The Green Guerrillas

Pollution from a vast copper mine triggered their war of independence. Dominic Rotheroe trains with the Revolutionary Army of Bougainville
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THE TEAR gas curls across the river like a benign water spirit. Our inexperienced eyes assume it's a pretty ineffective smoke bomb and the video camera relishes the way it catches the tropical light. The next moment we are instantly the wiser, as the poison burns our skin, sears through our lungs and scalds the tears from our eyes. We stumble blindly up the bank to where the guerrillas are in stitches.

"Now you know what it feels like," smirks Ishmael with more pleasure than seems necessary. "And that was just a small one."

Not that it was unexpected. I knew the commander of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) was going to play some trick from the moment he whispered in the ear of one of his guerrillas, who promptly disappeared. Sure enough, 10 minutes further into this training patrol a mock ambush is launched and Ishmael Toroama hurtles into the bush, M-16 blazing, while his soldiers blast the jungle with a mix of captured M-l6s, rejuvenated Second World World War guns, and home-made rifles. This may be to keep the "boys", as everyone calls the BRA, on their toes. But the tear gas is purely for us, a short sharp dose of Bougainville reality.

Ishmael is fond of dishing out such medicine. Later, as he accelerates his battered 4x4 hi-lux truck along a track more hole than road, he admits that on these training exercises he attacks his men with live ammunition. "Ever hit any?" I ask. "Oh yes." "How many?" "Twelve." "Twelve! Seriously injured?" "Er, one yes, very." It is training like this that has turned the BRA into such an effective fighting force. There are no half-measures here.

IT'S SEPTEMBER 1997. The ceasefire and peace talks that will bring to a conclusion Bougainville's war for independence from Papua New Guinea have only just begun, and my colleagues Alex Smailes, Carlos Soto and I are filming the BRA in action. As the islanders proudly tell us, when the war began in 1989 the Papua New Guinea Defence force (PNGDF) - equipped, trained and often supplemented by Australia - was faced with a ragtag bunch of guerrillas armed with catapults and bows and arrows. In village workshops the BRA soon set about making shotguns and rifles - these may have been primitive, but the soldiers who used them, made them, and so knew how to do repairs in the field. By now, however, most of the rebels are wielding guns captured from the PNGDF. "The better the weapons the PNG get the better it is for us," grins Ishmael, "because then we soon have better weapons." The BRA have also begun developing machinery to copy the M-16s they've won.

The fact that Papua New Guinea became such a reliable arms supplier to the BRA isn't the only clue as to who's winning the war. By the time we arrive on the island, 80 to 90 per cent of Bougainville is firmly under BRA control, with the PNGDF confined to a steadily dwindling number of barracks. After the last trumpeted PNG offensive turned into a rout, their top brass admitted they couldn't win the conflict militarily. Earlier in the year the government had acknowledged as much by hiring mercenaries through the British company Sandline International to take out the BRA's military leaders. A rebellion within the army and a public coup soon scotched this idea, but Ishmael is disappointed. "The mercenaries had much better weapons. By now we could have had rocket launchers, mortars and AK-47s."

Throughout the war, Papua New Guinea's most effective weapon had been its shoot-to-kill sea blockade, designed to prevent aid getting in and information getting out. Running the three-hour gauntlet of Australian- supplied patrol boats and helicopters to the nearest Solomon Islands had been the island's only door to the world for eight years. It was also the way in for us, a bone-pounding ride in a makeshift motorboat. As we stopped before the maritime border for a short prayer, I looked at the petrol canisters around and beneath me and realised it wasn't really a case of being caught by the PNGDF. One stray bullet would be enough to fry us. The burnt scar tissue twisting the features of the guerrilla next to me was eloquence itself.

However, the prayers seemed to work and we reached Ishmael intact. "The way back may not be so easy," he assured us the next day. Careless mouths meant that the PNGDF already knew we were there and weren't too happy about it. Then again, "They're too scared of us now, we fire one shot and they run away."

Some of Ishmael's confidence may be bravado, but the whole island seems to share in it. One of the first things that strikes us about Bougainville is how well everyone seems to be doing. On the way back from the ambush patrol, Ishmael drives past neat allotments growing everything from pineapples and watermelons to tomatoes and peanuts. Geese and chickens flee our treadless tyres as we jerk to a halt outside Ishmael's house; one of his small sons presents him with a bag full of huge shrimps plucked from a nearby stream.

