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After 25 years, an emotional return to Bougainville & Panguna

The old Panguna churchPETER COMERFORD

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).

Comerford's former house in PangunaEventually we arrived at our booked accommodation, Arawa Transit which was expensive but basic, clean and friendly. Apparently even Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop stayed there.

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.

Peter Comerford stands where his office used to beHis 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.

Marian Comerford at the steps of the old clinicThe 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.


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Suzanne Cave

Thank you Peter. Just came across your story and enjoyed this ‘blast from the past’.

I was at Bovo SS in 1972, 11years old. I remember so much of the island and island life.

Gavin Worth

Hi Peter, you were my primary teacher at Panguna in 1978-79. My mum Leila taught at the preschool and later with you at the new primary school.

I have often considered going to visit Panguna again, Loloho and the Yacht Club but it will certainly not be the same as you have described.

Steven Hart

Thanks for a great read. We lived on the island in 1975 to 1976 and left when the riots and trouble started. I was only 11 when we had to leave the Birempa compound and my memories from then were that it was scary when all the trouble started.

I do have good memories though. Bovo primary school was great, I loved going to the pool at the hotel that was on the beach, Travelodge or something similar in Kieta, I can't exactly remember.

Going to the country club to watch movies as they was no TV or radio then and then sneaking into the camp next to us and watching movies with the local kids. It was such an easy life back then.

The locals were friendly and I always felt safe. The markets in Arawa were amazing and a highlight of the week going for a drive into "town".

Dad worked for SHRM from memory doing pays or something.

I've thought about going back but I don't know how safe it is and it would be sad to see all of my memories abandoned and destroyed.

June Howard

wonderful, thank you for bringing back our memories, we lived in Panguna from 1979 to 1984. Arthur Perry was a friend of ours, he looked after our house and our dog, (blackie) while we went on holidays back to Australia. Was a special time in our lives, great experience. Max worked in the Tunnel down the Java...... June Howard

Ana Melly

Dear Peter, Thank you for your story. I am reading this to my mum who has many fond memories of Bougainville. She noted that you met Gary Campbell the boxing coach. Mum would like to get in touch with him and follow up with friends from that time. if possible any contact information would be much appreciated.

mathias kin

I have good memories of Panguna too. Panguna was such a beautiful place and I have some beautiful photos of the crushers and mill where I worked as a student. I got out in January 1989. The people of Bougainville are a really top people. Very resilient and hard working. I believe Bougainville can find its way around if given the opportunity.

Jennifer Danaher

What an amazing venture for you and Marion and kids. I have just sent this to Peter he will be so interested as especially being involved in helping you build the school.

My three kids that attended still talk about their international schooling days in Panguna and the friends that they made, especially the great teachers they had.

I think Matt still keeps in contact with Oscar Pittar but don't quote me on that, it may have been a while.

Keep writing, it's great. I will tell you both about my adventure to Egypt with Peter one day. He is still there and has done a lot of research on his grandfather who was in the light brigade here in World War One. It gives him something to do I think but I know he enjoys it. I keep getting mail from the national archives all the time. Family history is marvellous to explore especially if you are living in the same country anyway.

Hi Marion, thanks for looking after me so well when I was so sick on Bougainville having Haylee. It's never been forgotten. Love to to you all. As I said I think Brent talks to Prue and they converse a bit keep in contact love from all us Danahers, there's a lot of us.

Rosemary Shanks

I did a lot of relief teaching in 1985-1986 when the school was being built around us, what a lovely school, great time fondly remembered.

Tandy Lubett

Wantok Peter, this is great, mi hamamas yupela go back na lukluk long peles. Tekyu tru, God bless.

Nick Lomi

G'day Peter - thanks for sharing. I was a student at your school whilst you were Principal.

Nothing but great childhood memories at PNG (minus the load explosions and gunfire at night). I still have a class photo with the PNG defence force helicopter in the background.

Thank you for sharing. Can't help wondering what would have been if we didn't have to evacuate.

Anslem (Andy) Byrde

Thanks Peter and Marion for the great description of Bougainville and Panguna. It sure brought back a lot of memories! Wish we could all meet again soon.

Rev Father W Weemaes SM

Many thanks for what you related about revisiting the Panguna minesite and its dreadful look. What struck me was that the only sign of the left of the church was its cross.

I happened to live in the mine area from 1966 to 1972 as parish priest of Deomori. Panguna was for a while part of my parish.

My experiences were marked by the confusion my parishioners showed seeing the destruction of their surroundings.

Some went off their rocket (longlong or as the Nasioi landowners call it kanukanu).

As the only kakara (whiteman), I was part of the problem in the surrounding villages. Still for me it was a real experience to have lived on the site and later for another 15 years on the beautiful Island. Again many thanks.

Rae (Kataha) Smart

I remember the feeling the first time I returned in July 2004, and each time after that I have returned,(4 times)the feeling has been very similar.
It is mystic, and hard to describe, but it is shared by all I know (except one) who have spent time in Bougainville.
I will share something I wrote in 2000. It might ring a cord with you.

‘A new era is upon us’ or so they say,
Our new era unheralded by hype
Instead marked by sadness began a decade ago.
Without choice or desire ribbons of life
Slashed from the heart by cuts in time
Never to be celebrated.

In ‘Real-time’ once enjoyed
And thanks be given we knew it then
Fireworks would be but a candle glow.
The richness the brightness of then
Reams of Precious ‘Real-time’ lists
Of “holim long tingting”
Mind walks in the rainforest
Still fresh today, each step indelible.

