Panguna is inhabited but it looks like a ghost town. It was built by a mining company in the 1960s and ’70s, then burnt down gradually, building by building, throughout the late ’80s and ’90s – a time that people in Bougainville refer to as ‘the crisis’ or ‘the conflict’, and during which Panguna was at the centre of the fighting.
Some people call the fighting ‘civil war’, and others don’t; it depends on how they see Australia’s role in the crisis, or Bougainville’s relationship with Papua New Guinea. Currently, Bougainville is an ‘autonomous region’ of Papua New Guinea, but some groups on the island declared its independence from Australia just before Papua New Guinea’s independence was recognised by its coloniser, in 1975.
In Europe, we didn’t hear much about the conflict that began in the late ’80s and lasted for ten years. There was a seven-year military blockade imposed on Bougainville by Papua New Guinea that made it difficult for information to get out. Estimates now are that twenty thousand people died as a result of the war.
These days, people use the burnt-down buildings in Panguna for various purposes. There are a few classrooms on the second floor of a huge concrete building, each with a vertiginous lack of wall. In the morning, I pass school kids in uniform, who are listening attentively and repeating after a teacher.
Later that day, I find out what the building across the street was. The sun is out and strong, and we walk across the potholed concrete road to a building that used to be a cinema. A lot of things ‘used to be’ in Panguna. Down the road used to be a post office, and next to that used to be a supermarket with imported goods. A man who used to work here when the mine was operating is showing me around. He leads me behind the building to a swamp with rows of plastic cinema seats nestled in it, beneath a huge rusting metal structure and some healthy Japanese knotweed.
“Did you ever come to the cinema here?” my friend Tom asks him. I stand a few metres back, not wanting to get stuck in the mud.
“Yes, once upon a time, yeah,” he replies.
“Can you remember what films you saw?”
He pauses for a moment, either because he is trying to remember or because he is watching where his feet are going.
New Dawn FM
The fact that New Dawn FM has been functioning non-stop since 2008 is testament to the hard work of its founder, Aloysius Laukai. New Dawn runs adverts, but mainly it’s Aloysius’ other businesses, such as the shop and the car rental, that pay for the functioning of the radio station, the salaries of the journalists it employs, their training, the purchase of recording equipment, and so on.
I learnt about politics in Bougainville through conversations with Aloysius, and through the interviews and research I did in preparation for a series of short informational films, which were the main outcome of my time there. Some evenings, Aloysius would join Tom and I for a chat, and on rare occasions, for some food. I got the impression he wasn’t keen on our cooking.
Aloysius used to work for the national PNG radio station, NBC. He’s in his fifties, and he and his wife Maria have three children, all of whom are grown up and live in Bougainville. He knows a lot, but he won’t let on that he does in casual conversation. Instead, he’ll crack a joke and point at you until you laugh.
One night, he said to me, “I was the last person to leave the studio during the crisis.” I was asking him lots of questions in order to write a short history of radio on the island. I was sat outside the station on a plastic chair, taking notes on my laptop. Maria who presents a show on health and does the accounting for the station, would occasionally slap her ankles to ward off the mosquitoes, or chime in to correct a fact.
Sometimes Maria and Aloysius’ daughter, Aloyscia, would sit outside the station. Aloyscia has her own child, a five-year-old, Ray, so I had imagined she was older than me – she seemed more adult, in any case. Then I learnt she was born in 1988, like me. During the crisis, she and Maria lived – like many Bougainvilleans – for a time ‘in the bush’, and then Maria and Aloysius along with all their children left Bougainville for Rabaul, on the island of New Britain, for a couple of years. Later I found out that this time in the bush brought back traditional uses of medicinal plants, as people learnt to survive on what was available.
One day, Maria was helping me translate an interview from Tok Pisin about a mother losing her son. On that occasion Maria told me about the brutality of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) and about how, when she was pregnant in hospital, a man had put a gun against her chest and asked her, “Is that a breast or a paw paw?” She told me she once hid a man under a desk she was sitting at even though in local custom it is wrong for a man to be below a woman.
Some sources argue that the PNGDF was knowingly assisted by the Australian government, who supplied equipment that ended up being used to attack civilians. The PNGDF’s main opponent in the conflict was the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA). The person who set up the BRA, Maria told me, is from her village, and so she knew Aloysius had to go away at the beginning of the crisis.
In 1993, Aloysius returned to Bougainville, leading a team of ten people to re-establish Radio Bougainville by installing a studio in an old health facility. In 2002, he resigned with a mission to set up a radio station independent of the government. And in 2008, he set up New Dawn FM, which has been broadcasting ever since.
