Dedicated to my mother, Margaret Potoura
I AM in my forties now, but it is still vivid. It was 23 years ago and I was 23 years old, a trained primary school teacher, and three years out of teachers college.
My father, Nehemiah Gray Potoura, and two of my brothers Trevor, 20, and Jacob, 16, were abducted by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army on 23 August 1993.
The evening before, my father told my mother, Margaret, to take us and the other women and flee to a hide-out on his sacred land. We left in a hurry with my widowed aunty Aretai and her children, my 12 year old sister Linda, my mother’s niece Isabelle, who was five, and my four year old brother David.
We left at dusk while father and the boys, along with some uncles and cousins, stayed on at the plantation house. The house was at the edge of the cocoa plantation and belonged to an uncle who had long since fled Bougainville and was somewhere on the mainland.
As we were about to go down the hill, father told my mother that he and the boys would come to us in the morning.
My mother didn’t know that this was the last time she would ever see her husband.
We went down the hill, crossed Wuloli creek and walked into the jungle. The trees were tall and the forest dark. My mother led the way along a narrow track, camouflaged by the humps of surface roots. Long vines hung from the trees like serpents waiting to drop and devour us.
I stumbled over roots and lifted my skinny legs higher. The jungle sounds of birds and animals were terrifying and the crickets’ non-stop chirping deafening. But our real fear was the rebels, who lurked in the forests on our island of Bougainville.
My mother kept hurrying us to keep up. Aunty took out a dried coconut frond bundle she had packed in her knapsack and lit it with my mother’s stone matches. The fire made weird shadows that danced beside us as we hurried on. There were no words. We had to flee as father had instructed.
Walking at the rear I saw Aunty’s fire blowing sparks into the darkness. I was afraid to look behind me. This was a bad omen in our culture. Looking back and blinking would be like beckoning the forest ghouls to follow.
We heard the rumble of the Pirasi River. Aunty held the fire higher and we saw why my mother had stopped. The old mother tree known as Moileu in our mother tongue was right in our path.
I knew about Moileu because I had heard stories about ritualistic gatherings that were held by my father’s ancestors under it to call the mighty wind. We went around the huge trunk as Moileu stood in silence.
When we arrived at our hide-out, Aunty quickly built a fire in the thatched roof hut and we warmed our shivering bodies.
My asthmatic mother was wheezing badly. My cousin Lorna and I fixed up her treasured tent next to our bush hut, while Aunty looked for leaves to warm over the fire and put on my mother’s chest.
Afterwards, she felt a little better and we helped her into her tent and made her comfortable with the solar lamp she treasured as much as that old tent.
Then we lay down in a line on the wild bush palm leaves as the embers glowed and we went to sleep. I woke up at around 5am, the normal time to wake up in Bougainville as the sun rises early on our island. Because we were in the forest, the place was still dark.
I lay there cold and frightened as the sound of the morning birds cackled like old-witches. I have a very imaginative mind which just makes things worse. The goose bumps crept up my feet and legs like crawling ants and moved up my spine, making the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
I shook aunty awake and told her I was scared my mother might have died in her tent and could she please go and check. Aunty came back and said mother was okay and we sat there, building the fire and talking in hushed voices.
The sun rose over the trees and I sat outside on a log and watched the sunbeams dancing to the rustle of the leaves.
In the night time the forest looked scary but in daylight it was beautiful.
I saw how peaceful and untouched everything was. The tree trunks were multi-coloured with vines growing all over them, hanging from branches like mid-air swings.
Moileu towered above all the trees, her branches so high I had to squint to see them properly. There were shrubs, ferns and other smaller trees growing everywhere on the forest floor. And so many birds flying and eating seeds. Their cries, shrieks, cackles and songs were sweet and soothing to my ears.
Nearby I heard the Pirashi River rumbling and looked back to the hut where Aunty was cooking green bananas over the open fire while her six year old son Robin and my four year old brother David sat near her.
I saw my sister and cousins listening to soft music on the radio. The song was ‘Warrior of Love.’
Abruptly, we were disturbed by strange men emerged near our hut. I saw them first, because I was outside. Dangerous looking men, some with dreadlocks, others covering their heads with leaves, bandanas and woollen caps. They clothes were tattered and they had bare feet.
At first my eyes focused on the guns - home-made shot guns and hand guns made of water pipes and with no safety catches. Then I saw they were dragging my 16 year old cousin Kerosi by the cuff of his shirt. They had captured him and made him show them the way.
They searched our hut and woke my mother in her tent. She came out looking ill. They seized my world service portable radio, claiming that it was a wireless to call the Papua New Guinean soldiers.
