Now, I am in my 40s and have children of my own, but it is still very vivid. Twenty three years ago I was 23 years old, a trained primary school teacher, and three years out of college. My father, Nehemiah Gray Potoura and two of my brothers – Trevor, 20 and Jacob, 16 – were taken away by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army on the 23rd of August 1993.
The evening before, my father told my mother Margret to take us, the other women and flee to a hide-out that was on one of his sacred lands. We left in a hurry: my widowed aunty Aretai and her children, my mother’s niece Isabelle who was 5 years old, my 12 year old sister Linda, my 4 year old brother David, my mother and I.
We left at dusk while father and the boys stayed on at the plantation house, along with some of my uncles and cousins. The plantation house at the edge of the cocoa plantation belonged to an uncle who had long fled Bougainville and was somewhere in Papua New Guinea. As we were about to go down the hill, father came over and told mother that he and the boys would come to us in the morning. Mother didn’t know that was the last time she would ever see or hear her husband again.
We went down the hill, crossed Wuloli creek and then into the jungle. The trees were very tall and the forest was already dark. Mother led the way along the narrow track, camouflaged by the humps of roots that lay above the surface of the ground. The long vines that hung on the trees looked like serpents waiting to drop down and devour us. I stumbled over the roots and lifted my skinny legs higher. The jungle sounded of sleepy birds and animals. We were terrified and deafened by the crickets. But our real fear was the rebels who lurked in the forests on our island, Bougainville.
Mother kept hurrying us, telling us to keep up. Aunty took out one of the dried coconut fronds she had packed in her knapsack and lit it with mother’s stone matches, as we called her lighter. The fire made menacing shadows that danced beside us as we hurried. We had no words to complain, we had only to flee, as father has instructed. I walked at the back and saw Aunty’s fire blowing sparks out into the darkness. I was afraid to look behind me, as that would be a bad omen. Looking back and blinking would be beckoning the forest ghouls to follow.
Finally we heard the rumble of river Pirasi. Aunty held the fire higher and we saw why Mother had stopped. The old mother tree, known as Moileu in our tongue, was right in our path. I knew about Moileu, as I had heard that my father’s ancestors held scared gatherings under her, to call the mighty wind. We walked around her huge trunk, as Moileu stood in silence.
When we arrived at our hide-out, Aunty quickly built a fire in the thatch roofed hut and we warmed our bodies; shivering not from the cold, but from immense fear. Mother, who was asthmatic, 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 mother’s chest. Afterwards, when Mother felt a little better, we helped her into her tent and made her comfortable by the light of her solar lamp, which, she treasured, just like that old tent she kept.
Then we all lay down in a line on the wild bush palm leaves in the hut and, as the embers glowed, we went to sleep. I woke up early, maybe around 5am, a normal time to wake up in Bougainville because the sun rises early on our island. But because we were in the forest, the place was still dark. I lay cold and frightened as the sound of the morning birds came cackling like old-witches laughing over brews of forest toads legs. I can still remember the goose bumps that crept up my bare feet, like crawling ants and moved up my spine, to the back of my neck. I shook my aunty awake and told her that I was scared my mother might have died in her tent and if she could please go and check. Aunty came back and told me that Mother was okay and then we sat there, building up the fire and conversing in hushed voices.
The sun came up over the trees as I sat outside on a log and watched sunbeams dancing to the rustling tune of the leaves. Day time brought back the beauty of the forest. I saw how peaceful and untouched everything was. The tree trunks came in different colours, with vines that wrapped around them and also hung in mid-air like swings. There were shrubs, ferns and other smaller trees growing everywhere on the forest floor. I saw so many birds flying from branch to branch, all busy eating seeds. Their cries, shrieks, cackles and songs were now sweet and soothing to my ears. I heard the river Pirashi rumbling nearby and then looked back into the hut and saw Aunty cooking green bananas over the open fire, while her 6 year old son Robin and my 4 year old brother David sat near her. I saw my sister and our cousins listening to the soft music on the radio. I can still remember the song that was on. It was called ‘Warrior of love.’
Suddenly, we were surrounded by strange men who crept around our hut. I saw them first, because I was outside the hut. Dangerous looking men, who had dreadlocks, while others covered their heads with leaves, bandanas and woollen caps. They wore worn out attire and their feet were bare. They held shot guns and other home-made guns. These guns, were made out of water pipes and didn’t have safety catches, so they went off without warning.
The men were dragging my 16 year old cousin Kerosi by the cuff of his old shirt. They had captured him to show them the way. They searched roughly through our hut and woke my mother in her tent. She came out looking quite ill. They seized my world service portable mini radio, claiming that it was a wireless to call the Papua New Guinea soldiers. As they searched our hut, Kerosi quietly related to me that my father and everyone had been taken by the rebels as prisoners and were badly beaten up. The men then yanked my cousin from where we were standing and disappeared into the thick jungle.
My aunty and mother started weeping. We were all shocked and didn’t know what to do. I told them that I was going back to the plantation house to confirm Kerosi’s story.
I walked back stealthily through the lush untouched forest. Moileu started whooshing and creaking as I crept past her gigantic trunk. I walked on and at last came through thinner jungle to arrive at the village gardens. I crossed Wuloli creek and then I went up the hill. I slowed my pace and crept to the plantation house. There was no one there.
The house had been torn apart by people who were mad with anger and in a wild tantrum. All our things in the house were scattered everywhere, stamped on, broken to pieces and butted with guns. I saw blood all around the steps and underneath the house as well. My head reeled and I held onto the post of the house for a few minutes, until I caught my balance again. I decided to walk on to our village Oria and see if there was anyone there. I walked through the cocoa trees and came to the village along a small unknown track.
All the houses were abandoned. The whole village was deserted. Everyone had fled into the jungles.
I followed the main highway and tried to look for my beloved father and my two dear brothers. I slowly went down the hill and felt my legs wobbling, from uncertainty, fear and lack of food. I rounded the next corner and as I was about to cross the river Pauhu, I saw my father’s step father Puriala, coming from the other direction. He was shaking and sobbing uncontrollably and his face, I saw, was disfigured from so much tension and worry. We both stood there in the middle of the road and cried our hearts out. I can still remember what the old man said as he wept. “They’ve taken them all. They’ve tortured them and knifed them like animals and may have killed them already.”
He held my hands with his shaking hands and told me to go back to my mother and flee further into the jungles. I ran back up the hill and on to the trail I had taken earlier. I shivered as I ran past the plantation house, then into the forest once again, now alive with noises of birds. I reached Moileu and this time, her branches were swaying wildly, as her leaves called to the wind.
I ran to our camp and there was no one there. Everything was packed and gone, only the bush hut was still there. I was terrified, realising the cool zephyr had now changed. The trees were swaying frantically to the wind that was buliding in the forest. I noticed the birds’ songs turned to screeches, as they tried to seek shelter elsewhere.
I ran again, stumbling over the many roots, all the way down the hill to river Pirasi. The river was clear and flowing fast. I stood on the rocky bank and observed the surroundings. Then I walked downstream for a good number of minutes, until I heard someone whistle our family’s secret whistle. I looked across and saw my mother, my aunty, my cousins, my brother and my sister Linda. Wading across the river, I ran to my family and hugged them all. We sat on the ferns on the forest floor and I related what I had encountered. We all cried softly. We heard Moileu groaning with the gale.
The trees in the forest were doing a frenzied chant by then; to me they all looked angry. I have never forgotten that difference I saw in the forest, as I ran through the jungle all on my own that day on the 23rd of August. It is something I will never know how to explain properly.
I suggested to mother that we should leave that forest and find another hiding place because the rebels already knew where we were. I was worried that they might come creeping upon us again and this time something worse would happen. Mother agreed and we all carried our belongings, even though we had not had any food to eat, I realised that in times of turmoil, the body gets stronger and a hidden energy emerges.
Mother led the way and we quickly crossed river Pirasi and followed a secret path that Father had showed her. We walked for some hours and then came to a shelter and put all our belongings down, rested, lit a fire and slept there huddled together. The next day we walked to mother’s garden, next to the mountain Wukomai. We were so hungry we helped ourselves to the sugar cane, papayas, cucumbers and bananas. I started eating the raw capsicums and suddenly thought of my father, who had taught me to eat them. My eyes filled with tears. I stood under the shade of the banana trees, wondering what might have happened to him and the others?
