PAPUA New Guinea’s motivation to re-take Bougainville in the civil war of the 1990s is and was economic.
The closure of the Panguna copper and gold mine by Bougainvilleans was hurting the PNG economy. And thus it went to war with Bougainvilleans.
But as the PNG military action continued, Bougainvilleans were learning the art of guerrilla warfare. And, from a historical perspective, the Battle of Koromira Catholic Mission was a significant Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) success against PNG troops.
Koromira Catholic Mission was taken by PNG forces in 1996 as part of their task of flushing out the BRA from Central Bougainville, given the title Operation High Speed II.
There had been other military operations. One had begun around August 1994 when PNG was led by prime minister Paias Wingti. The PNG leadership boasted of ending the crisis on Bougainville but ultimately the operation ended in total failure for PNG and its soldiers.
The Wingti leadership gave way to that of Sir Julius Chan who had to strike a peace deal with the BRA to release captured PNG soldiers. Honiara in the Solomon Islands was also the location for ill-fated peace talks.
When they failed, Chan launched High Speed Operation II as a show of massive force. With helicopter support, the PNG Defence Force surrounded the capital, Arawa, and – aiming to cut BRA crossings to the Solomon Islands - captured and camped its soldiers at Kieta port, Aropa International Airport and Koromira Catholic Mission.
To the BRA, the occupation of the Mission was a serious threat to boat services to and from the Solomons. It would expose the small boats that were clustered at the southern tip of Bougainville.
The BRA operated in most areas and engaged PNG forces that landed at Aropa whilst the Mission came under the wing of BRA guerrilla forces from around the Koromira area with some support from Kongara men.
The BRA knew that the practice of PNG forces was to torch villages abandoned by locals as they took refuge in the mountains. This knowledge was a source of great inspiration to the BRA to get rid of the PNGDF from Koromira Catholic Mission.
The BRA carried all their weaponry and supplies through the bush, including a huge rebuilt Japanese World War II anti-aircraft machinegun. The guerrillas took up positions in the hills above and surrounding the mission.
For three days the battle raged. On the first day, the PNG forces targeted the BRA positions with mortar rounds and light machinegun fire. But once the operators of the anti-aircraft gun got it assembled, the wind changed.
The massive gun—which could fire only a single round at a time—took charge on the second day. From a hill the BRA watched as it took down a mission building; the next destroyed two swaying coconut palms at the same time.
“These rounds terrified the PNG army,” recalls Toronu Miika. “They stopped firing on the second night and stayed buried in their crab holes in the church.”
The BRA made every attempt not to touch the church, and succeeded in this. But the PNG forces positioned themselves in the church and were firing from within. The tactic made the BRA hesitant to attack.
But on the night of the third day, the BRA leadership agreed to take the church the next morning. But as the attack began and BRA teams moved across the mission fringes, no fire came from the church.
The PNGDF troops had fled by sea during the night.
The Mission saved, the BRA helped themselves to abandoned food, clothing and ammunition.
And so the struggle continued.