MARIAN and the kids and I left Panguna and the island of Bougainville in January 1990.
The crisis weighed almost as heavily upon us expatriates who worked there as it did on the Bougainvilleans themselves.
Nobody knew it then, but worse was to come with a terrible war, a 10-year blockade and loss of life estimated at 20,000 people.
I had been principal of the International Primary School at Panguna for six years from 1984 and Marian was sister-in-charge of the Panguna Medical Clinic from 1987.
It took some years for me particularly to accept the reality that we would not be returning to Bougainville and Papua New Guinea where three of our children had been born and where we had established numerous lifelong friendships with Papua New Guineans.
Our final 12 months at Panguna were challenging. The school was taken over by the PNG Defence Force when a state of emergency was declared and stress levels intensified with the ever present sound of gunfire, evening curfews in the and the regular thudding of Iroquois helicopters overhead.
The helicopters were based at my school, originally known as Camp 10, and the classrooms, large assembly hall and indoor cricket court provided accommodation for some soldiers. The school also commanded an excellent view over the mine and Panguna township.
Our return trip 25 years later was instigated by our daughter Katy, who, with her brother and sisters, had happy and idyllic memories of childhood there.
Arthur Perry and Philip Lugg, both friends and former Bougainville Copper employees, joined us.
We flew directly to Buka from Port Moresby, arriving just after midday to be met by Arthur’s Petats wife Jocelyn and his contacts from Tamtame village. We then met David Jodash, the owner of the vehicle who would drive us to Arawa next day.
It was an early start. A boat trip and a bumpy drive to Buka township culminating in bargaining for the banana boat across Buka Passage. Waiting for us was David, smiling broadly, standing by a brand new vehicle. Bags loaded, we soon headed south to Arawa.
The road was sealed in sections and there were 15 Japanese-built bridges. In spite of the white coronus dust, it was a beautiful drive along a road fringed with coconut trees and thatched villages with glimpses of ocean, reef sand cloud-capped mountains.
The trip was interspersed with stops as Arthur caught up with old friends including another former BCL employee and boxing coach, Gary Campbell, who had remained on Bougainville throughout the crisis.
After a brief visit to Teroki Health Centre at Tinputz, we continued our journey and some four hours later reached the old Port Mine Access Road and turned left towards Tunaru. It was here the first of the memories flooded back as we passed fallen power pylons, now overgrown with jungle vegetation, vines and creepers.
There was an urgent need to finalise arrangements to get through the blockade to Panguna which wasn’t guaranteed and could cost K400 for each non-Bougainvillean person.
We were anxious to make contact with Stewart Clason who was vital to our negotiations to pass the roadblock and gain access to Panguna. But Stewart had not returned our calls.
So we decided to head to Loloho and spend an hour sightseeing. The physical changes as a result of the thick vegetation, concealed roads and lack of buildings caused us to be disorientated but eventually we found ourselves in a village that led to Loloho beach.
The villagers took us down through some gardens and we soon were standing on the beach. To Katy’s delight the one recognisable object was a giant rain tree that leaned at an angle over the water - a place of fond childhood memory.
And so to Arawa. We drove around the streets and past the ruins of what had been the squash club, bank, supermarket and chemist. Many of the houses still stood , occupied and well-maintained although overall the town appeared run-down with occasional groups of young men who appeared sipak (drunk).
One of Arthur’s old friends, Robert Mokosi, arrived and was thrilled to see Arthur and showed us where Stewart Clason’s brother lived, enthusiastically peddling his bicycle and gesturing directions.
Stewart’s mother, Maggie, a landowner, had worked with Marian at the Panguna Medical Clinic and had been a good friend to her during the crisis, always concerned about our safety and often placing her own safety at risk by warning Marian of possible attacks by BRA militants. Sadly Maggie had died unexpectedly earlier in the year and Marian was keen to visit her matmat (grave) at Pakia to pay her respects.
We at last made contact with Stewart who said he would speak to people at the roadblock and ring us with instructions. The next morning an urgent phone call from Stewart requested we drive immediately to the blockade boomgate at Birempa to meet him.
As we slowed to approach the roadblock, a huge fellow in shorts and white tee shirt nodded at us. We hugged and shook our heads in disbelief. Twenty five years is a long time and Stewart was both a huge presence and a successful businessman. Maggie would have been proud of him.
Stewart’s role gained us access to Panguna and due to his intervention the K400 per person was also waived. Once formalities were completed and our names recorded, the boom was raised and we climbed into Stewart’s vehicle. Emil observed a machine gun in the sentry box near the boomgate, evidence of the seriousness of the no go zone.