Around us were bananas, kaukaus, taros, yams, cassavas, sugarcanes, papayas, capsicums, eggplants and other local vegetables. There were coconuts at the edge of the garden and we got dry nuts as well as green ones to drink the fresh juice. Creek Wuloli flowed next to the garden, so we got water and washed there as well. We stayed at the garden for around three days.
We were all lost.
My mother was from another village quite far from Oria. Aunty Aretai was a widow and no one ever bothered about her, except my father and mother who took care of her and her children. We were hopeless and 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 bushes with her brood. During that week, we were all emotionally drained and saddened. We didn’t know what had happened to father and all the others. Only my mother, her strength and her faith in God and Prayers kept us all together and alive.
We moved to another smaller garden beneath the mountain Wukomai. Then the next morning Tuvunau, a relative of Father’s, 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. Mother asked Tuvunau and his boys to escort us first to the plantation house and we walked for miles again, but our legs were used to walking. When we came up to the plantation house, Mother saw how everything was and, with Aunty Aretai, lay on the hard earth and wept.
In the afternoon, we chased mother’s chooks, which were now roaming all over the yard, scavenging for food. We caught a few and tied their legs together and collected a lot of eggs around the shades of trees, behind the stumps and in the grass. One funny thing I still remember now was Tuvunau making little holes in the eggs and sucking the yolk out raw. My sister and small brother were horrified.
We followed Tuvunau to his hideout. We didn’t have much to say but everyone at the camp was kind and understanding. We sat there and stared into the rainforest and waited for each day to end. The people at the camp shared their little food with us, but most of the time, there was nothing to eat and we didn’t complain. Elma, a relative of my father’s, was very kind to us and I have never forgotten that. She has passed away now, but what a good heart she had.
Two weeks from the 23rd of August, on a gloomy rainy Thursday afternoon at around 6pm, Tuvunau came from his expeditions with tears in his eyes and told us that our father was found downstream at river Loluai, by a man and his son. The rebels had made him stand on Loluai Bridge, where he was shot by the Rebel commander. Two brothers, my father’s cousins, were told to dig a hole. They were then shot and thrown in the same grave. My brothers and other male relatives were rescued by another group of rebels and taken to their camp, halting the assassination that was going on without any trial at all.
Father was shot on the same day the rebels ambushed the plantation house: 23rd of August, 1993. We had roamed the bushes ‘fleeing,’ not knowing our father had already been shot and was somewhere in the river Loluai. In our minds, we thought he was somewhere safe, because he was a highly respected Chief in our clan and owned so many traditional lands, handed down through his forefathers.
The next day, Father’s people returned to the village with a new zeal, went to the banks of River Loluai and dug up the temporary grave. Father was lifted out of the grave by his uncles Pekuvei, Robinau (may they rest in peace) and two others, whose names I cannot remember names at this time, though I treasure them in my heart. They brought my father’s body back to our village Oria, and gave him a proper burial next to his ancestors on his land.
My mother’s lamentations on that day have rung in my ears ever since:
‘My husband, if I had known that you were killed on the same day, I would have taken our children and return straight to the village and waited to be killed too.
All these weeks, I thought you were somewhere, stronger as you are, fearless as you are, respected as you are; I thought you were taking care of our two boys.’
I have written the words in English, but in our language they are heartbreaking.
Mother is now 67 years old and healthy as a fiddle, an elder in her church. All my brothers are university graduates, now married with families of their own. My only sister Linda Marie is a teacher and lives in Bougainville with her two children. I am the eldest, the one who was very close to our father and throughout the years I have lived with the pain of losing him in that manner. I write a lot to record the past, which is very important to me; the past is alive in my mind.
Marlene Dee Gray Potoura is a writer from Papua New Guinea. She has a degree in Education and runs a private school for young children, aged 4 to 12. She writes short stories and children stories, most of which have been published online on THE PNG ATTITUDE BLOG and in The Crocodile Prize Anthologies 2014 and 2015. Her book of short stories was published by PukPuk Publishing in 2015. She is working on a memoir of her life in Bougainville.