Edited for the blog from an entry for the 2017 Crocodile Prize Competition, Kumul Petroleum Holdings Limited Short Stories Category by Agnes Rita Maineke
Agnes Rita Maineke is from the Tokunutui area of Siwai District in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. She is a teacher by profession who won the 2014 Crocodile Prize Short Story Award for her entry called ‘The Roonou’.
The Resilient Mother of the Bougainville Crisis
In December 1995, a young woman, twenty-nine years old and pregnant with her first child was caught in the midst and at the height of the Bougainville Crisis. She was one of the Haisi people who were at the time of her pregnancy, living in the Papua New Guinean Defence Force care-centre at the Mission Station near Arawa, called North Solomons Province back then.
Early in the wee hours of the morning of 1st December, a handful of the members of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army entered the care-centre on the pretext of talking about peace. Instead they forced all the civilians to evacuate the care-centre and move into the surrounding jungles. Along with others, this young pregnant woman, with her husband, packed their minimal belongings as speedily as they could and left in haste. Other close and distant relatives also silently and in swiftness left the care-centre as dawn advanced.
As soon as the people reached the safety of the jungle, the Bougainville Revolutionary Army started their onslaught on the Papua New Guinean bunker nearby. Fierce fighting broke out as soon as daylight came. The Defence Force Commander was shot on that morning by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army. The refugees pushed further into the jungle that day to put solid distance between themselves and the gunshot launchers fire coming from the Mission Station. It was decided by the refugees’ elders that they all would travel northwest towards Jarara village. The young pregnant woman carried her bags at her back, besides the child within her womb and walked as softly and swiftly as she can. Fortunately, for her, her husband had not joined the Bougainville Revolutionary Army. He was by her side and today he shouldered their other household items which she could not carry. As they travelled towards Jarara, they arrived at the Upai River which was experiencing flooding. They retreated to one of the sites of the abandoned bush camps and slept there for the night. Some families huddled together under the stars because the roofs of those houses had already disintegrated. No one had eaten anything that day. The silence of the travelling day became a little louder at night as they all reposed they weary bodies, emotions and spirits.
As soon as daylight came, the refugees broke camp and headed towards Jarara. By then, the flood had subsided and they could cross to the other side of the river. However, the crossing had to be made further downstream and not at the usual place. They were fearful of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army who had set up camp at the Jarara. They crossed without much misfortune, arriving at a hamlet at the mouth of the Pu’u River toward the middle of the day. It was there that the refugees decided to separate. The young pregnant woman and her husband with five other families headed to a relative’s home along the banks of the Ororo River. This was a secluded place out of sight from both the Papua New Guinea Defence Force and the Bougainville Revolutionary Army. It was learnt by the travelling refugees that there was a small group of Bougainville Revolutionary Army’s camped nearby.
So the refugees settled at Masapiri. There were two other pregnant women in that group that camped at Masapiri. These three pregnant women were fortunate to have a big double sized mattress to sleep on. They shared the tiny space of that mattress unashamedly but with sheer gratefulness. The mattress came by way of another member of their group, an old woman who had carried her mattress from the care-centre they had left that morning a day ago. They soon settled into a routine village life in their hideaway at Masapiri. As time passed, the pregnancy terms were encroaching onto the birthing date. On the night of the 24th of January 1996, the young pregnant woman felt the first pangs of childbirth. The young pregnant woman thought she had to defecate when she felt the childbirth contractions, this pregnancy being her first. She woke one of her fellow moms-to-be, but this other pregnant woman also being her first experience could not explain anything to her.
The young pregnant woman’s Aunt instructed her to leave Masapiri and go to another camp closer to the river called Kunnaha, when dawn broke into a lively sunny day. This was because there were no men at that other camp; it was more secluded from the rest of the other crowded camps. When this young pregnant woman arrived, the older women of that new camp welcomed her and her husband. The women soon realised that the young woman was going through the process of labour. Several of the women at this camp began giving conflicting instructions. One of the women instructed her to lie down and rest, belly up and wait for the contractions. The other woman instructed the young pregnant woman to walk around so as to induce and fast track the process of contraction. Others told her to swim in the river and rest. Of course there were no doctors, operating clinics, aid posts or trained birth attendants anywhere. They were in the jungles hiding from the Papua New Guinea Defence Force and the Bougainville Revolutionary Army.
The first day of labour passed, nightfall arrived silently through whispers but still the baby refused to leave its mother. The poor young woman experienced several painful contractions. She did not expect the pain and did not know what to do but to scream. She could not scream so all she did was bite into hard wood and grabbed hold of the woman’s hand which she clutched and squeezed into a mangled pulp. It was her first and a first for everyone in a very new situation. During the night, an old midwife was fetched from another camp nearby, to assist the pregnant young woman. This midwife tried several traditional labour pain remedies. The herbs that were gathered and used which had worked well for many mothers previously were not effective for this poor young pregnant woman. Her elder sister together with her children arrived at Kunnaha on hearing about the birth complications of her sister.
