LEONARD FONG ROKA | Supported by the Jeff Febi Writing Fellowship
Oune is a small enclave of people between Avaipa (Eivo) and Ioro (Panguna) with its own Nasioi dialect. The enclave covers the villages of Onove, Enamira, and Darenai that surround what is now referred to as the Panguna mine’s ‘upper tailings zone’ of the Kavarong River. Today, the area is commonly called the Tumpusiong Valley and referred to as being ‘along the dirt’ in Nasioi because of the mine waste that destroyed the valley.
The area is home to the late ABG president, Joseph Kabui, his elder brother, Martin Miriori, and another notable figure in Bougainville political history, the late Luke Robin, whose murder in Goroka in the early 1970s alongside his Buin brother, Peter Moini, resulted in increased anti-PNG and BCL feeling. Compared with most of the Panguna District, Oune is an area with many educated people.
AS THE MINING GIANT, Conzinc Rio Tinto Australia (CRA) was clearing the jungles and digging up the mountains of Panguna in the 1960s, downstream the Kavarong River daily dumped tonnes of waste on Clement Nabiau and his Oune people.
They watched as their food sources in the river and along the surrounding banks were biologically mutilated by a force beyond their understanding.
To the Oune people, CRA and the colonial government, dominated by New Guineans and white men, was beyond their reach. So their strategy was to wage war on the works in an attempt to politically rescue Bougainville.
In 1968 when the Oune people organised themselves, Clement Nabiau (pictured above) was 13 years old.
Under the leadership of Catholic mission-educated Michael Aite from the Avaipa area (nicknamed Makakii = physically slow growing person), the people created a village level governing body called Oune Mumungsina.
The inauguration was witnessed by Bougainville leaders Moses Havini and Leo Hannet. It had Dupanta village, on the border of Avaipa and Panguna, as its official headquarters.
Oune Mumungsina, as an organisation of the people, stretched its influence to the neighbouring villages of Bapong, Pisinau, Damara and the Kosia area of Avaipa.
To the Panguna people, the western-educated Aite was a rare leader and many cult groups dissolved and joined forces with Oune Mumungsina. Aite was now an authority across Oune, Panguna, Avaipa and beyond. He had political alliances and support for secession from other parts of Bougainville.
By this time, the works at Panguna were fast developing and the Tumpusiong Valley was engulfed beyond imagination by the fallout from the mine site.
Oune Mumungsina’s first strike against CRA was an order to people to uproot the survey pegs marking the area of the Special Mining Lease (SML) at Onove. Young children like Clement Nabiau followed the elders to unearth the pegs and bring them back to the surveyors’ camp at Dau, a stream at Onove.
According to Nabiau, the colonial administration response was a build-up of police at the Dau camp. This did not stop the people, so a kiap later called a meeting with the disgruntled people.
As the Oune people awaited the kiap’s visit, word reached the leaders that Guava villagers with their leader, Oni, who had earlier signed the mining go-ahead, had said that the anti-mining Oune people would be their future housekeepers and cleaners as they sit and slept in luxury from the mine benefits.
So the Oune leaders plotted that the coming meeting with the kiap would now be used for an attack on the Dau camp, the kiap and the police.
The plan was for the chief of Enamira, the late Kuirua, to wave a leaf he was holding as an order to start the fight.
So on the meeting day in June 1969, the Oune people went with bows and arrows and clubs wrapped in leaves. Smaller kids like Nabiau had stones in their hands and listened for the elders’ guidance.
At the meeting place, chief Kuirua argued with a police officer from Nagovis called Potuga. The people awaited the order to start fighting. In the delay, three short-tempered elders (ring leaders of the CRA peg uprooting), I’ampama, Karo’aung and I’mu took, took things into their hands.
I’ampama rushed at the kiap and grabbed his neck intending to choke him to death. So the fight broke out.
Young Nabiau threw stones at the police and CRA employees and watched awestruck as the elder I’mu hurled the police officers one by one into the Dau stream and against the rocks below.
The Oune fought with physical strength despite the large amount of tear gas used by the police.
Later in the afternoon, Karo’aung, seeing that there would not be an early end to the fight, gave himself up to the police. I’mu then also surrendered and was arrested. So, as the leaders were taken away, the fighters halted with a sense of dismay.
The police took the pair to Kieta, at the time the colonial government headquarters, where they were sentenced to six months gaol.
After completing their term, they returned as heroes and were welcomed at Onove village with a feast. The people’s struggle against CRA and the government continued.
Nabiau remembers that the Oune Mumungsina’s next encounter with the colonial government was in Arawa in 1974. At the time, Bougainville leaders Fr John Momis and Leo Hannet were in New York seeking independence for Bougainville from the United Nations.
The people were glad as they waited for the pair to return from New York. But when the news was negative, the Oune people stormed the government building in Arawa known as the White House.
They marched around the White House ordering PNG to get out of Bougainville. But their cries landed on deaf ears so the people went into hiding and wept over the rape of their island by strangers.