Kerosi whispered that the rebels had taken my father and everyone prisoner and badly beaten them. The men then yanked him away and disappeared into the thick jungle.
My aunty and mother started weeping. We were shocked and didn’t know what else to do. I calmed them and said I was going back to the plantation to confirm Kerosi’s story.
I walked away stealthily and Moileu started whooshing and creaking as I crept past her gigantic trunk. I walked on and came through thinner jungle to arrive at the village gardens. I crossed Wuloli creek and then I went up the hill, slowing my pace as I came to the plantation house.
There was no one there.
The house had been torn apart by people clearly mad with anger.
All our things were scattered, stamped on, broken to pieces. I saw blood on the steps and underneath the house as well. My head reeled and I held onto a post.
I decided to go on to Oria and see if there was anyone there. I walked through the cocoa trees and came to the village.
There was not a soul in sight.
All the houses were abandoned.
The whole village was deserted.
Everyone had fled into the jungle.
I followed the main highway and tried to look for my father and two brothers. I rounded a corner and as I was about to cross the Pauhu River, I saw my father’s stepfather, Puriala, coming from the other direction. He was shaking and sobbing uncontrollably.
“They’ve taken them all. They tortured them and knifed them like animals and may have killed them already.”
We both stood in the middle of the road and cried.
Puriala told me to go back to my mother and flee further into the jungle.
I ran back up the hill to the trail I had taken earlier, then past the plantation house and into the forest once again.
I ran to our camp and there was no one there.
Everything was packed and gone, only the bush hut remained.
I ran again, stumbling over roots, all the way down to the Pirasi River. I stood on the rocky bank and observed my surroundings. Then I walked downstream for a number of minutes, until I heard someone signal our family’s secret whistle.
I looked across and saw my mother, aunty, cousins, brother and sister. I waded across the river and I ran to my family and hugged them. We sat on the ferns on the forest floor while I related what I had encountered and we all cried softly. We heard Moileu groaning in the gale as the trees danced to its rhythm.
The trees looked angry. I have never forgotten the forest on that day. It was alive. It is something I will never be able to explain.
I suggested to my mother that we should find another hiding place because the rebels knew where we were. I was worried they might come back and this time something worse would happen.
My mother agreed and we carried our belongings, a hidden energy emerging. My mother led the way and we crossed the Pirasi River and followed a secret path father had once showed her.
We walked for some hours and came to a shelter, lit a fire and slept huddled together. The next day we walked to mother’s garden, next to the mountain Wukomai. Having not eaten for a day, we helped ourselves to sugar cane, papayas, cucumbers and yellow bananas.
I started eating raw capsicums and suddenly thought of my father, who had taught me to eat them, and my eyes filled with tears. I stood under the shade of a banana tree wondering what might have happened to him and the others.
We stayed at the garden for three days. I was coming to terms with the fact that there was no one to help us. No one cared if Nehemiah had a wife who was struggling in the forest with her brood.
We had no idea what had happened to father and the others. Only my mother, her strength and her faith in God and prayer, kept us all together and strong.
We moved to another smaller garden beneath the mountain Wukomai.
Then the next morning, Tuvunau, a relative of my father arrived at the garden with his boys. He had followed our trail and came to take us to a better hiding place where his family and an uncle of my father were living.
My mother asked Tuvunau and his boys to escort us to the plantation house. When we arrived after some hours, my mother saw how everything was and she and Aunty Aretai lay on the hard earth and wept.
We followed Tuvunau to his hideout. We didn’t have much to say but everyone at the camp was kind and understanding.
We sat and stared into the forest.
Two weeks later, on a gloomy rainy Thursday afternoon at around six, Tuvunau came from his expeditions with tears in his eyes and told us our father was found downstream of the Loluai River. The rebels had made him stand on Loluai Bridge where he was shot by the commander, who I know is still alive as I write this.
Two brothers, my father’s cousins, were told to dig a hole and were shot and thrown in the same grave. My brothers and some other male relatives were rescued by another group of rebels.
My father was shot on the same day the rebels ambushed the plantation house, 23 August 1993.
My mother is now 67 and is well and an elder in her church. She is a strong woman who I am indebted to for my safety and survival during the Bougainville crisis.
From her savings as a teacher she has built a large house in our village of Oria. She runs a happy school for village children, who come to her daily.
All my siblings are university graduates and are married and have families of their own.
I am the eldest, the one who was close to our father and throughout the years I have lived with the pain of losing him.
The experiences I went through have never left me. I write a lot to record the past, which is very important to me. The past is alive in my mind.