Eyewitness on Bougainville


By Norm Dixon

Jim Beatson, a freelance journalist who writes regularly for Time and the UK Guardian, recently returned from a three-week stay in embattled Bougainville. Beatson reports that an uneasy calm prevails after the PNG government's surprise military attack on April 13. In that attack, troops destroyed a vital road bridge that linked the central and southern part of Bougainville to the north. Several hundred PNG troops are dug in at the northern tip of the island, and the Bougainvillean leaders have chosen not to confront the troops at this stage.

Beatson described to a Democratic Socialist Party forum in Sydney how he got into Bougainville, and he expressed disappointment that more Australian journalists have not attempted the trip. After contacting the Australian representative for the interim government of Bougainville, Moses Havini, and then getting the approval of the leaders in Bougainville, "You fly to Honiara, then fly to Gizo. Gizo isn't the nearest island to Bougainville, but it is the nearest island that doesn't have a policeman on it to prevent you from going to Bougainville.

"On the Shortlands [the western province of the Solomon Islands] there is a policeman who is totally sympathetic to the Bougainvillean cause, but he was reminded by [his government] that freedom of passage is not allowed to non-Bougainvilleans between Bougainville and Shortland ... So going there you go through Gizo, jump on a speedboat — 175 horsepower boat, $300 return. It takes two hours travelling at about 40 mph to blast your way over to Arawa. Coming back, you can go via the Shortlands, because the policeman doesn't mind you coming back.

"Few journalists have actually been to Bougainville, when it is relatively easy to get there. They persist in rewriting outrageously untrue stories emanating from Moresby, the result of which is the people sit there tearing their hair out, knowing that this is a process of disinformation, trying to manipulate the climate and stage a landing. Which is what happened."

Beatson was given a copy of a 28-page National Intelligence Organisation report that had fallen into the hands of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army. It analysed the BRA's structure and concluded its weakness lay in its leadership being "too Arawa-Kieta-based".

The document proposed that the PNG military cut strategic bridges on the north and south of the island, land troops and supply essential services — education, medicine, fuel, transport, trade, food. Meetings would be held in the north and south to win over the people or at least get them to acquiesce in a situation where PNG bought their loyalty by providing services.

Beatson was able to talk to many ordinary Bougainvilleans during his stay, as well as to the revolution's key leaders, Francis Ona, Sam Kauona and Joseph Kabui. He concluded that despite some aders of the BRA and leaders of the interim government over what direction to take, the population strongly supports their leaders and the demand for independence.

Bougainville suffers from a health crisis of "absolutely staggering proportions". Following the imposition of the blockade in May 1990, only four doctors remained to service a population of 160,000. Beatson said that diseases such as malaria, tropical ulcers and tuberculosis are out of control. "Everywhere I went on Bougainville I met people who had serious diseases. I was living in a street in Arawa which had just six houses, and there were three people with malaria."

The photographs on these pages were taken by Jim Beatson during his visit.