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Paradise regained.

Since 1989, rebels on the island of Bougainville have been fighting for independence from Papua New Guinea. Dom Rotheroe visited the island before the recent ceasefire and discovered the islanders waging an eco-war to save their land from industrial destruction.

THE HAZE CURLS ACROSS THE RIVER towards us like benign water spirit. Our inexperienced eyes assume it's a pretty ineffective smoke bomb and the video camera relishes the way it catches the tropical light. In the next moment we are instantly wiser as the tear gas burns our skin, sears through our lungs and scalds the tears from our eyes. We stumble blindly up the bank to where the guerrillas are in stitches.

"Now you know what it feels like," smirks Ishmael with more pleasure than seems absolutely necessary. "And that was just a small one."

Not that it was unexpected. I knew this shifty-eyed young commander of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) was going to play some trick from the moment he whispered a few words in the ear of a guerrilla who promptly disappeared. Sure enough, another 10 minutes into this training patrol, a mock ambush is launched and Ishmael Toroama hurtles into the bush with his M-16 blazing. The ambush may be to keep the `Boys', as everyone calls the BRA, on their toes, but the tear gas is purely for us, a short sharp dose of Bougainvillean reality.

Ishmael later admits that on these training exercises he often attacks his men with live ammunition. `Ever hit any?' I ask. `Oh, yes.' `How many?' `Twelve.' `Twelve? Seriously injured?' `Er, one, yes, very.' I am quite surprised to hear him sounding almost guilty, but it must be dangerous training like this that has turned the BRA into such an effective fighting force.

As the people on Bougainville will proudly tell you, when the island's war for independence from Papua New Guinea began in 1989, a ragtag bunch of guerrillas armed with just catapults and bows and arrows was faced with a Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF), equipped, trained and often supplemented by Australia. The BRA soon started welding old pipes into shotguns and rifles, although now most of the rebels wield guns they've captured from the PNGDF.

The fact that Papua New Guinea has become such a reliable arms supplier to the rebels isn't the only clue as to who's winning this war. 80 to 90 per cent of Bougainville is now firmly under rebel control with the PNGDF confined to a steadily-dwindling number of bases and the number of Bougainvilleans in their territory dwindling even faster. Around 70,000 islanders were moved into euphemistic `care centres' when the fighting was at its peak, but frequent tales from these centres of PNGDF intimidation, murder and rape, together with new Bougainvillean efforts towards reconciliation mean that each day more and more refugees are sneaking back onto rebel land. In the war for hearts and minds the BRA are clearly laps ahead.

After the last trumpeted PNG offensive, High Speed 2, quickly turned into a high-speed rout, even their top brass admitted they couldn't win the conflict by military means alone. Early in 1997 the government acknowledged as much by hiring mercenaries through the British company Sandline to take out the BRA's leaders. A rebellion within the army and subsequent domestic and international protest soon scotched this idea, but Ishmael pretends to be disappointed: "The mercenaries had much better weapons. By now we could have rocket-launchers, mortars, AK-47s."

Papua New Guinea's most effective weapon is still the shoot-to-kill sea blockade it keeps round the island, designed to prevent aid getting in and information getting out. Running the three-hour gauntlet of Australian-supplied patrol boats and helicopters to the nearest of the Solomon Islands has been the islanders' only door to the rest of the world for eight years now. It was also the only way in for us, a bone-pounding ride in a makeshift motorboat packed to the gills with supplies and heavily-armed BRA. As we stopped before the maritime border for a short prayer, I looked at the petrol canisters stacked around and beneath me and realised that it wasn't really a case of being caught by the PNGDF-just one stray bullet would be enough to fry us. The burnt scar tissue twisting the features of the guerrilla next to me proved that.

However, the prayers seemed to pay off and as the sun lost itself in a blaze of glory behind Bougainville's postcard palms, we reached Ishmael with both nerves and flesh intact. The way back may not be so easy, he assured us the next day. Careless mouths meant that the PNGDF already knew we were there and weren't too happy about it. Then again, as Ishmael was quick to point out, "they're too scared of us now. We only have to fire one shot and they run away."

