John Nenou remembers the Kuveria massacre
23 September 2011
BY LEONARD FONG ROKA
AS THE MINING PIT of Panguna grew day-by-day, so the waste rock and gravel multiplied in tonnage and thus dump after dump of gravel sprouted, changing the familiar landscape that John Nenou (commonly known as Tampamai throughout Kieta district) grew up with.
To control the build-up of gravel in the village of Pirurari and the rest of the Kavarong valley, Bougainville Copper diverted the Kavarong River through a ‘V’-shaped concrete system towards Nenou’s Sinare hamlet causing the most enormous continuous landslips he had ever seen.
Like many of the young local landowners, he was a-nobody to Bougainville Copper, who only employed men in white-collars, polished office boots and a piece of useless degree paper. Most of those, by far, were non-Bougainvilleans.
As a youth, Nenou, without an opportunity to gain a formal education, watched as the mining expanded towards his home. He was a bystander as his land was exploited by persons he didn’t know.
These people, for no good reason, scolded and terrorised him as he walked through Panguna township. He and other young men faced near-death from the Papua New Guineans from outside. In the Panguna cinemas and night clubs, a black man entered at his own risk. The redskins ruled the streets.
Nenou, from the 1970s on, became the champion of break-and-enter in the residential camps like Kusito. The small camp canteens were intruded at will by him and his followers from Dapera village and the Onove villages, to the west of the mine and Nenou’s home.
At weekends he and his gang would drink beer and stone BCL vehicles. Or they would drive around in the heavy trucks, front-end loaders and graders, hijacking them from where they were left to rest at night along the tailings areas.
Because of such, he became an icon in the police cells of Panguna, Arawa and Kuveria.
Prison did not help the youth, who saw this as just a redskin’s slap in the face for the poor Bougainvilleans.
Resentment grew further in Nenou’s heart when he was chased angrily out of the BCL employment office in the early 1980s by a non-Bougainvillean. Defeated, he walked home and, in broad day light, executed a non-Bougainvillean man who was sightseeing, and dumped him unnoticed into the ‘V’-shaped waterway. This was his first blood.
The Bougainville crisis erupted in late 1988. This was good ground to express his anger. On a particular night, he and his companions walked to the gravel spreading conveyor network at Kusito and knifed a bunch of BCL security men.
After this operation, in early January 1990 at Pirurari village, he inadvertently walked into a PNG Defence Force troop ambush and was captured; tortured and brought to the Kuveria CIS detention centre, 30 kilometres north of Arawa.
After two weeks in prison nursing his wounds, he and his fellow mates were harassed by a few CIS officers. Others, he says, were very good to the prisoners, who they treated properly. But, how could one escape when locked in brick walled rooms with a tiny window screened by steel bars? There was no hope.
One night, as he was resting after a day of grass cutting, hope arrived. Playfully running his finger through little gaps in the brick work, he discovered a rusty piece of hacksaw blade concealed by someone before. His heart rejoiced that Keravat, where the authorities were planning to ship notorious criminals like him, was not his destiny now.
The next day he began working with his four other Bougainvillean roommates. They sawed the metal in the middle of the night. The two centimetre thick steel took two weeks to saw through. It was kept there, intact. No need to rush things. Nenou was experienced in the art of escape.
A week after the completion of the steel bar cutting, his first planned day to walk to freedom had to be altered. On the day of taking off, a redskin was locked up with them, bringing their number to six.
The Bougainvilleans did not trust the new person, only later on discovering he was a good fellow. They agreed that he was to tell the authorities he was kept at gunpoint when they left. For that, they would come back and liberate him.
So, at 2 am on the morning of 14 January 1990, when only a single guard was on duty, one of Nenou’s Bougainvillean partners climbed to the high window and bent the bar and out he crawled.
Others followed, and across the open field to the rear of the guard they darted towards the two metre fence. Four men made it over the fence, but the fifth was still struggling with the barbed wire when the guard noticed him and gunshots rang through the still night. But he made freedom as more armed CIS personnel arrived to assist.
The men slipped into the thick jungle and headed for the Manetai Catholic mission where some people from the Panguna area had settled. There they met with a contingent of Panguna BRA men and planned an attack on the detention facility.
For two days they remained theit planning. Nenou led the job, since he was familiar with every corner of the CIS camp. In his mind, he also knew which of the CIS officers he wanted killed.
So, in the early hours of 17 January 1990, the poorly armed men moved in on Kuveria, axing their way through the fence and heading straight to the targeted houses of those who had ill-treated the Bougainvillean prisoners. They caught them unprepared.
Four of the most hated CIS warders were killed. One was pushed into his burning house as he struggled to run free, while others were shot or axed to death. Altogether, there were six deaths and 80 prisoners liberated, loaded onto CIS transport and driven away.
The BRA had young Francis Duaung wounded with a shotgun pellet in his head, but he survived and was operated on in Honiara in the Solomon Islands.
John Nenou was pleased with his efforts to getting rid of the cruel CIS officers and engineer one of BRA’s earliest success stories. He laughs when he tells the youths of his experiences in the Kuveria prison.
Photo: John Nenou (centre in cap and long tee shirt) and Francis Duaung (with yellow umbrella) and the rest of the Kuveria attackers in Panguna, 2010
Thanks Leonard for sharing this story, regardless of how ugly it might sound.
There are some very important lessons to be learnt. And anyone who deals with any form of land alienation in PNG must take heed.
The strong sense of belonging and the huge emotional attachment we have to our land must never be underestimated.
Posted by: David Kitchnoge | 23 September 2011 at 01:39 PM
Thank you, Leonard, for this well written, very sad story. It explains so much that went wrong with the setting up of the Bougainville mine. This must be a template of what not to do when setting up a mine in PNG.
It must remind readers that there are better ways to solve the problems that arise when a mining company comes into an area and starts operations. There must be priority given to gaining the cooperation of the local people.
If PNG is to go ahead with all these proposed mines, it must remind us of the huge job ahead in so many areas.
The local people must be involved in all steps of mine development. They must be given a role to play. They must see that the mine will be to their advantage in the long run.
The government must work with the mining company to see that there is a just and fair distribution of the wealth gained from the minerals. The local people must feel it is their mine.
This has happened in some mines set up in Australia on aboriginal tribal land. The PNG government needs to visit these mines and hear from the people how they have accepted the mine and how the mine has provided them with jobs and income.
There is a lot of work ahead for the PNG government.
Posted by: Barbara Short | 23 September 2011 at 06:20 AM