 November, 2003, 16:31 GMT
Remembering victims of the 'death railway'
Kirsten Magasdi
BBC reporter in Thailand

The notorious Thailand-Burma railway built by Allied prisoners under the Japanese during 1942 and 1943 claimed the lives of thousands of POWs and many more forced labourers.

On the Death Railway
The Death Railway was built at a cost of thousands of lives

Daily tours from Bangkok take visitors to the Commonwealth War Cemetery, and on a train ride along what is often called the "Death Railway".

Allied prisoners of war were shipped to Thailand from neighbouring countries to build the vital railway link between Thailand and Burma for the Japanese military.

Using primitive tools and under great hardship, they constructed a 415 kilometre track in just 14 months - a project estimated to take five years.

It was dubbed the "Death Railway" because of the huge numbers of lives it claimed: 13,000 POWs and up to 100,000 civilian forced labourers.

More than 7,000 of the POWs rest in the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, about 130 kilometres west of Bangkok.

It is the largest of three cemeteries and an early stop for most tours.

Buried here are 3,500 British, 1,400 Australians, 2,000 Dutch, as well as New Zealanders, Canadians and 300 unknowns.

The cemetery's manager, Rod Beattie, of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, meets visitors of all ages from more than 30 countries.

Searching for peace

"Where's my grandfather where's my uncle? They want to know. For 60 years a lot of these people have never known where these men disappeared.

"All they know is that they became POWs of the Japanese and died building the Death Railway."

"Only yesterday I came out and found four Australians looking around. I met an Australian who has finally come to his father's grave. He was three when his father went to war."

The graves, museums and structures that remain tell the story that so many prisoners never could.

"It's very moving. It puts in perspective the lives lost," says one tourist. "It's a real experience to see and feel what happened," says another.

Bridge over the River Kwai
The Kwai bridge was the subject of an epic film

Speedboats take tourists further north to the bridge made famous by the novel and film "A Bridge on the River Kwai". It was rebuilt after an Allied bombing raid and is now a point to board the train along the infamous railway.

The journey takes us past sugar cane, though deep mountain cuttings and along high bridges. Building this track in record time, was some engineering feat.

Of the 30,000 Allied POWs almost half died and only one is known to have escaped. Those who did survive were carried out.

Most visitors to Kanchanaburi come from Commonwealth countries, the Netherlands and a very large proportion from Japan.

Because of its grim past, there is an understanding that the legacy of the railway belongs to several countries and many generations.

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