IN the shimmering streets of Buka town last month, a pair of New Guineans and some young Bougainvillean ‘born-agains’ were preaching from the Bible.
Suddenly a young south Bougainvillean went to attack them but was ushered away and put on a boat to cross the Buka Passage.
Seated beside me on the dinghy, he was in tears.
“Who do these redskins think they are?” he asked. “They dug up Panguna and gave us nothing and we went to war for our rights and now they’re coming back to tell us about Jesus.
“They haven’t even compensated us for stealing our wealth and declaring war on us.”
Panguna, as all Bougainvilleans know, is where the crisis that cost us so much originated.
This young man lost two uncles to the PNG Defence Force, he says because of the Panguna mine.
But still, to the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG), Panguna is still the place to help develop Bougainville so it can achieve its political ambitions.
Millions of kina have been injected into seeking possible ways to settle the entangled conflicts over the Panguna mine and its proposed re-opening.
But all this money and effort has not produced any tangible outcomes for the ABG and Bougainville.
In October, Bougainville President Dr John Momis had dinner with Panguna’s Meekamui group led by self-created leader Philip Miriori at the presidential residence.
They exchanged views on a number of issues and Dr Momis went as far as suggesting to the Panguna elders that he could grant some form of higher political power to the district if it worked in mutual respect and understanding with the ABG.
Dr Momis was running a political solution to the Panguna problem but the young south Bougainvillean on the dinghy with me was suggesting material compensation for the wrongs PNG had done to Bougainville.
This is now where the friction is in the prolonged Panguna issue. The Panguna people want compensation and this issue is spilling across the rest of Bougainville.
The ABG longs to first see a political solution to enhance the referendum on independence.
There are two groups of people in the Panguna district. There are landowners of the mine affected areas and there are non-landowners.
So when talking about the millions of kina spent to try to address the Panguna problem and the proposed mine re-opening, we know which group of Panguna people are benefiting and we know which group of Panguna people are not benefiting.
After BCL entered Bougainville uninvited in the 1960s, there was not much tangible development like roads and footbridges in the Panguna District. This is what the ordinary people are now looking for; access to vital services through roads.
The Panguna District consists of four main areas: Pinenari, Kavarongnari (Panguna mine and Tumpusiong Valley), Toio’nari and Biampanari.
The only current infrastructure is the main Morgan to Jaba road (which runs on to the rest of south Bougainville) that traces its way through the Pinenari and the Kavarongnari.
Further feeder roads are the Bolabe to Okoni (Orami) road and the road from Sikoreva to Koviako (trafficable) on to Iarako (non-trafficable due to dereliction).
The Toio’nari area had no government or BCL infrastructure. The Biampanari had road access but only to Iarako village and this did not reach the most populous villages, Irang and Pangka further upstream.
Both Toio’nari and Biampanari are that parallel valleys; and Toio’nari hosts the majority of Panguna’s villages - Mumurai, Widoi, Poaru, Damara and Mosinau with Piavora, Kokore, and Guava on the ridge running between Toio’nari and Kavarongnari.
Most of these villages, in the 1960s and 1970s were denied education by Irang villager the late Damien Dameng’s 50t Gavman (government). Thus the majority of the people have remained illiterate since the pre-crisis era.
So there are some residual issues the ABG has to now look at.
The late Francis Ona of Guava village began his militant campaign against BCL in late 1988. His first recruits were from the villages of Piavora, Kokore and Poaru, neighbouring villages of his Guava home.
These three villages were known for their criminal activities in Panguna since they were close to the mine site. They entered the militancy early with sabotage of BCL and government infrastructure.
During the Bougainville crisis of 1988 to 1997, many young men from these villages lost their lives and their villages were burned down by PNG government soldiers.
The Peace Process entered the Panguna District through the Tumpusiong Valley (Upper Tailings). It was resisted but the involvement of former Bougainville Revolutionary Army ‘A’ Companyy commander Peter Onabui of Poaru Village, and married into the Pinenari, gave the peace a window of opportunity to work within.
Over time under the peace process, the Panguna District advanced politically, economically and socially.
Vital education services were established as were health services, however access is readily available only to villages along the main trunk roads. Thus to access and partake in change, the village belt stretching from Irang and Orami to Mosinau, Poaru, Widoi, Mumurai, Piavora and Kokore now have to squat at the Panguna mine site.
In Panguna, the majority landowning villages of Dapera, Pirurari, Moroni and Guava (few Poaru, Kokore and Piavora families are landowners in mine site) are suppressed by squatter settlers.
Thus Panguna is the scene of a political tug-of-war for power and dominance where settlers (some hiding under Meekamui) use their services during the crisis as a bargaining chip to take the upper hand.
The ABG’s main concern is the realisation of the Bougainville Peace Agreement into which millions of kina has been injected.
In its time, the Panguna mine bankrolled the PNG state and in the future time is a readily available resource needed for Bougainville economic recovery.
But Panguna District’s political conflicts—with their spill-over impact to the rest of Bougainville - are an impediment to progress.
For the ABG and other stakeholders, finding amicable solutions has been time-consuming and costly.
ABG’s effort must now be aimed at creating material solutions as the south Bougainvillean on the dinghy suggested to me as we were crossing the Buka Passage.
Physical infrastructure development, especially road projects to the inaccessible villages of Panguna District, must occur if Bougainville wants change to happen.
In the 2008 documentary film, Bougainville: Killer Deal, the late Bougainville leader, President Joseph Kabui, said he believed the Bougainville crisis would not have happened “had they done simple things like providing roads into villages, providing electricity into villages, providing educational facilities for landowners....
"Those sort of things had they done that could have led to avoiding the sort of problems that we went through. I think that was the biggest mistake.”
ABG needs to direct BCL, Rio Tinto and the PNG government to compensate the Panguna people for the exploitation of their land and lives if ABG wants to see change that will bring Bougainville to nationhood.