The road to Panguna seemed little changed and was in good condition except for where landslides had blocked it at a couple of sections as we neared Pakia, where we were blanketed in misty cloud. We drove up a steep dirt track to Stewart’s newly built house perched up high and surrounded by picturesque hills and jungle.
His mother’s grave was on a level clear area protected by a wall of metal containers. These, he said, would later be replaced by glass walls. It was a very emotional moment for Marian, who was absorbed in her private memories of Maggie. She quietly placed a bouquet of silk roses, brought from Australia, on Maggie’s grave.
After leaving Stewart’s house we made our way past another landslide and then commenced the descent to Panguna. We drove along the overgrown entrance to what had been Panguna International Primary School past a burnt out BCL bus. Then, as we drove around a bend, the remains of the school were easily recognisable as some of the metal structures were still in place.
It was surreal. We walked past the adventure playground and monkey bars and just stared. I wandered around identifying what had been classrooms and what remained of my office and the staffroom.
We stood together under the rusty framework of what had been the assembly area. The two former students present, Katy and Stewart, and I sang the PNG national anthem as we had always done every morning during those long ago school days.
We walked down some steps towards the oval and basketball courts and some unpleasant memories flooded back. On more than one occasion I had seen body bags at the edge of the basketball court, waiting to be transported to Arawa by Iroquois.
I recalled classrooms that had become dormitories with weapons leaning against walls, clips of ammunition on the carpet and the smell of gun oil. I remembered my office, with photos of BRA suspects pinned to the noticeboard and the smashed toilets, the result of interrogations.
But it wasn’t all negative. Woven tightly within this tapestry were memories of the excitement of building and moving into the new school and the official opening, the mist that drifted through the school grounds enveloping the buildings, and of course the students themselves, their parents and the teaching staff.
After final photographs we drove to what was known as The Pink Palace, the administrative area and senior managers’ offices. It had been destroyed by fire during the early days of the crisis and the remains of computers and metal casings were piled outside the ruins.
The next stop was to Marian’s work place, the Panguna Medical Clinic. Marian stood by the steps which led down to what had been once been the reception area. Like everything else we had seen, the clinic was a ruin, stripped bare.
It had become a military hospital during the crisis and Marian reflected in silence on her experiences treating both wounded soldiers and BRA militants. The sound of the Iroquois was always a signal for her to prepare for a medical emergency.
The swimming pool was the most recognisable structure because of its size and the starting blocks. Everywhere I looked were the skeletons of the four storey buildings that had been accommodation for BCL employees. Cinema, supermarket, banks, even the church were gutted and in ruins. The church recognisable by the single large cross standing silently above the ruins of the township.
We wandered around trying to locate where our houses had been but the jungle and lack of structures made it hard to be certain. The Panguna water tower at the end of Kupei Road still stood and a small, simple hydro system was now in place; the skills learned from BCL put to practical use.
Stewart took us to the pit area and then to look down on the Jaba River where the tailings were dispersed. I am not convinced the Jaba will recover for many generations to come.
The pit remains an amazing piece of mining engineering. In fact the whole Panguna mine was amazing engineering. All that was left of the machinery were the remains of three haul trucks partially buried by a landslide at the base of the pit.
Copper sulphate leached from the pit’s sloping walls have formed a small turquoise lake at the base of the crater. Stewart pointed out squatter huts where people were panning for gold. The stockpile was still huge but, even though it contains millions of dollars’ worth of gold and silver in the ore, it needs refining having solidified after sitting uncovered for many years.
The trip back to the roadblock was quiet as we were all suffering from emotional overload. Due to cloud, Mt Bagana wasn’t visible but there was a clear view of the offshore islands. We approached the roadblock and, after passing through the boomgate, said farewell to Stewart whose friendship and generosity had made our journey to Panguna possible and then set off on the drive back to Buka.
It has taken a few weeks to get our heads around this experience but I suppose the underlying feeling I have is one of bewilderment, deep sorrow and frustration at the huge loss of life and the utter destruction of infrastructure and resources compounded by the lack of education for a whole generation of young Bougainvilleans during the time of the crisis and for many years after.
Bougainville wants to be independent and there is to be a referendum in the next five years but the people will need an economy to support this ideal. There are now squatters who are not landowners living at the mine who are prospecting and mining for gold.
Just one of many complicated hurdles to be negotiated before this beautiful island and its wonderful people can realise their dreams.