Clearly, even during a blockade, on an island this lush it's hard to go hungry. But nothing approaches the importance of the simple coconut. Its flesh and milk have are almost like sacraments. "Bougainville is coconut," Ishmael tells me, as with a few deft machete flicks he slices the top off one and hands it round. "PNG tries to crack us, but we are too hard for them. Coconut is life and no one cracks life."

One has to respect such a perfectly packaged life-support system. We sleep in houses built from coconut timber and roofed by its leaves, eat food cooked in its juices over fires fuelled from its husks (and scatter it desiccated over the flames to keep mosquitoes away). We use antiseptic squeezed from it on cuts, and its oil waterproofs our boots, provides soap to wash the mud away, fuels lamps after the early sunsets and greases the guns of our guides.

Most remarkable of all, though, the Bougainvilleans have refined coconut oil into a fuel for the few generators and trucks that still functioned on the island during the blockade. Not only is this fuel far less polluting than diesel, Ishmael says, it's twice as efficient. It is also available to any one willing to squeeze the juice from the scraped flesh of coconuts (15 nuts per litre) and leave it standing in water for three days before siphoning off the oil and boiling it. "When we get independence, we really going to scare Esso," Ishmael giggles, then thanks the Germans who established coconut plantations here.

BOUGAINVILLE has been passed around various colonisers like a bad cold since the French explorer Louis de Bougainville put it on the map in 1768. In the late 19th century it became German, then in 1918 was joined with Papua New Guinea in a mandated territory administered by Australia. PNG is over 600 miles away; the Solomon Islands, with which Bougainville has all its ethnic and cultural links, are only 12. When Papua New Guinea got independence from Australia in 1975 there were calls for secession, but it wasn't until 1989 that a full-scale war of independence broke out.

Around 10,000 islanders are estimated to have died since. Some were killed in combat or in civilian massacres by the PNGDF, but most died because of the lack of basic medical treatment caused by the blockade on an island where all the hospitals were soon destroyed and all the qualified doctors dead or gone. When we visit, everyone has a horror story to remember - a wife and baby dying in an unattended jungle birth, a husband thrown into the sea from an Australian-supplied helicopter, a child hit by a dum-dum bullet, a daughter raped and then mutilated by the PNGDF. Yet no one is especially willing to tell such stories. Bougainville is winning now and they are more eager to show us their resourcefulness.

A glance around Ishmael's yard is enough to bring this inventiveness home. Ishmael's wife walks around briskly, pouring husked rice from one bowl to another while the breeze of her movement blows the chaff away. A young man demonstrates a Heath Robinson-type torch, powered by a dynamo pieced together from various bits of scrap and wound up with the handle of a fishing reel. Meanwhile the commander shows us the stranger sights of his jungle home. Lying incongruously beneath the palms is the shipping container he calls his gym; inside stand weight-lifting machines. Even more surreal are the guitars, amps and electronic organ in his "music studio", a hut complete with disco lights and glitter-ball. Here Ishmael and some of his men sit at night composing tacky songs, usually about the conflict and always about Jesus.

Because Jesus has come into Ishmael's life in a big way. The big man is "no longer proud to be a fighter". Inside his house a picture of Rambo is now dwarfed by a flock of evangelical posters. He was critically wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade last year and tells us how Jesus appeared to him. "He said to me, you are an inch from death now. Follow me, because I am the Lord." And this he did; when the war ends, he says, he would like to become a preacher.

HE IS not the only one to have found God. "Without Jesus," says Francis Ona, "the Australian government and Papua New Guinea might have beaten me a long time ago." Francis is a cheerful 50-year old who spends his spare time tending his allotments, practising his healing skills on fellow villagers or playing his own (pretty good) songs about the conflict. The rest of the time he spends running the self-proclaimed Republic of Bougainville, for he is the president.

It has taken us two days of walking to get to him, for the most part climbing up gradients that require hands as well as feet while our barefoot guides bound ahead without losing breath or sweat. The views are of such wild and bounteous beauty that we begin to understand why the Bougainvilleans have such a fierce reverence for their land. The centre of their life has always been land. It is the home of their spirits, the gift of their ancestors and, above all, what they live off. It is why they fought their war, and why Francis refused to be budged from Guava, a pretty village perched above the huge, gaping wound that was the war's catalyst - the Panguna copper mine.

