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.
Pasifika Tales: 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.