My dad joined the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) in 1974/1975 before the independence and retired in 2003 after 23 years of military service. So I grew up in a military barracks – Moem in Wewak, Goldie River Training Depot in Port Moresby and Igam in Lae. Military parades were a big part of family life in the barracks back then. It was a big event with food and entertainment for everybody afterwards.
In 1980 I vaguely remember my dad leaving for Vanuatu. I was told at that time there was a war there and my father had gone because that was his job. I can’t remember much though. Then in 1990 he wanted to go to Bougainville during the civil war but I think my mother made him change his mind.
At the height of the Bougainville civil war I remember seeing the front pages of local newspapers and on local as well as internationl TV news channels about the civil war. I remember in particular the local newspapers doing a daily count of the number of soldiers that were being killed each day. Then the numbers got too big to keep counting and it was discontinued. Or maybe readers wrote to the papers to stop because it was too distressing. There was one particular event which came to be called the “Kangu Massacre” where a whole platoon was wiped out by rebel forces. I do not know exactly how many young soldiers died during the Bougainville crisis but the total lives lost is estimated to be between 10,000 and 18,000.
As a son of a former army officer and remembering how those who died, I ask myself, was Bougainville worth fighting and dying for?
I have heard of stories of soldiers after returning from Bougainville going beserk in night clubs in Port Moresby during their rest and recreation. Colleages who are psychiatrists have told me that there have been many cases of soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders. It seems though the PNGDF was not prepared to handle the aftermaths of the civil war! Can this explain the undiscipled behavior by PNGDF soldiers soon after Bougainville civil war? I have also been told stories of young soldiers who served during the civil war as being the most violent ones post war.
What about those who lost loved ones during the bloody civil war? Was Bougainville really worth dying for? Or was innocent blood shed for the sake of money?
I have also questioned myself many times why there is no event or day officially declared by the government of PNG to remember those lives lost in the bloody civil war? Will we just forget them? Why and what did they fight for and died?
The Bougainville crisis was the first real test for the PNGDF and many soldiers responded to the call to serve the country and went willingly without really understanding what was involved. In the army, you just follow orders! You do not question your superiors. The lack of a separate rememberance day or a special event to remember those who died during the civil war is probably a sign of PNG as a nation that lacks patriotism, unity, a common goal, and a common vision. A nation with no such charters does not know where its going. It’s akin to a ship with no planned route. It is just carried by the tide and dictated by the winds.
Was Bougainville worth dying for?
For Bougainvilleans who wanted autonomy maybe it was. But what about those who lost a father, a brother or a son who served in the PNGDF? Were they fallen heroes or fallen villains? It seems the government that sent them to die has forgotten them. There is no specific day of the calender to remember them. Is it a sign of a government that is uncaring and supportive of its own public and state servents?
Remembering wars, like the Bougainville civil war, help us not to repeat the same mistakes again. It also shows that we will not forget those who fought and that their lives were not lost for nothing. It is a sign that the nation that they served will not forget them as well as those that will follow in their footsteps. Such events will bring patriotism and untiy to a country.
Papua New Guinea desperately needs such a remberance event for lives lost in the Bougainville civil war.