By Norm Dixon
"Men, woman and children are dying for the lack of medicines because the Papua New Guinea government, supported by the Australian government, has blockaded Bougainville", Melbourne barrister Rosemary Gillespie told a press conference in Sydney on March 17.
Gillespie ran the blockade, at great risk, to deliver desperately needed medical supplies to the besieged island. While she was in Bougainville, PNG Defence Force patrol boats launched an attack on a village in the Solomon Islands, a serious escalation in the war.
While gathering information to help a Bougainvillean client gain refugee status, Gillespie made contact with Sam Voron, the amateur radio operator who helped the interim government of Bougainville set up Radio Free Bougainville. Through RFB, a message was sent on February 20 from Bishop Zale, then the interim government's minister of health, listing medicines that were urgently needed.
"I decided I had to bring the medicines in because I know what it is like to have sick children and wonder if they are going to survive", Gillespie said.
"Not only was there a danger from patrol boats — the PNGDF is getting very trigger-happy due to its frustration at recent defeats — but it is also cyclone season in the region. The small fibreglass boat battled the waves, the wind and the rain for several hours until at last we were able to reach Kieta harbour."
The medicines had an immediate effect. "At least four lives were saved, including three young babies suffering from cerebral malaria, which could only be treated with injectable quinine. When I arrived on the island, there was no injectable quinine in Arawa, the main city on Bougainville."
However, only small amounts of medicine get through. While she was in central Bougainville, Gillespie said, "four children died because of the lack of medicine. These deaths were the direct result of the blockade. The ships used to enforce this blockade were supplied by the Australian government with Australian taxpayers' money.
"In this crime, Australia has been a willing accessory. The Australian government must be told to stop the subsidy of this war of attrition against the people of Bougainville, which is causing innocent lives to be lost ... If the Australian government would stop subsidising the war, it would be possible to bring all parties to the negotiating table."
The boat that transported Gillespie is nicknamed the "underground ambulance" by the local people. "It's got a fast outboard motor and is used to take patients out of Bougainville who are in need of treatment that can only be obtained in the Solomon Islands. Because of the blockade, there is not enough fuel to run the power supply in Arawa, and there is no fuel to run the generator for the Arawa hospital. Acute cases have to be taken out on the underground ambulance, through the blockade, or remain untreated ... But many ry to run the blockade."
The blockade is part of a strategy to divide Bougainvilleans. This is spelled out in a PNGDF report that fell into the hands of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, a copy of which was given to Gillespie. "Medicines are sent into the north and prevented from coming into the centre ... I have had confirmed reports of cases where a mother has brought a child to a clinic in the part of Bougainville occupied by PNG troops. The mother is asked: 'Where's the father?' and when the mother says he is in the bush, the mother is told 'Bring him down, bring him here before we treat your child'. If he had come down he would suffer the fate of many other people suspected by the PNGDF of being members of the BRA: summarily shot.
"The blockade is intended to break the people, but the people will never give in. They have found ways to survive under extremely difficult circumstances. The courage and determination and the cohesion of people fighting for their own land, for justice, is not something that can be broken just by force."
PNG's war is motivated by "money", Gillespie explained. "PNG needs the revenue from the Bougainville mine ... It has been prepared to some very horrible and violent things.
"I have here a shell casing. It was fired from one of the Iroquois helicopters, again supplied by Australia, at a defenceless village in the south. The houses in that village were peppered with bullets; this exploded and blew a very large hole in a wall, nearly killing an old man who was too old to run. The people who are most vulnerable when PNG attacks civilian targets are the old and the very young."
Gillespie was also able to see first hand the devastation caused by the CRA-owned mine at Panguna. "For miles and miles in that valley, you can see nothing but mine tailings. You would think you were on a moonscape: piles and piles of rubble on which nothing will grow. The people had to fight back."
On her return journey, Gillespie was forced to travel in a wide arc to avoid the patrol boats. "On [Sunday] March 8, the patrol boats had tried to force a landing at Kangu Beach in the south of Bougainville. That was repelled by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army. [The patrol boats] remained in the area Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday, I left Kieta, keeping a very respectful distance from where the patrol boats were. Within hours, they came up to Kieta harbour and fired at the beach."
Gillespie reported that the patrol boats "attacked a village in the Solomons Islands, Kariki village, which has a trading post that supplies stores which are picked up by the same boat that I was travelling on.
"That the PNG government has gone so far as to attack the Solomon Islands shows that the war is escalating."
Despite the hardships, the Bougainville people remain determined to prevail. A man, speaking on behalf of a public meeting attended by 500 people, asked Gillespie to take this message to the people of Australia: "We have paid the price of independence with blood. There >