Tell me who is that in the milky green hat
Elizabeth II is wearing a hat, round and solid like a cartoon bomb, with an enormous rim. She’s getting out of a big shiny white car. She’s smiling and shaking the hands of children. She’s wearing impeccable white gloves. It’s Friday, 2nd February 1974 – not a day that goes down in history, not a day most Bougainvilleans have reason to remember.
Maybe Elizabeth II doesn’t remember it. She’s on a visit to Bougainville, and there she is in the Super 8 footage some Australian guy we found on the internet sent over to us. She’s smiling and leaning back in her white heels. Later that day, the Australian took his camera and followed Princess Anne and her husband up to the Panguna copper mine. We showed Aloysius the footage. He said, “I was seven at the time! I was a boy scout! I was there!” Why she was visiting Bougainville is open to speculation – her duty to the Commonwealth perhaps, or maybe because of an interest in Rio Tinto. In 1969, in collaboration with the Australian colonial administration, the multinational corporation had established the world’s largest open-pit mine in Panguna.
Papua New Guinea gained independence from Australia in 1975, having been under Australian rule since 1945. And this mine was to bankroll PNG’s independence. Today, the mine is not operating. Some rusty structures remain. Driving from one end to the other takes us about half an hour. Our 4x4 bumps up and down over the surface, and I stare out of the window down to the disused tunnels. I’ve seen footage of people panning for gold on the other side of the mountain, but the scenery around the car is deserted.
There have been talks, there are always talks, of reopening the mine. The question some Bougainvilleans ask is, do we open the mine to bankroll our own independence? Rumours say it’s got forty years of exploitation left in it. The extent of the resources remaining is uncertain, partly because a ‘no-go zone’ around Panguna – first established by the BRA, and maintained to this day – has largely succeeded in keeping surveyors out. Many people living around Panguna are too angry to enter the debate. One Panguna resident quoted in a Jubilee Australia Research Centre report said, “I do not want to talk about the reopening! … I seriously don’t want to discuss it, I hate it!”
In 1987, Francis Ona, once a mine surveyor for Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, formed the New Panguna Landowners Association (NPLA) with his cousin, Perpetua Serero. They felt Bougainvillean landowners’ rights were not being respected. When acts of sabotage on the mine began, the BRA was established, and the NPLA demanded compensation for the environmental destruction caused by the mine. Soon, Ona began demanding independence from Papua New Guinea.
Francis Ona’s sister appears in Tom’s footage. “The responsibility of this crisis,” she says, “is on BCL, PNG and Australia, and whoever took the minerals out of this land.” She is teary and angry; Tom has her framed in the corner of the screen, from a low angle. “Even England is inside it, because the Queen is inside it – she took most of our minerals out from here, she was part of it.”
“How do you know?” Tom asks from off-screen.
“I know!” she replies, outraged. “How can you ask me that question? I am the owner of the crisis. You cannot ask me that question,” and, high-pitched and pointing her finger to the ground, “I am with the truth.”
Tom asks a little more – what was the Queen’s stake, was she actually an investor? – pushing questions until she replies: “The income from BCL, part of it goes to the Queen, part of it goes to PNG, part of it goes to Australia, and part of it goes to investors.”
An Ordinary Village Farmer
“My name is Paul Kanama,” the man says, calmly, with a smile. “I live as an ordinary village farmer in my village, Domena, where I am from.” This ordinary village farmer, I learnt, was also doing a long-distance philosophy degree. Watching footage of Paul Kanama made me realise I’d been looking at the issue of land ownership all wrong. The quick way to explain the cause of the crisis is to talk about the anger towards the copper mine, but that involves skipping over details. The conflict wasn’t just about huge trucks coming in and taking minerals out of sacred ground, though that’s a narrative which is easy for me to grasp. And it wasn’t just a fight for independence, though that too was a major and long-standing element of it. Part of the more detailed story is that a group of landowners in the Panguna area were not receiving sufficient compensation from BCL.
“Traditional land ownership – that’s a very, very long story,” Paul explained. “But I’ll tell you briefly. Traditionally, land belonged to clans. So each member of each clan knew which part of the land belonged to them. And it was socially owned. That was the land distribution system with my people, my ancestors, and we still believe that today. But when the capitalists came, land distribution changed. Now this is where the problem is today.”