Recalled as a forgotten song
Until heard and sung again.
Silhouettes of men in canoes
Adorning the necklace of our flag.
Their companion, the brightest rising mun.

From a glass sea they return
As night gives way to soft hues of tulait
To malolo satisfied with life and the catch.
Those black nights a perfect canvas
For a wondrous continuous display
Of silent,‘liat bilong klaut’ .

All without reason to celebrate
Except being there
Just belonging; heart and soul.

Waterfalls more refreshing than ‘Bubbly’
Vine bridges over the Bovo riva
Our rocks guarded
By the green gentle giants
Whose nuts we no longer taste,
Or do we?

Countless nambis each one
Proclaiming to be the most special.
Aquamarine the liquid jewel.
Sensually kissing the sands so virginal
As each day begins
But all remembered.

Special memories
Never shared
Forever sealed in my heart.
Mountains stealing the sun
The first coolness of the day
Big and caring, giving hugs as a mother.

Then the misty days
She shares the clarity of layers
Beauty to be appreciated
But oft taken for granted
... as most mothers are.

The gift of cool shade
From fingers of green and light
That wondrous perspective
Of moving textures
Never daring
A repeat of design
As I look upwards
... laying with love beside me.

Incredible starry nights so bright
As to make mountains glisten
On a moonless night.
Tiny ferns where gravity
Seemed lawless
... as did many beautiful things.

Not of the imagination
But in ‘Real-time’.
Parrots, orchids, beach vines
Hibiscus and butterflies
In the corals and waves.
With too many hues of bliss
To mention, instead to know,
Indelibly with wonder.

Symphonies played in the day
Sounds of waves,
Gentle as a kittens touch, or with a Chief’s roar.
But always there
Even as we speak!

Kalangar demanding
To be heard above all else
Leading into the orgasmic crescendo.
At dusk the finale
To the gentleness of the night
Shading lovers into privileged memories.

Then amongst wantoks and visitors
Special and ‘longlong ’ people
Entertaining all.
Akin as flavors and spices
Sprinkled through our days
Creating succulent food for life...

So a new era is here...
Kingfishers, tenants of the sea cliffs
Daily surveying Arovo Island
Don’t know of this.

Willywag-tails still proclaim the night
In the fierce competition
Of frogs crickets and such.
Clown fish will still dart
In and out
With nervous joy.

So let the end of the era come…
A new one be born.
Sons and Daughters returning home
with renewed ‘hamamas wantaim bel isi’
For her future.

No date proclamation
Instead by mended hearts
Desirous once more
To return home ‘na stap olgeta’
To love again...

© Kataha (Rae Smart)
Last day of 2000.

Stan Keilty

Congrats Peter, Marian your children, Arthur and Phil on a wonderful update on your trip to Bougainville. As others have mentioned it has brought back many wonderful memories and emotions for my time in Panguna - 1978-83.

I personally found Bougainvillean people to very pleasant and obliging. The only way I can explain my experience on Bougainville is that it was in one word "Utopia". I wish them all the very best in their endeavours into the future. Teng yu tru!

George Goring

Peter and Marian, thanks for the encompassing detail of your emotionally challenging journey.

Like yourselves, I was saddened to see the destruction that the civil war brought. My low risk exposure was the escorted bus trips from the Single Men's quarters at Panguna to the Concentrator/Secondary Crusher during the few limited attempts at resuming production, post the felling of the power pylons by the rebels.

In Panguna there was a road block at the three-way junction between the Police Station, your school, and 'H' Block, part of the Single Men's Quarters. My most unpleasant experience was gasping on some tear gas when a car ran the road block.

The police fired a tear gas canister at it. The canister landed in the car park of 'H' block and the gas wafted up into the rooms. I was coming back from the shower and rushed to my room and stuffed my towel under the door to avoid the gas.

Your description of the school's daily singing of the PNG National Anthem brought back memories for me. I have you and your students to thank for teaching me it, by osmosis.

My window was opposite the school ground and as I was on a rotating shift roster, 2 out of every 3 weeks I would be serenaded with, "Oh arise all ye sons of this earth ..."

For all of the grievances about the presence of BCL, one of their most noble achievements was the training of their workforce. It was international standard and all BCL national employees are still highly respected, and immediately hired, throughout PNG.

Your escorts, Arthur Perry and Phil Lugg, are as much a part of Bougainville's rich personal history, as yourselves.

Teng yu tru, Peter.

Kane Johnson

Good for you guys. I still have fond memories.

David Tierney

Peter - thanks for your very moving account of your return to Bougainville. I had a similar trip in 2007 with my brother.

Following a request from a local Nun and Politician I have been involved in researching the mental health impact of the Crisis and to that end returned 2009, 2011, 2013, 2014.

Your "stori" gives a clear account of the damage to infrastructure; sadly the enduring psychological impact is significant.

If interested, you will find a copy of a short article by myself and colleagues if you type my name Tierney and Bougainville.

Vicki Whalan

An amazing account of your journey, Peter and Marion. Your description brought back so many memories and emotions. I can only imagine what it would have been like to be there, seeing our beautiful town and school as it is now. Heartbreaking. Thank you for sharing.

Nicole Weiss

Thank you Peter. Can't really write anything else, other than my thanks, am sobbing my heart out!

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