Australia, and later Papua New Guinea, ignored local protests and gave a subsidiary of the British mining giant Rio Tinto Zinc (now just "Rio Tinto") the go-ahead to excavate the world's largest open-cast copper mine in the middle of the island in 1967; it opened in 1972. The population was galvanised as never before. Bougainvilleans watched their land dying beneath them as over a billion tons of toxic waste was dumped into the river system. Compensation and jobs at the mine did little to make them feel better about it, and after 16 years of frustrated protest the landowners, led by Francis who was also a surveyor at the mine, decided to take matters into their own hands.

They decided to close it down by carrying out explosive attacks of sabotage upon its machinery and infrastructure. As the violence escalated, Papua New Guinea, panicked about the loss of export earnings, sent in the Defence Force. The Bougainville Revolutionary Army consolidated itself and secession was called for. War was on.

Standing above the hole that is the mine, three kilometers wide and 400 metres deep, Francis surveys the graveyard of cranes, diggers and dump trucks within. Though only specks at the bottom of the crater, the truck- wheels alone are as tall as a bus, and each vehicle, he says, cost $1m. Which makes about $40m-worth of rusting truck that we can see from here. It's difficult to imagine how Francis made such an expensive enemy as he flourishes a samurai sword left over from the Japanese occupation during the Second World War, laughing: "The weapon with which I started the Bougainville war, the only one I had."

Driving past rivers that copper has turned so turquoise it looks as if God has been playing Jackson Pollock, Francis takes us to Panguna town. It resembles a mini-Sarajevo. The mine-workers, white or Papuan ("Redskins" as the ebony Bougainvilleans call them), lived here before they fled, and the devastated flats make it very clear that the BRA wanted to make sure they didn't come back. Although everything not rooted in concrete has disappeared, a few villagers still scavenge for the odd strip of metal shelf or wood. The rest of the debris has been flung all across the island. New houses have been cobbled together out of materials from the mine. Huge cogs from the mine and old car engines are dragged over the mountains to villages where they are converted into turbines for a remarkable new hydroelectric system (recycled mining pipes channel mountain streams into jets; these drive the turbines and so provide electricity).

Such energy is something Francis tells us he wants to develop further under independence. Environmental consciousness is important to him, and he portrays Bougainville not as a primitive culture at war with the 20th century, but as one that has tasted industrialism and rejected it for ethical and ecological reasons. Before the war it had the highest standard of living in Papua New Guinea, but Francis claims the islanders aren't that interested in money, generally preferring a comfortable subsistence combined with modern technology that doesn't damage their land. When he makes an appeal to our camera, it isn't to ask the world for help but a plea for the life of the planet.

This forward-looking philosophy helped the Bougainvilleans overcome the most severe effects of the blockade. They also hope to capitalise on it in the future: Francis makes some incredible claims about their developments of bush medicine - a natural contraceptive that doesn't harm women, a cure for leprosy and breast cancer. They even believe they have an answer to Aids, but have only been able to treat one person so far. Francis invites anyone else willing to try it to visit, and envisages the island as a health resort for people seeking new or natural cures. With mock seriousness he thanks Papua New Guinea for the blockade. "Without it we would never have been able to develop so quickly. It has made Bougainville a university for us."

TWELVE MONTHS later, after a series of peace talks and with a permanent ceasefire in place, Francis has become increasingly isolated. The blockade has been lifted, Papua New Guinea has pledged a gradual withdrawal of its troops from the island and a neutral Regional Peace Monitoring Group now patrols, unarmed. Reconciliation and restoration are taking place across Bougainville.

The main movers behind these developments on the rebel side are Joseph Kabui, Francis Ona's vice-president, and Sam Kauona, a commander of the BRA. From the outset, Francis seemed wary of international realpolitik, saying he had fears of winning the war, but losing the peace. And so far he has refused to sign any agreements; in Kauona's words he has "chosen to marginalise himself". How much influence he still retains will depend on whether Kabui and Kauona are able to prove his scepticism wrong and find a political solution for the island. The bottom line for that is getting Papua New Guinea to concede a referendum on self-determination. Without it the peace may well fall apart and Francis will return to centre stage. Thus far the sounds coming from Port Moresby have not been encouraging.

Bougainville has shown that the seizure of land and destruction of traditional life can be resisted, and this is already causing problems for multinationals in the Pacific - last year the BRA spokesman in Australia was invited to talk to protesters about a mine in the Philippines, and the compensation demanded from mining companies in both Papua New Guinea and the Solomons has upped considerably. The Bougainvilleans believe that they have fought the first real eco-revolution, and have a lot to give the world in the fields of fuel and medicine. But it could be a long time before Ishmael becomes a preacher or Francis can compose a song about victory.