About 150 people crowded into the function room of the Lanyon Valley Rugby Union Club in Canberra on June 13 to celebrate the life of Koru Peter Nusa, who died suddenly at home on June 4. At the same time, family and friends gathered for a service in Papua New Guinea.
Koru Peter Nusa, of the Gorgi Gabi clan, was born on September 18, 1963, in Garaina village, in PNG's Morobe Province. He was one of eight children of Minede and Yaulai Nusa. Minede had been a sergeant major in the PNG police force, who had fought with distinction alongside Australian forces during World War II. Minede received an honourable mention in Keith McCarthy's book Patrol Into Yesterday for the contribution he made before the war in escorting kiaps, the predecessors of the patrol officers, into the remote territory of the Kuku Kukus people. Sadly, Minede did not live to see his son grow up beyond boyhood.
After attending the Garaina Primary School, Peter was one of four children to receive an RSL scholarship to attend Bugandi High School in Lae. This necessitated him leaving his village and moving to boarding school to complete years 7 to 10. On completion of Year 10, Peter was the only representative from Bugandi High School and the Wau/Bulolo region to be admitted directly to the University of PNG (UPNG) to complete Years 11 and 12.
Peter gained straight 'A's on matriculation and had open entry into any course at the university. After dabbling in a medical degree, Peter completed a BA in public administration and later worked as an electoral assistant to Utula Samana, MP for Morobe. It was at UPNG that Peter met his lifelong friends Powes Parkop and Jean Eparo, and became actively involved in Melanesian Solidarity.
Peter became vice-president of the student union and worked to build solidarity with workers and communities. He was arrested in Port Moresby along with Powes for burning a French flag in protest at the continued colonial presence in Kanaky (New Caledonia).
He actively supported the secessionist movement in Bougainville, making a tour of Australia speaking against the armed intervention in Bougainville by the PNG government even as his brother Jim was posted there as a member of the PNG Defence Force.
On a 1988 visit to Australia representing Melanesian Solidarity, Peter met his future wife Dawn McEwan, a fellow activist studying politics and history at the University of Sydney. Peter and Dawn married at the Port Moresby registry office on March 30, 1989, with Powes signing as a witness. Following the ceremony, the newlyweds bought a wedding ring from the markets for one Kina (then about A$0.80) and caught a PMV (public motor vehicle) bus back to Jean and Powes' house before the 6pm curfew in place at that time.
Dawn was embraced, without reservation, by Peter's family and friends, and by the wider community of Papua New Guinean people.
Until moving to Australia in 1991, Peter and Dawn lived in Lae, then in Port Moresby, where Peter was employed as a research assistant at the Law Reform Commission of PNG, and Dawn worked as a proofreader at The Times of Papua New Guinea. The focus of Peter's work was an education campaign: "No Ken Pitim Meri" — seeking to raise awareness about domestic violence.
In 1991, Peter was offered an AUSAID scholarship to study law at the University of New South Wales. In February 1992, Peter's beloved daughter Yaulai June Nusa was born. When Yaulai was a toddler, the couple made the difficult decision to move to Castlemaine in Victoria to take advantage of grandparental support. Peter assumed the role of carer for his little girl so that Dawn could complete her nursing degree. Peter's law degree was put on hold, to be continued some years later after the family moved to Canberra in 1996 so that Dawn could take up a nursing job at Canberra Hospital.
In 2003, Peter graduated with an LLB. He worked in the food services department at the Canberra Hospital with a view to saving the money for the ANU Legal Workshop and subsequent admission to the Bar.
Peter revelled in the camaraderie of his work mates and would often recount the antics he got up to on the plating line in the kitchen. One day, shortly after commencing work in food services, he came home and proudly announced that he had been made an "honorary Croatian" by some of the women with whom he worked.
This year, Peter was elected one of two occupational health and safety officers at work. He was looking forward to his legal placement with the Aboriginal Legal Service.
Peter Nusa was a loving husband, father, son and brother, loyal friend to many; tireless student, passionate fighter for social justice; a man with two countries able to bestride two very different cultures; a man who lived life to the full, who rejoiced in the love of his family and friends, and who bound all these things together with a strong, quiet determination to serve others. Perhaps Dawn's sister, Robyn described Peter best of all when she said he was "a gentle man who lit up a room with his smile".
Eulogies for Peter at the celebration on June 13 repeatedly described his strength, courage, commitment to social justice and devotion to those he loved. A close mate, Nick Burns, said: "I think Peter was a great man. Leo Tolstoy said this: 'There is no greatness where there is no simplicity, goodness and truth.' Peter was a great man in Tolstoy's sense of greatness.
"Peter treated everyone equally because he saw us all as equally worthy people. He abhorred injustice, pretension, cynicism, immorality and unethical behaviour. Each of us will honour Peter's memory any time that we do not allow an injustice to pass without protesting or intervening."
Powes and Jean made every effort to be in Australia for Peter's memorial, but were unable to get travel visas in time. Nick told those gathered for the memorial that he had spoken to Powes that morning. "He was too upset to say too much but he did make two points that I will now repeat. One: Peter was committed to building a better PNG. The purpose of his coming to Australia was to broaden his education and knowledge for the benefit of the future of PNG. Two: Even though he had become a permanent resident of Australia, he was still committted to building a better PNG and he did not renounce his citizenship of PNG." The memorial function in Canberra raised $4000 for Peter's family in PNG.
Peter Downie, Nick Burns & Tracy Sorensen, with Dawn and Yaulai Nusa