Some of Ishmael's confidence may be bravado, but the whole island seems to share in it. During the current ceasefire the island enjoys while we're there, everyone seems to be doing surprisingly well. On the way back from the patrol, Ishmael drives past acres of neat and tidy allotments growing everything from pineapples and tomatoes to chillies and peanuts.

Clearly, even during a blockade, on an island this lush and bountiful it's hard to go hungry -- but nothing approaches the importance of the simple coconut. Over the days we're on the island, its flesh and milk come to seem almost like sacraments. "Bougainville is coconut," Ishmael tells me. "PNG tries to crack us, but we're too hard for them. Coconut is life. No one cracks life."

While we're there, we sleep in houses built from coconut tree timber and eat food cooked in coconut juice. We use it as an antiseptic on our cuts and our guides use it to grease their guns. But most remarkably of all, the Bougainvilleans have refined coconut oil into fuel for the handful of generators and trucks still functioning on the island. Not only is it a far less polluting alternative to diesel, but, Ishmael says, twice as efficient. It is also available to anyone willing to squeeze the juice out of the scraped flesh (15 nuts per litre) and leave it standing in water for three days before siphoning the oil off the top and boiling it for various lengths of time-depending on which grade you want.

From Germany to Australia to Japan and back to Australia, Bougainville has been passed around various colonisers since its namesake -- the French explorer, Louis de Bougainville -- put it on the map in 1768. In the process it got casually earmarked by the powers-that-were as part of Papua New Guinea, despite the fact that Port Moresby is over six hundred miles away and the Solomon Islands, with whom Bougainville has all its ethnic and cultural links, only six. When PNG got independence in 1975 there were calls for secession, but it wasn't until 1989 that a full-scale war of independence broke out.

At least 10,000 islanders are estimated to have died since, the majority not from combat but from the lack of basic medical treatment caused by the blockade on an island where all the hospitals have been systematically destroyed and all the qualified doctors are dead or gone. In just one village between 1990 and 1994, health workers reported 80 maternal and 130 infant deaths during childbirth, and 140 mortalities of children under five.

Everyone has a horror story to tell, yet no one is especially willing to tell these tales. It is only after staying a week with Maggie and her jovial Papuan husband Joe that we learn of the tragedy unwritten on their faces. A couple of years ago a young guerrilla was having dinner with them when the pin from a grenade on his belt got caught on a chair and exploded. Maggie and Joe were both seriously wounded and their daughter, her grandmother and the guerrilla were killed. When asked, Joe tells the story briefly. This reluctance to dwell on the `bad times' is common to most of the people we talk to. Bougainville is winning now and they are more eager to show us their resourcefulness.

Just a glance around Ishmael's yard is enough to bring this inventiveness home. Ishmael's wife hurries along, pouring husked rice from one bowl to another while the breeze of her movement blows away the chaff. A young man demonstrates a Heath Robinson torch powered by a dynamo pieced together from various bits of scrap and wound up with the handle of a fishing reel -- at home he has a tape player that works on the same principle.

Meanwhile Ishmael tells us about Jesus and how he has come into the commander's life in a big way. The man they call the `Bougainville Ninja', famed for going into battle with an M-16 blasting in each hand, is "no longer proud to be a fighter". Ishmael was critically wounded by a grenade last year and tells us how Jesus appeared to him. "He said to me, "You are an inch from death now. Follow me, because I am the Lord." And this he duly did. Rushed through the blockade to a hospital in the Solomons, there was mention of amputating his blasted arm. He refused to allow it and instead one of his ribs was used to replace the bone. Constant exercising of a limb which looks like it's in a permanent Chinese burn is bringing it rapidly back to full strength and Ishmael believes his newly-confirmed faith is responsible. He used to have ideas of becoming a Pacific Che Guevara after the war and training insurgents in other countries, but now he wants to become a preacher.

