KUALA LUMPUR: I stood there staring in disbelief. The stench of decaying food and unwashed bodies stung my nostrils. There was rubbish everywhere.
How could people actually live in a place like this?
But there they were. Five old folks, abandoned to live in such squalid conditions.
As my eyes traced the outline of a pile of clothes, I spotted a head. It was an old man, P. Muniandy. I had not been able to tell him apart from the pile of clothes at first glance. It was that bad.
The call had come as I was working the 6pm shift on Saturday.
A resident of Taman Wahyu in Jalan Ipoh claimed that five old people were living in an abandoned house.
I headed to Taman Wahyu with my colleagues, videographer Andrew Tan and photographer Shaari Chemat, but rescuing five elderly folk from desperate conditions was the last thing on my mind.
I met the contact, resident P. Duraimohan, who told us neighbours had complained of sounds coming from the seemingly empty house, formerly an old folk’s home.
From the outside, the “vacant” house was unremarkable.
A blue Perodua Kancil was parked up against the front gate while a lorry was in the porch.
The car was filled to the brim with assorted items like dried vermicelli and old newspaper. Following Duraimohan, we climbed over the front gate.
To the left of the door, a motorcycle was partially hidden between an old television and a pile of rubbish consisting of plastic bags, cardboard boxes, a flower pot and dozens of plastic bottles strewn on the floor.
A photocopier was left by the glass sliding door, exposed to the elements, along with some broken furniture.
Duraimohan went in first and switched on the lights, and called out to Leong Soo Ah, the woman he had seen when he went in earlier.
As we stepped in, boxes, old furniture and papers were piled shoulder-high. The smell was pungent and Duraimohan pulled his shirt over his nose.
Leong, sporting a buzz cut, spoke rapidly to us in English.
I asked if she had eaten and how long she had been living there.
“Two months,” she said. I found that unbelievable.
My colleagues muttered two years would be more believable.
Leong said someone had delivered dinner earlier.
She would later show me some food containers that the residents had no energy to finish.
As we made our way through the living room, Leong brushed away some envelopes and pointed out a rusty meat cleaver underneath them. She said that it was for protection against thieves.
The smell grew stronger as she led us up the stairs, made narrow by stacks of books and boxes piled along the sides.
I was stunned to see the living room upstairs – it was as if a hurricane had blown through the house.
The sickly-looking Muniandy was lying against a mountain of clothing, his off-white shirt and blanket blending in with the other clothes.
Leong showed us the women’s room. A skeleton of a woman was seated on a sofa.
She did not respond when I asked her how she was doing.
In the next room, two men were lying on a bare queen-sized mattress.
Although both rooms were uncluttered by junk, they smelled due to the broken adjoining toilet.
One of the men warned me not to take a peek inside. “It’s smelly,” he said.
The first thing I asked the men was if they had any water because I saw a number of empty mineral water bottles in the room.
Duraimohan told me he had tried contacting the Welfare Department to get the five of them to somewhere decent.
“But they said investigators would only be sent on Monday (today),” he said.
My immediate concern was to get the sickly man and woman examined by a doctor.
A doctor couple – Mani Vannan and Vanathi R. Dorai – who live nearby suggested that the police and ambulance be called.
I made the calls and three policemen in a patrol car arrived. They cut open the lock after neighbours helped push the Kancil away.
Then, more plainclothes policemen came, including the Jinjang station chief.
All five occupants were then taken to Hospital Selayang.
The next morning, I tried calling a number from a business card Leong said was her son’s.
After a few tries, I spoke to a man who was initially wary of an unknown number calling him to ask about his mother.
After I sent him a picture of Leong, the man confirmed that it was indeed his mother.
Then came a shock.
My colleague M. Santhakumar called to say only four people had registered at the hospital front desk and Leong was not among them.
My mind raced trying to figure out what to do after “rescuing” an old lady only to lose her at the hospital moments after telling her son that his mother was safe.
After the initial wave of panic, a staff member at the emergency ward said a policeman had informed them that an old woman had been stopped while wandering out of the hospital. We breathed a sigh of relief after learning that Leong was safe in police custody.
She will be sent to a Government welfare home today.
I arranged to meet the son at the hospital after he had gone to look for her himself at the abandoned house.
When we met outside the emergency ward, the man said he had placed his mother in the old folk’s home about seven or eight years ago.
“She was originally staying with my sister, but they were always quarrelling,” he said, adding that his mother was suffering from a mental condition.
“I have known the pastor who ran the home for a long time and I felt comfortable leaving my mother in their care.
“I regularly meet her for lunch outside, every one or two months. But I never saw her at the house. All this while, I thought she was in Batang Berjuntai. I was frightened when I saw the house. It looked worse than a dog pound,” he said.
He said he had last seen his mother for Christmas last year in Mid Valley when the person in charge had brought her there.
He had also wanted to meet her for New Year but calls and messages to the person in charge had gone unanswered.
“I want to take my mother back to live with me. I hope I will get to see her soon,” the man said before leaving the hospital.
Things may turn out all right for Leong. The future of the other four, however, remains uncertain.