NEVER has a war, so unique in its geographical proximity and ferocity, attracted so little empirical attention.
Of course, much has been written in academic forums about the Bougainville conflict, but rarely are these works based on primary sources, or indeed rich lived experience. As a result, to this day, an epic event seared in the memory of the South Pacific remains obscure.
Yet vivid memories and insightful analyses frequently circulate on Bougainville itself, insights in great need of formal recording, so that we can collectively participate in a process of learning and understanding.
But telling the history of this important Melanesian struggle is difficult, only those rare few with a deep reservoir of relevant cultural knowledge are astutely positioned to talk about the war on Bougainville and its foreboding human consequences.
That said, there have been several commendable attempts to date. For example, former rebel and President of Bougainville, James Tanis, a commanding intellectual in his own right, has written several articles, each of which offers a rare insight into the conflict, and its origins.
On the other side of the fence is Yauka Aluambo Liria, a Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) soldier, who penned a celebrated and insightful account of the government’s counterinsurgency operations.
Others have had their memories recorded in important edited collections such as Mothers of the Land: The Birth of the Bougainville Women for Peace and Freedom.
But what we are so sorely in need of are more accounts written by those ‘everyday’ actors caught in the whirlpool of events that emerged on Bougainville during 1988-90, ordinary people who had to grapple with complex circumstances well out of their control, and make sense of a rapidly changing situation.
Leonard Fong Roka represents a rare entity in this respect. Leonard first established himself as a talented scribe who told the story of others. On his celebrated blog posts, Leonard tirelessly recorded the memories of elders who had endured immense loss during the conflict, opening up to the world unseen stories of struggle and survival, which few to this day know properly.
But in Leonard’s cathartic narrative, there are never victims, only a resilient and proud people, who endured the extremities of war, but came through the other end with their pride and culture intact.
Now in Brokenville Leonard has moved on to document his own story, which is invariably also the story of the conflict, its complex fault lines, its barbarity, and the courage of everyday people who survived a decade of fighting.
First and foremost this volume is a majestic personal narrative. But, equally, it is rich in historical detail. While many of the events recounted in Brokenville were seen through a child’s eyes, this was a child mature beyond his years, made mature by the epic events that were occurring around him.
To this end, Brokenville has all the hallmarks we have come to expect of Leonard Fong Roka. His accounts of events are written in meticulous detail by a person with the cultural knowledge to explore their multidimensional meanings. Leonard’s voice is also honest and reflective. He is both a commentator and an actor – neither side of the coin is left absent in this account.
Many different dimensions of this book are praiseworthy.
For instance, Leonard captures in intimate detail the moment of rupture in 1988-89, and the deeply racialised tensions that emerged. He also recounts with rare detail, some of the brutal PNGDF atrocities, which had the effect of pitching Bougainvilleans against Papua New Guineans.
Through these intimate accounts, one gets a sense – as much as one can without being there – of the deep fear and insecurity unleashed on the island by the armed forces. Village burnings, extra-judicial killings, and torture were commonplace. Leonard bares testament to this.
Equally shocking, is the complicit role played by Bougainville Copper Limited, a fact which they, to this day, contest. Leonard remembers otherwise.
Nevertheless, this is not a one sided narrative or ‘BRA propaganda’ as the Australian media pundits might pejoratively put it, as they did with so many civilian accounts published during the war.
Leonard also captures with penetrating detail the petty criminality that emerged in areas under BRA control, and the often vicious tactics used by the rebel forces to ‘deal’ with those suspected of conspiring with the PNG state.
In the book’s most heart wrenching chapter, Leonard recounts how his father died at the hands of the rebels. Only a writer of Leonard’s calibre could have relayed a personal story of such profound loss, with unflinching realism.
Brokenville is a window into a boy (now a man), a family, a conflict, a people, and a struggle.
Other windows, different windows, of course exist and need to be written in equally exquisite detail.
In this respect, Leonard is a pioneer and has lit a flame I hope other aspiring writers on Bougainville will contribute to in time. Indeed, if Brokenville is an indication of the talent shared more widely by a new generation of Bougainvillean scholars, writers and leaders, things are looking up.
Dr Kristian Lasslett is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Ulster and a member of the Executive Board of the International State Crime Initiative