The missionaries -- Catholic, Uniting Church, Seventh Day Adventist -- did a thorough job on Bougainville. Prayers to `Papa God' are said before meals, patrols or even just a good old-fashioned singsing and names like Benjamin, Moses and Elijah abound. Traditional beliefs still survive, but generally the old superstitions have been subsumed into Christianity to create the kind of rock-hard fatalism that believes that when someone is killed they must have done something wrong.

"Without Jesus I wouldn't have come this far," says Francis Ona, the President of the self-declared Republic of Bougainville. "Without Him the Australian government and Papua New Guinea might have beaten me a long time ago." High up in the central mountains, Buk Baibel in hand, he is preaching at one of the marathon church services that always draw maximum attendance. It's a strange place in which to hear words like bugurup (adapted from English to mean `broken'), but such words are the joys of the crude and colourful pidgin which is the lingua franca on an island where 19 languages are divided among less than 200,000 people.

The centre of Bougainvillean life has always been land. It is the home of their spirits, the gift of their ancestors and, above all, it is what they live off. It is why they are fighting and why Francis refuses to be budged from Guava, a neat and pretty little village perched just above the huge gaping wound that was the catalyst for the war -- the Panguna copper mine.

When Australia, and later Papua New Guinea, ignored the protests of the locals and gave a subsidiary of the British mining giant Rio Tinto Zinc the go-ahead to excavate the world's largest open-cast copper mine right in the middle of the island, they managed to galvanise the population as never before. With over a billion tons of toxic waste being dumped into the river system, the central Bougainvilleans watched their land dying beneath them. Paltry compensation and jobs at the mine did little to make them feel better about it and after sixteen years of frustrated protest the landowners, led by Francis who was also a surveyor at the mine, decided to take matters into their own hands. They closed the mine down and used its explosives to sabotage its machinery and infrastructure. As the violence escalated Papua New Guinea, panicked about losing what was nearly half of its export earnings, Defence Force with a heavy-handed response. The Bougainville Revolutionary Army consolidated itself and secession was called for. War began.

Driving past rivers which the copper has turned amazing shades of turquoise, Francis takes us to Panguna town which looks like a mini-Sarajevo. It was here that the mine's white or Papua New Guinean (`redskins' as the ebony Bougainvilleans call them) workers lived before they fled and the devastated flats make it amply clear that the BRA wanted to make sure they didn't have any second thoughts about coming back.

Although nearly everything not rooted in concrete has disappeared, a few villagers still scavenge the rains for the odd strip of metal or shelf of wood. The rest of the debris has been flung across the four corners of the island. Pipes from the mine provided the raw material for the early gun barrels and huge cogs from it are dragged for days over the mountains to various villages where they are converted into turbines for Bougainville's remarkable new energy system -- hydroelectricity.

Again the Bougainvilleans have neatly sidestepped the blockade and used mining pipes to channel their mountain streams into jets that drive the turbines powering rebel villages. Partly thanks to the mine's closure, lack of budget often leaves the PNGDF without electricity and its troops are left to gaze upon the defiant lights spangling the rebel territory they're blockading.

Such ecological energy is something Francis is set upon developing further under independence and this environmental consciousness is another unique aspect of Bougainville. It isn't a primitive culture at war with the twentieth century, but one that has tasted industrialisation and rejected it for ethical and ecological reasons. Before the war it had the highest standard of living in PNG, but the islanders really aren't that interested in money, generally preferring a comfortable subsistence life combined with modern technology that doesn't damage their land. Despite the need for cash to rebuild infrastructure and pay for needed imports, the odds on the mine being rejuvenated after independence are not good. And, crucially, when Francis makes an appeal to our camera, it isn't to ask the world for help, but to plea for the life of the planet.

It is this forward-looking philosophy that has helped the Bougainvilleans overcome the most severe effects of the blockade and in the future they hope to capitalise on it, especially in the area of health. In his spare time, Francis is a healer and he makes incredible claims about their developments of bush medicine. Apart from developing what they call chemical warfare by using a certain plant that on contact makes their enemy's testicles swell to painfully prodigious sizes, they also claim to have a natural contraceptive that doesn't harm women, to be able to cure leprosy and breast cancer in days and to heal appendicitis without operating. They even believe that they have the answer to AIDS, but have only been able to treat one person so far. Francis invites anyone else willing to try it out to come over and envisages the island later becoming a health resort for people seeking new or natural cures.

He is a man who pays his dues, though. He thanks Papua New Guinea for the blockade, "because without it we would never have been able to develop ourselves so quickly. The blockade has made Bougainvillea university for all of us."

Such defiant cheek comes naturally to a man whom I tell seems too nice to be a President. He takes this as a compliment, though I worry about his future in the big bad world of international politics. It is an arena in which he recognises his innocence, but he sums up his philosophy of leadership with a neat little anecdote. "In high school I was given the job of sweeping out the principal"s house. But one day I found him doing my job, cleaning out the toilet. And I asked him, "How could you, the principal, do this?" And he told me, "Leaders must always come down and clean the dirt for the people." That has stayed with me ever since."

Nevertheless, in the 12 months since I met him, Francis has become increasingly isolated. The debacle of the mercenaries revived international interest in finishing the war and a series of peace talks led to a permanent ceasefire in 1998. The blockade has been lifted and a neutral regional peace monitoring group now patrols the island, unarmed. Reconciliation and restoration are taking place across Bougainville.

The main movers behind these developments on the rebel side are Joseph Kabui, the Vice-President, and Sam Kauona, the Commander of the BRA. From the outset Francis has been wary of diving so quickly into the treacherous waters of international realpolitik and has fears of winning the war, but losing the peace. So far he has refused to sign any agreements and in Kauona's words has `chosen to marginalise himself from his people, his army and the peace process for reasons best known to himself.' How much influence he still retains will depend on whether Kabui and Kauona are able to prove his scepticism wrong and find a political solution for the island. The bottom line for that is getting Papua New Guinea to concede a referendum on self-determination. Without it, the peace may well fall apart and Francis will return to centre stage. Thus far the sounds coming from Port Moresby have not been encouraging.

In the end, Bougainville is too dangerous a success story. It has shown that the seizure of land and destruction of traditional life can be resisted and this is already causing problems for multinationals in the Pacific - last year the BRA spokesman in Australia was invited to talk to protesters about a mine in the Philippines and the compensation demanded by locals from mining companies in both Papua New Guinea and the Solomons has upped considerably. At the same time, the Bougainvilleans believe they have a lot to give the world in the fields of fuel and medicine and take pride in fighting on their little-known island what may well be the world's first real eco-revolution. Whichever way it is regarded, there are lessons to be learned here, but unless the demand for self-determination is properly addressed it could be a long while before Ishmael becomes a preacher.

Skimming over a glassy moon-dazzled sea we take our leave of the brave and beautiful island, circumventing the Solomon Islands' patrol boats that have been put on 24-hour duty since we'd run the blockade. Deciding it is safe we light the last of our roll-ups and take a relaxed look at the spine-tingling seascape. For us it is unreally beautiful. For our skipper who steers ahead the paradise was always there -- it is simply a question of when it can be regained.

Dom Rotheroe studied film at Harrow College before setting off to Sarajevo with a camcorder. The documentary he made there was sold to Channel 4 and nominated for a BAFTA award. Since then he has made films about the street children of Rio, the guerrillas of East Timor and the revolution on Bougainville (see page 40). He has also written for many other publications such as Esquire and The Independent.
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Title Annotation:autonomy movement in Papua New Guinea
Author:Rotheroe, Dom
Publication:Geographical
Geographic Code:8PAPU
Date:Jun 1, 1999
Words:3230
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