Tag Archives: Bougainville

A CHAT WITH… LEONARD FONG ROKA

Leonard Fong Roka – or ‘Captain Bougainville’ as he is often called – is a proud Bougainvillean, a writer, the author of five books, and a Papua New Guinea’s first Book of the Year Award recipient for his memoir, ‘Brokenville’. In this interview he shares his thoughts on his beloved homeland, the tragic Bougainville Crisis, and – of course – his (magnificent) works.

LEONARD FONG ROKA

Pasifika Truthfully: For those who are not familiar with Bougainville history, could you explain the Bougainville Conflict in a few sentences?

Leonard Fong Roka: For many the Bougainville Crisis was a 1988-1989 affair over unequal distribution of mining benefits from the Australian owned Panguna Mine in Panguna, but this is not true. The sources of conflict go back to the colonial era, when Bougainville was removed from its rightful place in the British Solomon Islands and placed under the German New Guinea. Bougainville is geographically and culturally a Solomon island. Colonization just [drew] a line between Solomon Islands; [the colonists] said: ‘Bougainvilleans, you are New Guineans’. What an insane act! Racially you can see the difference between Bougainvilleans and Papua New Guineans. That [was] the Bougainville problem that built up slowly over the years and culminated into the armed struggle in late 1988. I talk about all these in my other book, ‘Bougainville Manifesto’.

PT: You were only a child when the war erupted. What are your most vivid memories from that time?

LFR: The most vivid memories I have from that time should be in my recollection or the book, ‘Brokenville’. Killing of my father is one strong feeling that still exists [in] me. [I also remember] all those troubles my family faced, the many good and bad things, and life I went through. They are a scar in my life.

PT: Bougainville in the late 1980s / early 1990s was… If you could describe the place.

LFR: [I] should say that Bougainville in the late 1980s and the early 1990s was booming economically as papers, BCL, or the government then claimed. But to me, we – the indigenous people – were enslaved on our own land. Money from Panguna was not sealing our roads, was not building bridges over our rivers, was not financing our school fees, [so we could] attend schools and universities. We were exploited by PNG and BCL, but still they celebrated in the media that we were on top and the best economically. Liars they were.

PT: In your opinion, how did the conflict change not only Bougainville but also the whole country? What impact did it have on the native Bougainvilleans?

LFR: Bougainville Crisis gave us – Bougainvilleans – the power to screen decisions and to deal with our ruler – the PNG state – as we feel [is] right. We showed the PNG people what a mine does to our lives, and today we hear their every Tom, Dick, and Harry is running all over the place asking for compensation for their land and so on.

I think that we – Bougainvilleans – will build a better country soon despite setbacks and continuous PNG’s political aggression on our ambitions. We are learners, and we will pursue our freedom.

PT: What was your motivation for writing ‘Brokenville’?

LFR: My motivation for writing ‘Brokenville’ [came from] my little nieces and nephews. They need something to know that Bougainville and me had gone through a hard time in history; that [it all] had happened because of this and that.

PT: What lesson, if any, would you like readers to draw from your book?

LFR: I think ‘Brokenville’ has a lot for readers. One big lesson is that no matter what, we have to pursue our rights to freedom. We – the people of Bougainville – [must] go on.

Bougainville needs to move forward and attain freedom from our rulers – the PNG government and its people – the New Guineans and Papuans – [whom] we call ‘redskins’ or Erereng in my language (Nasioi) or ivitu in my wife’s language in Buin.

PT: You are a very talented writer. Do you plan to write more?

LFR: Yep. I am working on two books now, which are my 6th and 7th. One is due in December 2015. It’s called ‘Valley of Tears’, and it explores how Conzinc Riotinto of Australia (CRA) infiltrated our land and started the Panguna Mine to finance Australia’s buffer state, that is PNG.

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‘BROKENVILLE’ BY LEONARD FONG ROKA

‘Brokenville’ is Leonard Fong Roka’s account of the ten-year-long civil war that broke out on the island of Bougainville in 1988. The memoir won 2014 Crocodile Prize for Book of the Year.

BROKENVILLE

Summary

Leonard leads a happy and peaceful life on Bougainville until it is suddenly interrupted by the rumours of fighting in the nearby mountains. Although he doesn’t know whether the stories are actually true, strange behaviour among adults and the first trucks loaded with police personnel that appear on the streets prove that something is not right.

As time goes by, the growing violence leaves Leonard with no illusions. It is war. It is them against us. But who exactly is ‘them’, and who exactly is ‘us’? For a boy with a ‘redskin’ father and a Bougainvillean mother, this is not the easiest question to answer. Especially when he is forced to spend his days hiding or moving from one village to another in order to survive.

Review

This is such a good book! Raw, honest, authentic, a little edgy, wonderfully enlightening. Leonard Fong Roka offers an invaluable, unique insight into one of the most violent conflicts that took place in Oceania after World War II. For those who proudly call themselves Pacific Islanders, this is a must-read. For curious Pasifika aficionados… Well, let’s be honest here, this title should be compulsory reading for everyone.

And why exactly is this book so worthy of your attention? Because it’s a real gem; for several different reasons.

First and foremost, ‘Brokenville’ is the finest example of a personal narrative. Although penned by an adult, it brings a child’s eye view to the tragic events. Leonard Fong Roka was merely nine years old when the war erupted. His homeland – Bougainville Island – was the epicentre of bloodshed. Everything he saw and endured, every vivid recollection from that time is a testimony to the past. Testimony which not only chronicles the history but also – or should I say more importantly – the early life of an extraordinary man. Despite the author’s effort to avoid writing about himself, he is one of the actors. You feel for him when his father is killed by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, you admire his strength and determination, you respect him. Leonard Fong Roka relates his own experiences, but you can easily sense that he represents hundreds of thousands of people affected by the conflict. You cannot help but be deeply moved by his words. Even though he rarely displays any emotions.

This emotional moderation may be the result of the author’s strong focus on facts and historical accuracy. If you want to know more about the Bougainville Civil War, this memoir is a mine of information. Rich in meticulous detail, it documents every stage of the crisis, presenting the invaluable point of view of the person who witnessed the battle, survived, and lived to tell the story. I don’t think one can imagine what life in a war-ravaged country really looks like, but this volume might just give you a slight idea. With its comprehensive descriptions of brutality, terror, fear, it is a history lesson like no other.

The substance of the book definitely delights, but the author’s writing style – equally good – may be something you will be genuinely surprised by. Leonard Fong Roka creates with passion. His prose is almost completely bereft of emotions, and yet it evokes strong feelings. It’s quite journalistic, rather simple, and very candid. He seems to know exactly which word should be used when. Whether he does it unwittingly or with full awareness, I am not sure. One thing is certain – there’s obviously method in his madness.

‘Brokenville’ is without a doubt worthy of all its hype. It is a fantastic book that explains a great deal about the Bougainville Conflict. But most of all, it’s a touching memoir of a truly incredible, talented man – a fighter who dares to dream and reach for the stars.