Asia-Pacific

'Soldiers without guns': How unarmed Anzacs brought peace to war-ravaged Bougainville

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When this military mission headed to war-torn Bougainville, it was guitars and culture rather than rifles that helped bring peace.

An Anzac peacekeeping mission to Bougainville in the wake of the tiny Pacific Island’s savage civil war is finally getting recognition for its efforts to bring order - with guitars instead of rifles. 

Bougainville was devastated by the decade-long conflict during the 1990s, which claimed at least 20,000 lives - or almost one-sixth of the population - and required the intervention of a multi-nation peacekeeping force.

Australian and Kiwi troops have proudly served as peacekeepers, in conjunction with the United Nations, around the world. But this tour of duty was slight different: the troops were unarmed, on the advice of New Zealand Army  Brigadier Roger Mortlock 

Following a series of failed peace initiatives Brigadier Mortlock drafted the plan in October 1997, telling reporters he would deploy a Maori concert group and a shipment of guitars to help broker peace.

The Maori concert group and a good shipment of guitars are going to be the main weapons in our arsenal. 

Brigadier Roger Mortlock

The Pacific Island of Bougainville.
The Pacific Island of Bougainville.
Soldiers Without Guns (Will Watson)

Former NZ Army Major Fiona Cassidy was deployed as part of the operation, and said an unarmed peacekeeping force was considered “unprecedented”.

“We were living in effectively a war-ravaged country – we didn’t know whether or not we were entirely safe," she told SBS News.

“Unless you’ve actually been in a war-zone it is really hard to describe the levels of anxiety you can feel.” 

New Zealand Defence Force Brigadier Roger Mortlock on a peacekeeping mission to Bougainville.
New Zealand Defence Force Brigadier Roger Mortlock on a peacekeeping mission to Bougainville.
Soldiers Without Guns (Will Watson)

The efforts of those unarmed peacekeepers is now being recognised in the Soldiers Without Guns documentary, which recounts how tension boiled over in 1988 as tensions between Indigenous landowners and mine owners.

The Rio Tinto-owned Panguna mine was an important revenue source for the Papua New Guinea government, but was strongly opposed by many locals who claimed it was polluting waterways.

What followed was 10 years of low-level conflict, pitting Bougainvilleans against the Papua New Guinea government, who blockaded the island.

The violence later evolved into internal conflicts between warring factions within Bougainville itself.

The Panguna mine located in Bougainville.
The Panguna mine located in Bougainville.
Soldiers Without Guns (Will Watson)

New Zealander Will Watson, director of Soldiers Without Guns, said the war is burnt into the psyche of Bougainvilleans.

“This was a really vicious war – I mean this was the worst civil war in the Pacific’s history,” Mr Watson said.

“They didn’t die from bullets – they were dying from starvation and disease.”

 The Australian government was very concerned about the situation in Bougainville – there were certainly plenty reports of humanitarian problems on the island.

James Batley - Australian civilian lead of Bougainville peacekeeping missions.

Bougainvilleans overlooking their homelands.
Bougainvilleans overlooking their homelands.
Soldiers Without Guns (Will Watson)

James Batley is a former deputy secretary of the Department of Australia’s Foreign Affairs and Trade and served as a civilian member on peacekeeping missions to Bougainville.

“The Australian government was very concerned about the situation in Bougainville – there were certainly plenty reports of humanitarian problems on the island,” he said.

A flashpoint in the civil war was in 1997 when the Papua New Guinea government hired the London-based mercenary group Sandline International to end the conflict.

Armed Bougainvilleans in the jungles of their Pacific island.
Armed Bougainvilleans in the jungles of their Pacific island.
Soldiers Without Guns (Will Watson)

Mr Batley said the now infamous Sandline crisis brought a renewed focus to solving ongoing disputes.

“New Zealand saw an opportunity in the wake of the Sandline crisis to support a homegrown peace process in Bougainville,” he said.