I had so many questions for Paul Kanama after I watched this, like, how do non-Bougainvilleans, with their small cocoa plantations, fit into this system, and what happens when someone dies, or when the population leaps from 60,000 to 160,000 in the space of 20 years, as happened between 1967 and 1988?
Maria named the project ‘Wokabaut Piksa’. In Tok Pisin – the creole language spoken in Bougainville and throughout Papua New Guinea – ‘wokabaut’ means to walk or go somewhere, or to roam, but it also means independence. ‘Piksa’ means films, but ‘tok piksa’ also means metaphor. The films, funded by a Vanuatu-based charity which promotes independent media in the Pacific, were produced in anticipation of the 2019 referendum, and covered issues such as weapons disposal, good governance, corruption, missing persons and war widows.
Aloysius, Tom and I spoke to ministers in the Autonomous Bougainville Government. We sought help from the International Committee of the Red Cross to find out what to do if you find human bones on your land. We interviewed civil servants, employees of the Bougainville Women’s Federation, ex-BRA fighters, volunteers, aspiring politicians, and people who had experienced loss. The content of the films was drawn from surveys and interviews, with help from local journalists and activists. We worked with New Dawn FM teams, and the interviewees were all Bougainvillean.
Of course, Tom and I put our mark on these films by shooting and editing them, which, as non-Bougainvilleans new to the situation, was potentially problematic – even more so given that we’re British. And yet, it was very much Aloysius who led the way. He seemed to be friends with everyone, constantly building bridges, and we were lucky enough to follow him as he navigated the complex landscape of Bougainville’s post-crisis society. It’s thanks to him that we were able to interview people on all sides of the conflict, and to screen our films in Panguna as easily as in Buin or Buka.
Over the two-week period of the mobile cinema screenings, we built up a ritual of wiring the PA, adjusting the projector’s focus, and setting up the sheet which served as a makeshift screen. The cinema went up in marketplaces, in schools, on village greens, and in people’s gardens. We’d do one or two screenings a day. I’d sit silently and take notes. Dennis, Maria’s brother-in-law, an ex-combatant in the BRA and now a peace-builder for the Autonomous Bougainville Government, was funded to join us and lead the discussions. In screenings, and in general, he was positive about the future of Bougainville. He would often remark, for example, that foreign hospitals had been unable to operate on his foot which he had injured during the war, but that Buka Hospital in Bougainville had the knowhow and thanks to his treatment there, he can walk. He’d use that as proof that Bougainvilleans have skills and can succeed independently.
People Talk About A Lost Generation
Bertha said ‘lost generation’ in English and put it in air quotes. By ‘lost generation’ she meant the thousands of children who had grown up either in the bush or in one of the forty-nine ‘care centres’ run by PNGDF. In 1997, Amnesty International estimated that 67,300 people were living in these care centres. This is from a 1995 report: “As the PNGDF advanced, they set up care centres for, especially, women and children who wanted to come out of hiding to return to their normal lives. It has been claimed that assaults, rape, killing and torture have been committed by both BRA members and PNGDF members, especially in the earlier period of the conflict, against those who were living in care centres.”
Arawa is the town at the base of the Panguna mine. The pavements are wide but decaying. It was built in the 1970s on a grid plan to accommodate the Australian workers coming over to work on the mine. Bertha owns and runs a guesthouse in Arawa called the Rising Sun Lodge and with the revenue from that looks after her cousin Melva, a war widow, and Melva’s children, as well as a number of other people. She also buys clothes in bulk to distribute for free to the surrounding villages. She used to work for a charity in East New Britain, a province of Papua New Guinea. Then she came back to her island, set up her business, and also set up two vocational colleges after successfully applying for funding from European countries.
One of the young people in Bertha’s charge, Melva’s fifteen-year-old son, lives with them in the guesthouse. I asked him if he would mind being interviewed and he agreed, but then seemed reluctant to talk to me. Bertha stood a couple of metres away, off-screen, nodding to him, and occasionally prompting his answers.
“My name is Stanton,” he told me in Tok Pisin. “My father died in the crisis.” He paused for a while and looked at the floor, so I changed the topic.
“Are you in school now?” I asked.
“How many years were you out of school?”
“I was out of school for three years. I was doing nothing in the village. We didn’t have money for the school fees.”
“What was it like when you went back?”
“It was a little bit difficult. Bertha is helping now with the school fees.”
In 2015, school fees in Bougainville went from 200 to 500 kina per year because the local government weren’t meeting the costs of running the schools. Someone working in a shop can expect to earn about 400 kina a fortnight, but for subsistence farmers, the new fees are very difficult.
