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The lingering joy of burning a BCL chopper


Ambrose KuiruaTHE ATTACK GANG CREPT down the ‘V’ shaped waterway towards the main road heading into Tumpusiong Valley. Their task: to torch a Bougainville Copper (BCL) contracted helicopter, which also served the PNG security forces.

The team headed into the Dapera resettlement and climbed into the garden brae towards the concentrator area where the chopper was based.

The attack team comprised Kongara and Tumpusiong Valley men. In their midst was a 14 year old boy, Ambrose Kuirua.

Kuirua never went to school but grew up loitering around his home valley with other jobless young men scavenging for interesting parts from BCL like batteries and bulbs that they brought home for lighting and powering their stereo sets.

With BCL operations profiteering and giving back nothing to Bougainvilleans, young Kuirua men grew up loving the job of making a living by dismantling parts of BCL’s civil works’ equipment that were stationed in the Tumpusiong Valley.

Most of these men earned their living selling batteries, car stereos, bulbs and switches that they removed from BCL properties. Whenever they needed hard cash, they flocked into the BCL camp canteens and robbed them.

BCL hated Tumpusiong Valley men, who also had taught themselves to operate the heavy BCL plant and vehicles. In the cover of night, they were teaching each other how to operate the mechanical beasts. By the time the Bougainville crisis erupted, Ambrose Kuirua was an expert in plant dismantling.

In early 1989, before the late Francis Ona took to the bush, the Tumpusiong people protested and decided to block the Panguna-Nagovis road that runs through the valley.

As plans were made, the men decided that BCL equipment would be commandeered to block the road near the entrance of the pit drainage tunnel in the Tumpusiong valley. So, it was that one of Bougainville’s notable leaders, Martin Miriori, drove the gang of young men to a BCL plant yard near the Mananau piggery-poultry project in Nagovis, South Bougainville.

Every man rushed onto his own choice of equipment, ignited it from the battery and set off for home. People were surprised to see the juvenile Kuirua arriving at the roadblock spot in a huge front-end loader.

For two days the road was cut, all vehicles from South Bougainville turned back and vehicles from Panguna turned back.

The protest was called off after a police officer, Luke Pango, pleaded with the people. Despite an unsatisfactory outcome, they went home.

But the young Kuirua was now in the bush with the militants.

When the attackers reached an industrial complex known as Dynatex, the team broke in two.

One half of the group remained near the road leading into the concentrator buildings and extending up to the helipad. Their task was to shoot any BCL vehicle that entered the road.

The young Kuirua was with the helicopter attack team. Once they left the main road, in minutes they were on the helipad in the chilling Panguna cold. With a five-litre can of petrol they tried to figure out the security men because there was a Bougainvillean working there and they did not want to hurt him.

Seeing there was not a Bougainvillean, the attackers headed to the security men with knives Seeing the armed militants, the security people fled.

The militants now surrounded the white chopper. Many of them had never seen such a beast and some only saw it while flying high.

Kuirua kept his distance from the braver men ready to run if anything went wrong.

Seeing that there was no spot on the chopper to absorb petrol, they broke a window. As there was no one amongst the men to get his body inside and decant petrol, Kuirua was called.

With joy, he climbed onto the comfortable seats. But first he went to the cockpit in search of some souvenir to bring home and got what he wanted—the pilot’s flying helmet.

He decanted petrol from the cockpit and on to the passenger section. Then he climbed and clanged on the window; stroked the match, on to a seat and jumped to the gravel as the inferno got furious.

The group fled into the mountains of old Moroni and watched with other team members as the PNGDF fired shots in the wrong direction.

Holding his war gain, the helmet, Kuirua was feeling so excited as the men praised him for a good job done.

After that night, Kuirua carried his helmet in his bag in all operations he attended around Central Bougainville. He valued it so much and took good care of it before losing it to some thugs in 1994 as people began to flee from the arrival of the PNGDF in Nagovis when he left it and went to fight in South Bougainville.

Ambrose Kuirua is now a married man and an alluvial gold miner.


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David Kitchnoge

Thanks Leonard - I like the way you tell it as it is.

Keep telling them.

There are a lot of lessons we can learn from the Bougainville conflict and you are playing an important role in that.

Kevin O'Regan

Leonard / Tim, I am still not sure when two wrongs make a right.

But yes, I would fight for what is mine. I stand corrected. Best

Leonard Roka

Kevin - When do we meet over a cup of coffee? Looking forward to that moment.

Poetic justice? Nothing here to be considered poetic justice for my blood cousin Kuirua, me and the rest of the Tumpusiong Valley people, I believe.

My cousin valued that pilot's helmet and took good care of it as a souvenir, but on the day the PNG government was selling our home recklessly, he left it and went over to Nagovis and some kid walked off with it.

I am talking about this helmet because sometimes he kept it in a room I slept in.


Tim Ashton


Go to Google earth and look at the current state of the Tumpusiong valley and ask yourself, what in your view would be poetic justice for BCL/Rio?

Robin Lillicrapp

Social ironies abound whether as seen from Kuirua's perspective or any other engaged in the often bitter consequences of conflict.

BCL shareholders have had many a long year to rue the folly of industrialising a landscape so innately tied to notions of ownership and heritage that demands a closer examination than was originally given.

We westerners have our own follies to examine. I recall the Reagan years when communism was the bogeyman arising in Central America.

Colonel Oliver North was at the pointy end of covert ops mounted against the communist insugents. Ultimately, he was brought to account for his role in overseeing the use of ops funds buying drugs to be sold in the community to gain the war chest of cash for purchasing arms to equip the Contras fighting the communists. all for the greater good, don't you see?

The point of irony being this: North was a fundamentalist Christian who was espoused to a doctrinal position called, Dominion Theology. This is a philosophy that positions the "church" to obey God's presumed command to have dominion over creation.

Simply, North , who should have known better, was like so many before him, and today, multitudes after him setting a course to do what in fact only Jesus Christ can accomplish: ie; build the kingdom.

Many foolish Christians, during those turbulent years, lent their moral, financial, and personal support to that Ill-advised venture which saw the mal treatment and death of many innocents.

Strangely, over the intervening decades, very little is publically aired over that shameful episode of history. Perhaps it's a shade too much poetic justice: the reality of our social indiscretion.

Either way, no matter whose conscience, ours or Kuirua's, the onset of persistent good counsel and maturity can shape even the most prodigal of sons.

Kevin O'Regan

Leonard, I read all your articles and mostly I sympathise with what happened over there. I would like to meet you in person one day and share a coffee and stories.

But this article your second last sentence, "He valued it so much and took good care of it before losing it to some thugs in 1994"!

That is too much for me as I would call it, at a minimum, poetic justice...

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