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The helicopter attack on Kupe & Kepetu's capture

LEONARD FONG ROKA | Supported by the Jeff Febi Writing Fellowship

Leonard Roka continues his occasional series of first person accounts of events in the late 1980s civil war between PNG and Bougainville. These stories, untold until now, describe uninvestigated matters and articulate the traumas that continue to be experienced by many Bougainvilleans. Leonard witnessed the air attack on Kupe of July 1989 which is the subject of this article.

PNGDF helicopter on BougainvilleLOUIS KEPETU REMEMBERS WELL the words of the first Papua New Guinean soldier who angrily approached him.

‘Tete bai yu dai, yu stink kok. Kuapim Francis Ona! Acting Rambo nabaut lo kain liklik ailan hia olsem tru yupla gat kain gun olsem army gat’ (Today you will die, you stinking penis. Fuck Francis Ona! Acting Rambo on a tiny island like this as if you have the type of guns the army has).

Kepetu was then assaulted until he was weak by every soldier who hand a chance to punch-out his anger on him.

Shortly after the capture of Hellman Angkanu and the killing of Karebu at Bakabori village on 4 July 1989 (see PNG Attitude story here), the Kupe mountain villages were ordered to evacuate to Piruana. But the people did not like Piruana, so we all flooded into Kaino village because it was closer to Kupe.

being forced out of their homes and instead went into hiding in the jungles and caves of the Crown Prince Range, the mountainous backbone of our island.

Kepetu, his wife and other villagers of Sirona cleared a series of caves near the village where they spent the nights and during the daytime, after carefully observing the village below, they would come out of the bush and pass the day there.

Kupe is made up of two main villages, Sirona and Nengkenaro, separated by a gorge. And Sirona, the home of Kepetu, is glued on top of a cliff that forms the western side of this gorge with another smaller ravine running into it from the south.

This is the foot of the great Kaupara brae, seen from Arawa, that once hosted a repeater station on the peak, which begins from the 1930 Kupe goldfields north of Sirona to Turampa in the south. On the other side of the Kaupara is the Panguna Valley.

But on this hurtful day, the people’s observation was not accurate.

During the night a PNGDF patrol that did not wish to burn down villages had reached the empty Nengkenaro. The majority of its occupants—including me and my family—were already in Kaino with still others further into the jungle.

At the hideout, Kepetu and his wife ordered his brother, Akora, and another relative to go to the village early and collect dry coconuts whilst he and his wife fetched some cassava from the garden intending to spend the day making tamatama, a traditional Kieta dish made from food mashed in a mortar and pestle and heated in coconut milk.

Having done everything as planned, the party was at Kepetu’s home making tamatama. Kepetu was inside the hauskuk processing the beaten food. The young men were outside engaged with the mortar and its pestle whilst Kepetu’s wife was away in the next hamlet searching for food to take back to the hideout.

Suddenly the PNGDF soldiers surrounded them.

While Akora was busy with the pestle and his friend placing food into the mortar, someone whistled at them.

They looked up and to their shock saw a group of redskin soldiers, guns aimed at them ready to fire.

They looked around and saw there were other soldiers approaching, so the only option to avoid torture was the cliff. It sloped down 500-700 meters down but had occasional plants like orchids, ferns and creepers attached.

Without Kepetu’s knowledge, they darted over the cliff like skiers down a slope. They were gone, their mass carrying them down as the PNGDF troops rushed to fire at them.

Kepetu, shocked by the sound of heavy boots, emerged only to encounter soldiers running for the cliff, the guns and grenades being unleashed after the escapees rocking the ground.

Not sure if their bullets and grenades had achieved their purpose, they turned on the terrified and crying Kepetu and began torturing him. One of the soldiers shot the mortar and pestle whilst a bunch of them kicked the food he had been working on.

They gun-butted, kicked and punched him at will; his eyes could not see much as his ears could not hear and blood was all over his body. Then they tied his hands behind him and began directing him towards the track whens two helicopters arrived.

Down at Kaino, upon hearing the heavy gunfire, the whole population gathered where my family and others were living thinking their homes would go up in flames.

We watched as the army choppers separated above Sirona, one headed towards the old gold mine whilst another to the south. Then gunfire began rocking our Kupe. They choppers fired their guns, passing each other above Sirona; completing one round and then repeating the same procedure.

Our women were crying as we watched the chopper attacking our home.

KaumonaDuring the airborne machinegun attack, every hideout was infiltrated: Little seven-year old Kaumonu (shown here in a recent photo), brother in law to Kepetu, was left behind by his parents as they ran for their lives with his infant sister.

Eleven-year old Kopuru threw away her little brother, Monona, as she cried after losing sight of her mother.

A man called Nukua was calling at his family, ‘Come and see the helicopter, they have placed a generator on it’ without realising it was a gun until he witness a betelnut cut down, tree branches falling and his pig dying on the ground. He ran away.

The choppers criss-crossed, firing at the jungle and the villages until Kepetu was brought to Nengkenaro, one of the choppers was still hovering above while the other landed.

Kepetu was thrown into it with some soldiers and the chopper climbed from the Kaupara slope leaving behind the other soldiers.

When they arrived at the PNGDF’s camp at Panguna, an ex-BCL’s worker’s residence known as Camp 10 turned into an international high school, there were a dozen soldiers waiting Kepetu was kicked off the chopper before it touched the ground.

Kepetu landed amidst the mercy of a dozen stinging fists and fell unconscious.

When consciousness returned, he was in one of the Panguna police cells. Tears ran freely but his cry made no sound. He felt life around him, but his hands could not reach out; he knew fellow Bougainvillean prisoners were crying and comforting him in his mother tongue, but he could not see nor answer them for all was dark.

Louis Kepetu survived, and now lives happily in his Kupe Mountains doing his gold panning and taking the yield in a little canteen from Kaino, a two-hour walk from Kupe where hire vehicles do their drop-off.


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Leonard Roka

Lasslett - I witnessed the scene from a distance at Kaino village, for it was a week when I was not in school.

Many deny that these choppers were not employed as gunships, as you mention.


Kristian Lasslett

A terrifying story, though it is good to know that Louis survived and has found happiness.

Of course, the helicopters were one of the more controversial contributions made by the Australian government.

Australia's foreign minister claimed they were not specifically for use on Bougainville, but to improve PNGDF's general mobility - of course these are fine weasel words.

Having spoken to Australian Department of Defence officials from this period, the helicopters were very much for Bougainville. Some may remember that the helicopters were supplied with a stipulation that they not be used as gunships.

Defence were dead against this - they felt it was completely unenforceable, thus pointless and a potential hostage to fortune.

Nevertheless, DFAT signed the agreement against advice from their colleagues. And sure enough they were used as gunships, Australia was aware, and the government did nothing to enforce the stipulation, because it would have been silly to.

Here is a quote from an excellent PhD by T Rogers - an ex-ADF officer who was seconded to the PNGDF.

"The four aircraft were quickly improvised as gunships. Indeed, offensive fire was regularly directed from the helicopters at suspected targets, including villages. Soldiers fired machine guns [GPMG M60] attached by rope, and grenades from grenade launchers (M203/M79) or simply dropped grenades into villages.

"The conditions were violated and the Australian government was shown evidence of such instances, but little was done to enforce the prohibitions – something which the PNGDF quickly realised".

Leonard, well done on another important account!

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