Friday, July 2, 2010

A Melanesian Odyssey: Ouvea

Melanesia, a concept developed out of the need to categorize, a particular group of people with certain characteristics, distinct from the other groups, namely the Polynesians and the Micronesians, who occupy the vast expanse of Ocean known as the Pacific—another term first inserted by Europeans to describe the huge body of water dividing the East and the West.

In daily use of these terms we forget to ask ourselves if we really know what we are talking about. We say we are Melanesians, but it is difficult for us to describe what it means to be a Melanesian. The easiest route for our response is to list Papua New Guinean features of customs, belief systems, and traditional way of life. That is probably where our understanding of what it means to be Melanesian lie. It is never stretched far enough to include other Melanesians in other countries. Melanesians are scattered across the south-western Pacific islands with many distinct languages, cultures, and unique political experiences that differentiate them.

In the next series of articles I will share my experience as a Melanesian tourist on board the Oceanic Discoverer—a Cairns based cruise ship traveling through the Melanesian Islands of New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, and PNG. I have long wanted to talk about this experience in this column to highlight the importance of tourism and share the experience of a Melanesian odyssey with readers.

The Chief of one of the tribes on Ouvea Atoll of New Caledonia bid us farewell after our visit there. When I addressed him as Chief he replied, he acknowledged me as his brother. I was saddened that we had to leave his beautiful coral atoll. Earlier on our arrival, a village party welcomed us on the beach in front of the magnificent St. Joseph’s Cathedral at the Catholic mission station. After a welcome address by the Chief, our tour leader thanked the people of Ouvea for allowing us to visit their beautiful island.


Ouvea is an important island in the political history of New Caledonia. It was here that the resistance to French colonialism was more radical. On 22 April 1988, just days before the French presidential election, a group of Kanaks captured the gendarmerie at Fayaoue, Ouvea’s capital, and killed four gendarmes. They took 27 hostages, 11 of whom were released, while others were transported to a cave near Goosana, in the far north.

Ouvea was declared a zone militaire and all communication and transport was cut. More than 300 soldiers were flown to the island. Captain Phillippe Legorjus, head of France’s elite antiterrorist squad, began negotiations with the hostage takers. During attempts to secure the hostages’ release, Legorjus was captured, but was freed after coming to an agreement with the group’s young leader, Alphonse Dianour, on a date of release for the hostages. It was set for after the presidential election.

On 4 May, three days before the election, Captain Legorjus had two guns and a set of handcuff keys smuggled into the cave. In what was code-named Operation Victor, the military then stormed the cave and reported ‘at least 16’ people dead, all of them Kanaks. The following day, the figure was revised to 21, including two gendarmes. Later, allegations were made that four of the Kanaks, including the leader, Dianous, and Waina Amosa, a 19-year-old who had been sent into the cave to deliver food, were killed after they had surrendered.

It was also claimed that the military tortured and beat civilians from Goosana during the operation. The human rights group Amnesty International took up the case, and France’s Minister for Defence later announced that ‘acts contrary to military duty have unfortunately been committed’. One gendarme commander was suspended but no judicial action was taken.

After the cave assault, 32 Ouvean prisoners, including Djubelly Wea, a local independence movement leader and FULK (Front Uni de Liberation Kanak) supported, were flown to France to face trial. This was despite a previous assuance from the French High Commission in New Caledonia that trials would be held in Noumea. Wea was eventually released and the others were given amnesty as part of the Accords de Matignon. Wea returned home to find that his elderly father had died shortly after the hostage crisis. His father had apparently been beaten and left tied up in the sun by the military, and was soon regarded as the ‘20th victim’ of the Ouvea massacre.

Exactly a year to the day after the cave assault, Jean-Marie Tjibaou and Yeiwene Yeiwene were assassinated on Ouvea. They had come for a ceremony to end the 12 months of mourning for the 19 Kanaks killed at Goosana and were about to address the gathering when Wea fatally shot Tjibaou. Yeiwene was killed by another gunman. One of Tjibaou’s bodyguards then shot Wea. All three were buried in their tribal villages—Tjibaou, 53, at Tiendanite on Grande Terre; Yeiwene, 44 at Tadin on Mare, and Wea, 44, at Goosana.

In June the previous year, Tjibaou had signed the Accords de Matignon that guaranteed a referendum on New Caledonian independence in 1998. Some Kanaks were unhappy with the agreement, and continued to call for an immediate independent Kanaky. Wea, a former Protestant pastor and journalist, did not like the agreement. He had no-compromise policy on independence and was embittered by his father’s death. He also blamed the FLNKs (Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak et Socialiste) for failing to act over Ouveans’ demand for an international inquiry into the military’s alleged atrocities.

The assassination of Tjibaou and Yeiwene was the last act of political violence in New Caledonia.

I left Ouvea behind in a cloud of heavy Oceanic winds and currents. All I could think about was the hope that one day the Chief of Ouvea and his people will join hands and dance with other Melanesians as a free people of this great Ocean.

I sat on the deck and looked back to Ouvea disappear into the horizon as we headed for Vanuatu.

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