Self-sustaining rebels endure despite naval blockade and limited resources
BOUGAINVILLE — IN the highland strongholds of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), the gardens and orchards tell the story: Everything about this rebel movement is home-grown, by necessity.
Villagers seem self-sufficient. They grow their own food, employ bush medicine, use homemade shotguns and ammunition rummaged from World War II plane wrecks, and even run diesel four-wheel-drive vehicles and generators on coconut oil. Radios are powered by solar panels. The nearly 1,000-man armed force of the BRA is bankrolled by no one.
``We are at war with Australia, but it is not our intention,'' says Francis Ona, leader of the militia that forced the closure of the world's most advanced mining operation, the Panguna copper mine. ``We want Australia to be at least neutral, but they continue to support the Papua New Guinea Defense Forces (PNGDF).''
Throughout the villages comes a consistent refrain: ``What we need are clothes and medicine.''
The journey to get supplies to these settlements is perilous.
Each week the BRA rebels run supplies through the Solomon Islands to the remote highland villages through a naval blockade imposed by the government of Papua New Guinea, with some help from Australia.
The boat trip takes 12 hours; the rebels navigate by the stars.
Adrift in the Pacific Ocean at midnight, engines cut, BRA rebels strain to hear the patrol boats pass in the darkness. The patrol boats pass without incident. As soon as they leave, the captain guns 80 horsepower engines and the boat speeds toward the looming shadow of Bougainville.
Gunshots ring out the moment our boat enters the shallows. Five BRA guerrillas with dreadlocks and shotguns emerge on the beach. They yell at the boat crew to head for the next bay, as a PNGDF unit is on its way to intercept them. They speed off.
Once on the island, the trek to Mr. Ona's stronghold takes four days - along narrow jungle paths that turn into a series of bogs during monsoon-size downpours, past ``ghost villages'' either destroyed or abandoned because they were within shelling range, on to the rim of the vast Panguna mine.
To view this crater is to witness what appears to be an industrial apocalypse - pristine land overrun by powerful technology, with the resulting environmental disaster abandoned.
Six years after the BRA forced it to shut down, the mine is a wasteland of debris and charred remains.
Nearby rivers still run rust-orange from the mine's effluent, and at the bottom of the pit is a phosphorescent blue cesspool.
Lining the bottom levels of the crater are 40 huge, 200-ton dump trucks, each valued at more than $740,000. They are burned beyond repair. The BRA torched the mining equipment and buildings.
In his headquarters, Ona produces a series of survey maps of the island that he says were drawn by the PNG government and Conzinc Riotinto Australia, the Australian firm that owns the Panguna mine.
``These maps detail a plan to dig eight further mines on the island,'' he says. ``Basically they want to turn Bougainville into one huge pit.''
Ona cites a list of reasons he decided to sabotage the mine and launch a struggle for independence.
``The first was the takeover of our land, by force, with minimal or no compensation,'' he says.
``Then we became angry at the destruction of our environment: polluted rivers, poisoned fish, acid rain, dead birds. Our plants turned purple instead of green, and it is only now, six years after the mine closed, that fruit has begun to grow again.''
There was also the social impact of the mine, which brought thousands of workers from mainland Papua New Guinea to work on the mine.
``Ninety-five percent of the mine workers were from PNG, and they brought drinking, prostitution, and squatting with them. Local people were frustrated that the mine was not employing local workers,'' he says.
Lack of local income from the mine was another factor. Ona claims that while the mine accounted for about 40 percent of PNG's total export earnings, Bougainville received less than 1 percent of the country's budget allocation.
Finally, the issue of sovereignty. ``We have been exploited by five colonial masters in the past 100 years [Germany, England, Australia, Japan, and PNG], and Bougainvilleans believe it is time we managed our own resources and safeguard future generations.''
The realization comes that Australia is inextricably involved in this conflict - from the drone of the helicopter gunships, to captured M-16 rifles, to BRA guerrillas in Australian T-shirts saying, ``No worries, mate.''
Boys in BRA territory pour over surfing magazines, and old men reminisce about when they fought with Australian ``diggers'' (soldiers) against the Japanese. Now they feel like they are at war with Australia, and they can't understand why.