By Norm Dixon
Bougainville has been devastated by the PNG government's economic blockade, according to a controversial report on SBS's Dateline current affairs program on February 18.
The program created an uproar because it was compiled by a team which visited Bougainville late in January without the approval of Port Moresby. PNG Foreign Minister Michael Somare has protested to the Australian government and banned SBS from PNG.
The visit, undertaken with the permission of the Bougainville interim government and accompanied by the interim government's Australian representative, Moses Havini, brought back the first footage of Bougainville since the blockade began.
Dateline filmed one of five refugee camps in northern Bougainville sheltering more than 4000 villagers who have fled the sporadic fighting that was continuing around the adjoining island of Buka.
But disease, not gunfire, is the biggest killer, reported SBS's Mark Corcoran. The blockade, enforced by Australian-supplied patrol boats and helicopter gunships (piloted by Australians), has had terrible results. Bougainville's five remaining doctors say at least 1500 people have died from largely preventable diseases — an estimate that includes only the largest towns and villages. A more realistic figure is more than 3000 dead in the last 12 months.
With no medicines, the doctors can do little. Once merely inconvenient illnesses now prove fatal.
Because power and water supplies were cut off eight months ago, Arawa's 300-bed general hospital is deserted. The only operational medical facility is the clinic once reserved for the exclusive use by staff of the giant Bougainville Copper Limited mine at Panguna. The clinic's manager, Dr Charles Loubai, told Dateline the situation was desperate.
"The big problem is malaria", he said. Because of a lack of anti-malarial drugs and disruption to spraying of mosquito-breeding areas, the disease has exploded. Dr Loubai says the PNG government is directly to blame for the many deaths on Bougainville.
The clinic's meagre medical supplies received a small boost recently. Seventh Day Adventist aircraft and small boats from the Solomon Islands have made mercy dashes to the island. At least one
blockade runner's boat was blown out of the water by a PNG patrol boat.
Joseph Kabui, chairperson of the Bougainville interim government, told the program that the PNG had plunged to an all-time low in human decency. "PNG is the only government in the whole world that has seen fit not to allow International Red Cross, not to allow any other humanitarian organisations to come in to provide medicine or basic needs of people".
He told Dateline that "the blockade has made Bougainville people more determined to hang on and to treasure independence, to uphold independence".
Corcoran confirmed this. He reported that dozens of Bougainvilleans had said that in the early days of the war they didn't support the objectives of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, but the blockade has brought them together and forged a nation.