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Rosemarie Gillespie: friend of Bougainville

Gillespie_Rosemary BY DONALD HOOK

HUMAN RIGHTS campaigner Rosemarie Gillespie, who was prominent in the Bougainville conflict with the PNG government, has died of a stroke aged 69.

Ms Gillespie, also known as Waratah Rose, became interested in Bougainville in early 1992 while practising as a barrister in Melbourne. At the time she was appearing for a Bougainvillean who sought refugee status.

While researching the case, Ms Gillespie saw a report stating that children were dying from lack of medicine in Bougainville because of the PNG Government’s blockade of the island. 

She acted quickly, risking her life by defying the blockade and taking in a supply of medicine by boat. She said later: “I decided to act because I know what it is like to have sick children and wonder if they are going to survive.”

Ms Gillespie became more involved in the Bougainville issue, lobbying the Australian government and international organisations to prevent the sale of arms to PNG, and to stop PNG shipping arms and munitions into Bougainville.

She was a prolific writer of articles and letters about Bougainville and published an account of her time on the island called Running With Rebels.

She also appeared on radio and TV programs, and addressing human rights and women’s groups throughout Australia.


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Brenda Abaisa

Thank you Rosemary Gillespie for your support. I would like to contact the family if I can. I remember her coming to Bougainville in the heat of the crisis. May you rest in peace


Rosemary Waratah Gillespie should be nominated as a Truth Teller on the Wiki Leaks site.

Max Watts comments certainly support that Rosemary's courage and truth-teller status be recognised and celebrated.

Max Watts

It was in 1987 that Rosemarie Gillespie, now also known as Waratah, first guilt-tripped me.

Though maybe she had already guilt-tripped me earlier on. She sure did it again later. If there is such a thing as conscience, there must be plenty of others - politicians, lawyers, ordinary people who are around the traps - saying: That woman!

She did what we should have done and said, but were too ... what ... too cowardly, comfortable, conformist to do. We left them to her. They needed to be done, had to be done. Fortunately, she was there. Did them. Also for us.

In 1987, I knew that the once-superboss of the CIA, one (long-forgotten) Vernon Walters, was visiting Suva, Fiji, to meet with one Fijian colonel, Sitiveni Rabuka.

Two weeks later this colonel overthrew the progressive multi-racial government. Fiji had intended to bar American nuclear warships, submarines. Some thought, (and think!) that Vernon Walters’s visit to the colonel was not unconnected.

Rosemarie Gillespie, studying multi-racial conflict in Fiji, investigated. Checked out soldiers, officers. She was arrested, held at the Elizabeth Army Barracks. She was given the choice between being knifed, or hung. She made it out alive, but we still don't know all about that coup, which did get rid of an anti-nuclear Fiji government. A promise of a multi-national democracy.

Gillespie, back in Melbourne, continued a promising career as a Victorian barrister. One day she told me: Come, sit in a little north Melbourne magistrate's court, it's worth the wait.

I knew her enough to take the time, and listened all day to (rather humdrum) cases of broken store windows, traffic accidents ... boring.

Then, mid-afternoon, the judge was about to close business, but barrister Gillespie pleaded that one last case should be heard that day - a nurse, accused of writing on a barrow, vandalism. The judge, a bit nonplussed, agreed.

The woman had written, with a felt text pen on a French exhibition barrow, words against atomic tests in Mururoa, . Caught in the act, a conviction and a fine seemed inevitable.

Barrister Gillespie knew her law. She found that it is, in effect, forbidden to write on almost anything - buildings, trees, walls, structures - in Victoria, but a barrow, she explained, is mobile, and cannot be considered a structure.

The magistrate, quite nonplussed, retired with her law books. When she returned she had a hard time not laughing but complimented barrister Gillespie and dismissed the case: “Not Guilty, no costs. You can (unless they change that law) write anti-nuclear messages on barrows in Victoria.”

Years passed. Iroquois helicopters were spearheading a covert Australian bloody war, an attempted reconquest of the Rio Tinto-CRA-BCL Panguna copper-gold mine in Nasioi, central Bougainville. Thousands had died, were dying.

The public in Oz was, systematically, fed shit, kept mushroom-like in the dark. There was little in the papers, the media. If the war was mentioned at all, it was supposedly a civil war between tribes.

It was hardly known that ALP Attorney-General Lionel Bowen had officially declared that the Bougainville war was a struggle "in defence of Australia", thus permitting Australians to fly and kill there.

I was asked to a "secret" meeting in a Sydney Surry Hills cafe. Bougainville's de facto exiled Ambassador, Moses Havini, re-introduced me to Rosemarie Gillespie.

She said: “I am going to go through the blockade, from the Solomons, to document the effects of the blockade, the Australian intervention. You can come along, as an (honest) journalist”.

I said: "I’m flattered, but it's very dangerous. Expensive. I am too old. Too fat. Too scared." (I did not add: too smart, but I may have thought so).

I felt rather guilty about my cowardice. And I said (a compromise?) that if she made it alive and found a radio I could somehow pick up, I would try to publish her reports.

Gillespie, with great difficulties, made it. The PNG and Oz governments - Hawke, Keating - tried to stop, even kill, her. She got through the blockade. To Bougainville, to the BRA. She was shot at, but they missed. Soon she was able to broadcast. I picked up her transmissions via the Solomons, brought them back to Australia. Front line combat reports.

For some months they ran even in 'The Australian', but as the fighting intensified a curtain, probably a government D Notice, came down. Her stories now ran only in the ratbag alternative papers such as 'GreenLeft Weekly', or in overseas media, in England, Germany, Switzerland, Austria. A bit even in the USA. No longer in Sydney or Melbourne.

But some of her action-shot videos ran on British TV, some in films seen even in the USA.

Gillespie, and sometimes her daughter Kirrallee, made it into blockaded Bougainville at least four times, sometimes staying for many months. Her Melbourne law practice as a Barrister declined - it was hard to be in court and behind the blockade at the same time.

The Bougainvillians - at enormous cost - won their war. Rio Tinto, Australian governments, Capital, lost. The Panguna mine, an absolute exception in such an unequal struggle, remains, so far, closed.

Any similarity to the American mega-film, Avatar, is not, repeat not, accidental. Cameron wrote his original script after reading some of our earlier Bougainville reports.

In Avatar an older white woman, dies, shot, in the final battle. Rosemarie Waratah Gillespie was organising the Australian meetings of Bougainvilleans Clive Porabou (from the BRA) and Josianne Datarangi (sister of BRA leader Francis Ona) when on Monday 21 June 2010 she was felled by a massive brain haemorrhage.

Vale, Rosemary Waratah Gillespie. Waratah, your work for Bougainville, Fiji, Iraq, for Australia's Aborigines, for the oppressed and exploited worldwide, continues. Others will learn from you.

'PNG Attitude' readers - Send in your memories (for the moment to rosiek@bigpond.com). They will be collected by Waratah's family. Funeral arrangements in Melbourne are still not finalised.

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