“Did you notice your friends finding it hard too?”
“Yes, when I went back, I thought it was just me but lots of people were finding it hard.”
“What subjects do you like?”
“English, maths, physics and… that’s all.”
“Are you close to your brothers and sisters?”
“I’m the last born. They’re married now. But they used to look after me.”
“Is there anything else you want to say?” I asked. He looked across at Bertha.
“The government should take care of widows, and help us with the school fees.”
Some people – not least those directly involved in helping young people cope and recover – avoid using the phrase ‘lost generation’. Sister Lorraine Garasu, who runs a trauma counselling centre in North Bougainville, said in an interview in 2012 for Radio Australia, “in my work I don’t talk about a lost generation. I know that’s the term used for young people in Bougainville who are struggling to get out of their experience from the crisis. What I talk about is young people, and I believe that if you keep labelling people then psychologically it does not help… And for me there’s really no lost generation. I think what we need to understand here is that the young people are there, what they have lost is time, time and opportunity.”
The children who grew up under the shadow of the conflict are now, of course, in their twenties and thirties. In my interviews with Bertha, she called over and over again for more vocational schools to train those who had missed out on education. Ruby Mirinka, the founder of a local NGO, also spoke to me about the need for schooling for young adults. As one of the signatories of the Bougainville Peace Agreement (its only female signatory), a masters graduate, a tireless activist and community organiser who smuggled medicine through the blockade during the war, Ruby’s way of speaking was surprisingly modest. All the same, she spoke firmly, saying “Today we have got twenty-five to thirty-year-olds, they are illiterate and they are married. Because we haven’t looked at it in the past, we must look at it now. They have been called ‘left out’, or ‘marginalised’, but they are valuable people. They’ve got energy and strength, but they are illiterate too.” She was looking straight at the camera, speaking sternly but smiling whenever she was saying something positive. The ‘lost generation’, for her, need not be lost, but the solution will have to be drastic. “What we need to do is put all these Bougainvilleans into grade one, regardless of their age. They should be specially treated, and there is no reason why we cannot do that.”
The question of education, in Ruby’s view, had an added urgency, as literacy and opportunity were inextricably linked to the task of building a stronger autonomous Bougainville, and the need to prepare for the independence referendum in 2019: “When we talk about good governance, that has to be addressed, that group of people has to be addressed, that education level.”
A Screening in Panguna
Up a rubbly hill was the Panguna Pump Station. We stopped there for a while to wait for Dennis – Maria’s brother-in-law and a BRA fighter turned facilitator – and planned that evening’s screening. Dennis came with his family in the car, and we headed on through the site of the mine. “This is what was fought for,” someone said as we drove around a manmade lake, “a big hole in the ground.” The water was a bright, chemical blue. Rusting structures and flowers growing on disused cement walls made it all look like the set for Logan’s Run, the moment when they come out into the real world.
Panguna has smooth concrete roads all the way up the hill and people live in disused BCL blocks. In the town centre, we met Moses, an ex-BRA commander. He said he wants the Queen of England to recognise Bougainville, and could we ask her. A few weeks later, we gave his cell phone number to the British High Commissioner.
Panguna – former site of the world’s largest open-pit mine, where international engineers once flocked, and where the fighting began in 1988 – was the last stop of New Dawn FM’s Wokabaut Piksa. The place is a half-hour drive past a ‘no-go zone’ sign and a roadblock manned day and night by armed ex-BRA men, aimed at stopping foreigners and mining surveyors. We screened our films about the Bougainville Peace Agreement next to the makeshift school building I’d visited previously.
The reception from the local residents was positive. Some of the ex-BRA fighters and their supporters now group together under the name Meekamui Government of Unity. They, along with Francis Ona, refused to sign the Peace Agreement. But many at the screening expressed the desire to work peacefully towards the 2019 Referendum on Independence laid out by that agreement. The President of the Meekamui Government of Unity was there, and said to the assembled crowd, “We fought, we spilt blood. We lost our family members. We have struggled a lot… Now we must wokabaut with peaceful means.”
I was sat at my laptop, counting the 164 people attending the screening, writing down what they said. Up here in Panguna, unlike the rest of Bougainville, people were wearing coats – it felt a bit chilly, like a summer evening in England. In July, I went back home to London, where most people haven’t heard of a little island called Bougainville, except perhaps a few very knowledgeable shareholders at a Rio Tinto AGM, or some assiduous policy writers at Adam Smith International, whose logo is at the top of the Autonomous Bougainville Government’s December 2014 draft mining bill.