By Norm Dixon
The Australian government will continue to give Papua New Guinea over $50 million annually in military aid despite admissions that this assistance has been used in atrocities committed against civilians.
The commander of PNG armed forces on Bougainville, Colonel Leo Nuia, admitted on the June 24 Four Corners program that one of four Australian-supplied Iroquois combat helicopters was used in the "St Valentine's Day massacre" on the island. Nuia was sacked for his statements the next day.
Nuia also acknowledged that the helicopters had been used as gunships, in breach of the conditions of their supply. The program revealed that the PNG Defence Force is continuing to commit serious human rights violations, including executions, on Buka Island.
In the Four Corners program, reporter Deborah Snow spoke to villagers who had graphic memories of the Iroquois helicopters flying over their villages firing rifles and machine guns. Soldiers even fired grenade launchers from the air at settlements they claimed were "BRA [Bougainville Revolutionary Army] strongholds". One young Bougainvillean described how his 56-year-old uncle was killed instantly when a machine gun bullet penetrated the roof of his hut.
The deputy matron of the Arawa General Hospital told Snow that the helicopters would regularly dump gruesomely tortured bodies on the front lawn of the hospital and fly off. Machine guns attached to the helicopters were clearly visible, she said.
Colonel Nuia baldly admitted on camera that the helicopters were used as gunships: "They were used from the air ... the soldiers used their rifles or the machine gun." Snow also asked if grenades had been launched from the air. "These are weapons that can be fired from a rifle, yes", Nuia replied.
Nuia admitted that an Australian-supplied helicopter had dumped the bodies of six executed Bougainvilleans on Valentine Day, 1990. Contrary to the impression the Australian media have given, the facts about the massacre have been reported on at least three other occasions. Each time the Australian and PNG governments have claimed it was impossible to prove the massacre actually took place. At no time did the Australian government threaten to recall the helicopters or suspend military aid.
The massacre first came to light on February 22, 1990, when the Times of PNG carried an extensive report of the atrocity
on its front page. The Times reported that six men, including Uniting Church Pastor Raumo Benito, were abducted, beaten, stripped naked, then shot dead. A seventh man had escaped and was able to tell the newspaper what had happened. The bodies were taken away by an Iroquois helicopter and never seen again. The Australian press did not pick up the story at the time.
Three weeks later, on March 8, the Sydney Morning Herald finally reported details of the massacre and the involvement of the Australian-supplied helicopter. The Australian minister for defence at the time, Kim Beazley, dismissed the report as just one of many rumours about human rights violations. Gareth Evans said that Prime Minister Bob Hawke has phoned PNG PM Rabbie Namaliu "to express his shock and horror at the possibility that this might have occurred".
On February 22 this year, the SBS Dateline program broadcast further evidence of the massacre. Reporter Mark Corcoran interviewed the lone survivor, Danny Toru, who described in chilling detail what had taken place. "They loaded [the bodies] up into the helicopter ... the helicopter headed to the small island just across from the Aropa airport", Toru said. Other witnesses from a nearby village told Corcoran that the helicopter made two runs over this stretch of water.
Sources at Heli New Guinea, the company contracted to provide the Australian and New Zealand "civilian" pilots, confirmed that the bodies were dumped at sea. A former pilot, now living in Sydney, told Dateline that a Royal Australian Air Force wing commander serving on exchange in PNG had "fixed things up with the Port Moresby government" in order to help cover up the incident. Sources within the Australian intelligence community also told Dateline they were aware of the dumping.
Four Corners also reported that "an Australian military officer attached to our High Commission was on the ground making inquiries only days after the incident."
Foreign Minister Gareth Evans' motion at the ALP National Conference calling on the PNG government to "fully and promptly" investigate the atrocities rings extremely hollow against this background.
When the Australian government decided on the fast-track delivery of the four Iroquois helicopters in mid-July 1989, reports that the North Solomons province premier, Joseph Kabui, and the provincial agriculture minister had been seriously assaulted by troops were in the press. At least 13 civilians had already been killed by troops.
In February 1990, the Australian government decided to boost military aid to PNG just as Amnesty International reported that it had documented the suspicious deaths of 16 people at the
hands of the military and dozens of other cases of brutality.
The worst massacre occurred on February 7, 1990, when as many as 20 Bougainvilleans were mowed down by machine gun fire from three Iroquois helicopters. Using a formulation that would allow virtually any atrocity, Evans explained that the Australian government had agreed that soldiers could fire weapons from the helicopters "if they were fired upon or if they had a reasonable belief they would be fired upon".