“New Zealand leadership was critical in those first six months of the Truce Monitoring Group but after that it was an Australian led operation for the next several years.”

ANZAC peacekeepers working in Bougainville.
ANZAC peacekeepers working in Bougainville.
Soldiers Without Guns (Will Watson)

Mr Watson said said the joint nature of the peacekeeping operation helped pave the way for peace.

“The Howard government with Foreign Minister (Alexander) Downer decided the problems in Bougainville – the first 14 peace attempts weren’t successful and there needed to be a new approach,” he said.

“They trusted us to do that – I think that’s the power of the Anzac spirit right there.”

Des Ratima – a 25-year veteran of the New Zealand Defence Force helped integrate Maori culture into the New Zealand Army – something now entrenched in the armed forces.

Mr Ratima said cultural integration was paramount to building trust with visiting Bougainvillean leaders.

“Indigenous to Indigenous we were able to receive that and reciprocate that,” he said.

The Bougainvillean leaders were offered a traditional Pwhiri Maori welcoming ceremony and Hongi – the pressing of noses and sharing of breath. They also shared in performances of New Zealand’s traditional Haka.

“They left this country moved by what they had heard and what they had shared and what they were exposed too,” Mr Ratima said.

New Zealand soldiers perform the Haka for Bougainvilleans
New Zealand soldiers perform the Haka for Bougainvilleans
Soldiers Without Guns (Will Watson)

The Burnham Peace Talks ended in many of the leaders signing  a truce.

A subsequent New Zealand-led peacekeeping mission within Bougainville, supported by Australia, Vanuatu and Fiji, aimed to build on that agreement.

But Mr Watson said the declaration to use an unarmed force was met with skepticism by many.

“I was a journalist at the time – I thought this was crazy,” he said.

“A choir of other journalists [were] thinking this guy was insane and it was a really risky move.”

An ANZAC peacekeeper plays his guitar to Bougainvilleans.
An ANZAC peacekeeper plays his guitar to Bougainvilleans.
Soldiers Without Guns (Will Watson)

Mr Ratima said traveling to the Pacific Island unarmed and using Melanesian cultural customs helped build trust within communities on the traumatised island.

“The Indigenous to Indigenous connection that allowed trust - and with trust that allowed people to have confidence that the peace was worthwhile maintaining,” he said.

“Our cultural integrity was at risk – but we were prepared to put it out there.”

A peace agreement between Bougainvillean leaders and the Papua New Guinea government was signed in 2001.

Ms Cassidy, a Maori herself, said female leaders in the matriarchal Bougavillean society were crucial to helping bridge the gap with locals.

Fiona Cassidy on a peacekeeping mission to Bougainville.
Fiona Cassidy on a peacekeeping mission to Bougainville.
Soldiers Without Guns (Will Watson)

“The women were fundamentally important to getting the peace process to where it did – for ten years they had watched their brothers – their children – their grandmothers be ravaged by war,” she said.

“They themselves had the conviction to say enough is enough and they pushed towards a peace process.”

New Zealand Defence Force Brigadier Roger Mortlock shakes hands with a Bougainvillean woman.
New Zealand Defence Force Brigadier Roger Mortlock shakes hands with a Bougainvillean woman.
Soldiers Without Guns (Will Watson)

You’ll see it when you watch just how powerful the ANZAC spirit is.

Will Watson - Soldiers Without Guns director

Mr Watson believes the sentiments of cultural recognition, empowerment of women and trans-Tasman cooperation are at the heart of his documentary.

“This is the message that the world needs more than ever," he said.

“The gift of love – people actually bold enough to help others when they didn’t need too.

“You’ll see it when you watch just how powerful the ANZAC spirit is.”

Bougainvilleans are scheduled to hold a referendum in October this year to decide their independence from PNG. 

The documentary Soldiers Without Guns will open across selected Australian cinemas in May.

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