In 1975, Nabiau and his Oune people organised another demonstration order. They were to hit Arawa again. Before marching into the town, leaders gathered at Dupanta and planned a sports bazaar at Onove village that was to go for weeks. Food was to be brought by villages as far as Nagovis.
People were grouped into two: one group was to remain at Onove playing sport and administering the food supply; the other group was to march to Arawa seeking independence from the government and remain there for as long as it took to reach an agreement for Bougainville secession.
As planned, the sports bazaar at Onove was launched and off went the march to Arawa.
This time, Oune Mumungsina was helped by the Mungkas Association led by a man called Linus Konuku from Buin. Mungkas was a group formed by Bougainville students in Port Moresby and it provided funds to hire trucks to transport people from Onove to Arawa. Food was also trucked from Oune.
A week or so before 1 September 1975, according to Nabiau, the group was transported to Arawa. There they demonstrated for the PNG government of to get out of Bougainville.
The police confronted them with tear gas and batons and chased around the White House, but would not break up. Two police officers were attacked by demonstrators, one receiving a club blow from I’ampama. After days of confrontation with the police, slowly the mood of the demonstrators calmed.
No government official was there to receive their cries, so after days of meetings on the lawns of the White House, the frustrated Leo Hannet declared a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) stating that Bougainville had become the Republic of North Solomons on 1 September 1975.
Bougainville operated under this UDI for a number of days but later the Oune people were told that what they had being happy about was illegal.
Once again, Nabiau and his people were defeated by foreigners who were destroying their land and culture.
Demoralised, they returned home. The news was shocking for the people at Onove who played and waited for weeks for good news of Bougainville being free from the foreigners.
The news nearly led to an internal fight amongst the Oune Mumungsina.
With the political fight undergoing setbacks due mainly to the lack of educated people in the Panguna area, the Oune Mumungsina targeted Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL).
In the early 1980s, Nabiau and the elders occupied the Jaba Pump Station and disturbed mine operations for some hours.
According to Nabiau, BCL bribed the elders and the protest was called off.
The next protest Nabiau attended was at BCL head office in Panguna, known as the Pink Palace. This march in 1979 was to protest for a rise in royalties and the people hoped for immediate feedback from BCL.
The Oune people assembled at the Pink Palace with their petition but the BCL authorities did not bother to act swiftly. The people sat outside under the shimmering heat of the sun.
Out of frustration, some protestors decided to loot Panguna’s AEL supermarket. Nabiau was in the group drinking soft drinks when the police intervened and chased them with tear gas and shouts, calling them ‘insane black bastards’.
Nabiau escaped uninjured. But some of his friends were hurt while others were arrested but later released.
After some years of calm, but with weeping hearts and a desire to shut the mine, in 1981 Nabiau with his Oune people blocked the port-mine access road at the Camp 10 bus depot area.
The demonstration lasted for a day before the government and BCL deployed riot police on Nabiau and the demonstrators.
Then around 1988, Nabiau joined the Oune people and other supporters at a sit-in strike blocking access to vehicles at the pit-access tunnels. Traffic was disturbed for a day and buses could not take workers to the pit area of the mine.
The last demonstration Nabiau and his Oune people organised was in 1989 and it was this protest that sent BCL packing and left PNG in shock.
It was the protest that had the late Francis Ona run into hiding and later saw Bougainville dissolve into anarchy.
In early 1989, after listening to the fights happening around Arawa, the Oune people saw that they should shut the mine by force. The young men were ordered by elders to bring all of BCL’s plant and equipment in the tailings control areas to the Tungsing creek.
One of Bougainville’s best known politicians, Martin Miriori, used his vehicle to bring young men to various locations along the Tumpusiong Valley. Once all the plant was brought, a section of the Panguna-Jaba road at the Tungsing creek was destroyed.
Once again the Oune people plotted an attack on the police and assigned a local politician, Wendelinus Bitanuma, to negotiate and if he disliked the talks, he was to wave his handkerchief so the men would start attacking.
To Nabiau, this was an opportunity to get the New Guinean policemen bathing in their blood.
When the police arrived, a local officer from South Bougainville had secretly told the protestors that the police had stocked all their tear gas and arms in a particular van. He told them that ,when they decided to attack, with his help they must secure the van.
Traffic was blocked for hours. Later in the day, police led by Commander Luke Pango arrived at the scene to negotiate the re-opening of the road. Local politician Wendelinus Bitanuma led the meeting with the police on behalf of the local people.
But Wendelinus Bitanuma never gestured, no one took the order into his own hands and the issue was sorted by Bitanuma and not by the men.
During the day, the late Francis Ona walked out of a meeting with BCL and prepared to go into hiding since as he claimed, ‘They [Oune] have started the fight, so let’s go to war with the company and PNG’ and militancy began.
Clement Nabiau became the commander of the very first organised militant group formed by the young men from the Oune area. It was called Rumbo One.