On the third day of the labour process, on 26th January, a local Aid Post Orderly was called by the young pregnant woman’s husband from a bush camp further away. This Aid Post Orderly arrived in the midst of the night. He proceeded directly to attend to the suffering young pregnant woman. His diagnosis was not good news to everyone. He stated that the baby was not yet due. Night came and the contraction pain continued into the third day. The fourth day dawned, the 27th January with less joy but more anxiety and uncertainty. The pregnant young woman’s sister knew that only the Christian God could help her beloved sister and her unborn child and therefore proceeded to offer prayers with intense pleading for mercy. She prayed with the knowledge that Aid Post Orderly who arrived the previous night to assist her sister was an experienced man and together with God, they could all give birth together. The Aid Post Orderly stayed with the young pregnant woman as the day turned to noon, then to dusk and then to evening. It was pitched dark, as dark as the pain experienced by the people in the hamlet as they empathised with the young pregnant woman. While the Aid Post Orderly continued to check, the prayers to Almighty God intensified. The elder sister of the young pregnant woman knelt on the ground and stayed there until at eleven o’clock at night, when her prayers were answered.
A lively, screaming and kicking baby boy, full of life and promise came out blaring as loudly as he can to announce to the world his arrival. He was named Keith, almost unceremoniously. The occasion was mixed. It was more a relief from the long pain and uncertainty felt by everyone in the hamlet. Joy was more an afterthought. Their mixed feelings about the baby quickly diverted to anxiousness, anxiety, distress and fear about their situation, given that the crisis had heightened. This feeling was in the air, as cobwebs heavy and encapsulating and stifling smiles and life.
News filtered somehow from one care-enters to other care-centres about atrocities committed by the Papua New Guinean Defence Force. One night, five weeks after the birth of Keith, the people in the hamlet were woken up by some young boys who had joined the Home Guards. The Home Guards kept sentry duties for the little hamlets around the region and communicated with the Papua New Guinea Defence Force. At this time, the Papua New Guinea Defence Force was about to carry out Operation High Speed 1, so those Home Guards had asked permission to go out, make contact with civilians caught in the crisis and encourage these civilians to go the nearest Papua New Guinea Defence Force care-centre.
On the 29th February 1996, with her five-week old Keith wrapped up in blankets, the young mother took her place in the midnight procession led by the Home Guards back to the care-centre at the Mission Station. Of course, there was the river again, and it was in flooding again, just like two months ago when they made the crossing. The refugees could not return to Masapiri in fear of reprisal from Bougainville Revolutionary Army. The Bougainville Revolutionary Army was known to employ various methods of torture to their own people if they felt that the people were listening to the Papua New Guinea Defence Force. The only option was to cross the flooded river. The father and mother of Keith were both tall so the father held the wrapped baby aloft in his left hand while on his right he held his wife’s hand. Thus, they crossed the flooded river. Everyone was told to gather at a deserted hamlet on the outskirts of the Mission Care-centre as they neared their destination. When they were all gathered at a haus-wind a bonfire was lit. This was the signal agreed upon by the Papua New Guinea Defence Force and the Home Guards to signal that they were returning with their relatives or civilians. Everyone had to hold a fire stick or wood as they re-entered the care-centre that they had left three months earlier. As they arrived, they were commanded to line up in front of the army. The previous day, the army had brutally tortured and killed a civilian and so they were in a foul temper. Little Keith and his parents had to be accommodate with four other families in a small house because their house in the care-centre had been burnt on the night of the 1st of December 1995, during the battle between the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and the Papua New Guinea Defence Force. Five months after their return to the Mission Station care-centre , all the people were told that they were now moving to another care-centre at Tonu, further south of Haisi. This was in preparation for Operation High Speed 2 which was to have been carried out by mercenaries from South Africa called Sandline.
Five month old Keith had to move again in the middle of the night. They left Haisi at eleven o’clock in the night. The exodus moved so slowly that night because it was dark and that the road had become overgrown. Several women and men cut through the overgrown bushes with machetes as they trekked through. The young mother clasped little Keith in her bosom while on her back she carried some of their personal items. Keith’s father put all their belongings in a wheelbarrow and pushed it all the way to Tonu. They arrived at Tonu early the next morning at about seven o’clock. The journey took eight hours, whereas today if one travels by foot one can complete the journey in four hours. The cycle began anew: new houses, new routines, and new gardens for each family. Little Keith learnt to walk while at Tonu care-enter. The family moved two more times during the crisis. Keith survived five different moves from the womb to his home at Kaamoi. When peace was finally established, Keith went to school at Haisi Primary School. He went on to Tonu High School to complete grade ten. Today Keith is 20 years old and is attending Vuna Bosco Technical Secondary School at Kokopo, East New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea.