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Don’t make history a fairy tale

Beach at Henry Reid Bay
Beach at Henry Reid Bay

GREGORY BABLIS
| Edited extracts

TOL, EAST NEW BRITAIN - Cultures around the world have different concepts of history and of time.

The historicity of a people or place crystallizes in many forms etched in the environment, landscape, language, stories and material culture. Legends, myths, fairy tales, creation stories or origin stories are just some examples.

These are historical artifacts that can be analysed for non-fictive content or for universal truths and morals.

I use the term ‘fairy tale’ to draw a contrast with the word ‘history’, the former carrying a connotation of being more fictive and of less use for present generations apart from amusing - or scaring - young children.

In fact, the title, ‘Don’t make history a fairy tale,’ was a sharp comment made by Ephraim Kavon when I recently spoke with him about local development issues in the Pomio District of East New Britain.

Kavon is a local leader in the Tol-Masarau area and serves as chairman of the school board of the St Paul 2/22 Lark Force Battalion Tol High School run by the Catholic Education Agency.

St Paul 2 22 Lark Force Battalion Tol High School
St Paul 2/22 Lark Force Battalion Tol High School

He struggles with the fact that the Tol area was the scene of major atrocities in World War II yet is offered little recognition by the governments of Papua New Guinea, Japan and Australia.

Tol High School lies about halfway along a six kilometer stretch of coastline between Tol and Masarau.

The glistening white sand beaches of Henry Reid Bay are inviting with a fringe of shady trees left standing even as nearby bush was cleared for development and human settlement.

The name Tol is a diminutive of the Baining name of the nearest mountain ridge, Tholia, that rises 200-250 meters and forms the backdrop of the thin Tol-Masarau coastline with a larger cul-de-sac indent that accommodates the school grounds and two Sulka villages – Gumgum and Koki.

The high school was established in 2017 and is expanding. It boasts two double-story duplex classrooms, a staffroom and administrative building, teachers’ houses, two girls’ dormitories, a boys’ dormitory and an assembly hall.

And there is much more under construction, all made possible through government and Catholic Church funding. The high school has Grades 9 and 10 and will soon gain secondary school status by adding Grades 11 and 12.

The first coconut plantations at Tol were established just before World War I. Foreign logging companies arrived in the 1980s and large scale operations began with the consent of landowners in the 1990s.

The first logging companies to arrive were Japanese but since the 1990s most logging has been conducted by Niu Gini Lumber, a subsidiary of the Malaysian logging company, Rimbunan Hijau. Other logging concessions have been given and the logging followed immediately by oil palm plantations and smallholder estates.

Resource developers have perpetrated much environmental despoilment and many workers’ rights abuses and government authorities lack the capacity, or perhaps the will, to properly monitor and evaluate.

The Japanese landed at Waitavolo not long after invading Rabaul in January 1942. They soon set up a base and built military infrastructure similar to that found in Rabaul and Kokopo.

Japanese tunnel
Japanese tunnel

The largest Japanese tunnel in Masarau has a width of 7.2 meters, a height of 3 to 4 meters in places and burrows into the mountain some 84 meters.

Today the only occupants of this tunnel are bat colonies, snakes and other nocturnal critters since no sunlight reaches its inner depths.

Japanese soldiers also constructed other tunnels on the ridgeline behind Masarau.

There are more tunnels in the ridge yet to be found and mapped. Apart from storing things and providing safe shelter, these tunnels were used to keep prisoners – both soldiers and locals.

The Australians took back Tol and Waitavolo later in 1944 and held these areas until the end of the war.

The story of the ill-fated members of the 2/22 Lark Force Battalion is well known locally. A small garrison made up mainly of members of the battalion was sent to guard Rabaul.

When the Japanese invaded on 23 January 1942, those soldiers and civilians that could tried to escape. Some 200 Australian soldiers trekked to Tol to await a rescue that never took place.

They were instead met by Japanese soldiers who had pursued them by boat and 160 Australian soldiers were massacred between Tol and Waitavolo.

Ephraim Kavon knows the importance of keeping local history alive and building important national and international relationships through history.

He has established a sister relationship with Tallarook Primary School in Victoria, Australia, which is near where Lark Force had a training base in the war.

In 2018 Kavon proposed the name Daniel Ousley Memorial Early Childhood School for a startup that has a classroom not far from the wartime airstrip at Tol station. Daniel Joseph Ousley was one of the youngest soldiers of the 2/22 Lark Force Battalion to be killed by the Japanese at Tol.

A contingent of the Ousley family visited Tol in 2018 to honour their ancestor and see the place where he was slain and where his body still remains undiscovered among 151 other comrades. The early childhood school is run by the Seventh Day Adventist Education Agency.

Sergeant-Major Kawatpur and his wife  Tol Refugee Camp  Sipilangan Village  29 July 1945.
Sergeant Major Paranis Kawatpur and his wife at Tol Refugee Camp,  Sipilangan village,  29 July 1945

A locally-renowned war hero will also be honoured in the name of a proposed museum for Tol station. Sergeant-Major Paranis Kawatpur was a Sulka man who during the war served in the Australian Military Force and the Allied Intelligence Bureau.

He was later awarded the King George Medal, the King George Star and the Independence Medal in 1975.

Apart from the more recent military heritage, evidence of the area’s ancient history can still be found.

Some years ago a local man in Masarau found in his garden, not 100 meters from encroaching oil palm plantations, two club heads with holes drilled in the middle, believed to be of Baining origin.

Locals say that papait (magical incantations) would have been used to make easier the task of drilling holes into the hard rock. They suggest a suitable sized stick would be fashioned and wedged into the hole in a tight fit and this would be sufficient to hold the club head in place.

The longer end of the stick would then serve as the handle. The clubs were used for close quarter combat. The local who found them agreed to donate them to the National Museum and Art Gallery in Port Moresby for proper preservation.

The more successful and so-called universal religions of the world provide a third dimension of time in their theologies that takes into account the future and provides for the opportunity of spiritual redemption and resurrection after physical death.

So too must our development pursuits be three dimensional, allowing for the revitalisation of our histories in the present.

These histories must be given new life and significance for the present in the way that Kavon’s naming agenda or a museum exhibition allows for the rekindling of old connections for new relationships.

Three dimensional development projects must be carried out sustainably so future generations can continue to benefit from the same land and resources without losing something of the cultural and biodiversity values of the place and environment known to peoples of the past.

Kavon’s striking comment, “Don’t make history a fairy tale!” is as much a caution to protect our local cultures and histories as it is a critique of the destructive tendencies and one dimensional approaches of government and corporate developers.

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