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Bougainville: Emergence of a Nation

Flag of Bougainville / © Photo: Georg Berg

Flag of Bougainville / © Photo: Georg Berg

Flagge von Bougainville / © Foto: Georg Berg

The flag should already be remembered, because it belongs to the presumably 194th member state of the United Nations. A red and white emblem in the center represents the typical headgear of the newly initiated younglings. Black stands for the remarkably dark skin color of the inhabitants. A green and white zigzag ring and the blue area symbolize fertile islands with shell currency in the Pacific Ocean.

Male youths in Bougainville wear the upei on their heads when they are accepted into the adult circle. This ritual hat is a central part of the national flag / © Photo: Georg Berg
The Bougainville flag flies at the mast of the Australian expedition ship True North underway in the waters of Papua New Guinea / © Photo: Georg Berg

Exuberant mood of departure

300,000 people are distributed among several ethnic groups that live relatively isolated from each other. Although they speak 30 different languages and have few points of contact due to the rugged landscape, everyone is now united by the good mood with which they look forward to their country’s independence.

Newcomers to Bougainville are welcomed in an unusual way. The feet are washed with water from a bamboo cane for the island’s baptism / © Photo: Georg Berg

The economic future of the country, however, still depends on the trade agreements to be negotiated. The tourism sector could be one of the most important sources of income and give the people a perspective for development.

After decades of isolation, the people can once again look forward to foreign visitors. Weapons are now only carried by children as toys / © Photo: Georg Berg

Colonial era and civil war have been overcome

With the Australian expedition ship True North we anchor off Bougainville and have a prominent guest on board. Raymond Masono is vice president of the autonomous province of Bougainville, which was annexed to the new state of Papua New Guinea in 1975 without taking into account its cultural roots. This territory had been under Australian protectorate since 1947 as a trust territory after the colonial period.

The abandoned Panguna copper mine on Bougainville / © True North, Photo: Oliver Oldroyd

It’s not surprising that Australian passengers are specifically asking whether copper mining will return. After all, the world’s largest open-pit mine, the Australian-managed Panguna mine, was responsible for widespread environmental destruction and thus also the cause of a ten-year civil war against the central government’s army.

Bougainville’s Deputy Prime Minister Raymond Masono informs True North passengers firsthand about the outcome of the referendum on independence / © Photo: Georg Berg

Deputy Prime Minister Masono is also in charge of the mining department and makes it clear that approval for copper mining will only be possible for companies that first make the poisoned valley below the Panguna mine habitable again.

Captain Gav Graham and Bougainville’s deputy head of government, Raymond Masono on the command bridge of the True North / © Photo: Georg Berg

At the time of the meeting, Raymond Masono was a member of the commission negotiating the terms of withdrawal and transition with Papua New Guinea’s central government. Formally, the parliament in the capital Port Morsby must then confirm the independence of its formerly autonomous region. However, approval is considered a mere formality. The majority of 98 percent of votes in favor of Bougainville’s independence was too overwhelming in the referendum in December 2019.

With improvisational talent and a ship’s rope found in the jetsam, young people outdo each other in artfully jumping into the water / © Photo: Georg Berg

The independence vote was prepared by an international commission. Since all eligible voters had to be registered first, an up-to-date inventory of the country’s population data and infrastructure was created.

Exploring active volcanoes from the air

Bougainville Island has several active volcanoes that are difficult to access and best seen from True North’s on-board helicopter.

Pilot Alan Carstens explains all the important natural phenomena to fellow passengers via headphones / © Photo: Georg Berg
As we approach from the air, the Bagana volcano emits clouds of smoke / © Photo: Georg Berg
Behind the active Bagana volcano emerges the water-filled formation of Lake Billy Mitchell / © Photo: Georg Berg

The old capital should come back to life

From 1968 to 1989, Kieta was the capital of Bougainville. Then almost all the city’s buildings were destroyed and the survivors had to flee to the mountains. Not yet completely overgrown by the tall grass are the weapons of the civil war. Today, young people climb high trees and swing acrobatically on long ropes into the sea. The few adults we meet in the village still remember with horror the air raids to which many friends and relatives fell victim at that time.

Palm trees and ruins of houses are evidence of the once splendid beach promenade of Kieta. This is where the wealthy employees of the inland Panguna copper mine resided / © Photo: Georg Berg
In the last 20 years, grass has not yet grown over the traces of the civil war in the town of Kieta / © Photo: Georg Berg
Peanuts are offered fresh in small bunches / © Photo: Georg Berg
The former office building of the German governor in the administrative center of the province of Bougainville, the town of Buka / © Photo: Georg Berg

Music and dance invite to join in

Songs from the time of the embargo are an integral part of the musical repertoire on the island of Bougainville. During a ten-year sea blockade, the island was cut off from all imports. The recollection of traditional natural medicine, the exchange of ideas and the talent for improvisation have welded the population together and made a virtue out of necessity.

Cultural identity and cohesion are fostered by all population groups on Bougainville / © Photo: Georg Berg

All population groups on Bougainville live according to the matrilineal inheritance principle. Kinship and family property are passed down from mother to daughters. Sons also receive their mother’s family name.

Even the young women on Bougainville are very self-confident / © Photo: Georg Berg
In a Bamboo Band, bamboo canes of different lengths are struck rhythmically with flop-flop soles / © Photo: Georg Berg
Cultures meet at the Sing-Sing. Guests and crew of the True North are asked to dance and are enthusiastically welcomed / © Photo: Georg Berg

Supplementary literature: Georg Berg, Mood of optimism, Bougainville votes for independence after eco-revolution, Politik & Kultur 02/2020 (pdf, 428 KB)

Traces of the Second World War in the Jungle

In the European consciousness, little attention is paid to what happened in the Pacific region during the world wars. Bougainville was fiercely contested during World War II between Japan and the United States, which was allied with Australia and New Zealand. Deep in the jungle still lies the wreckage of the plane in which sat the Japanese admiral who ordered the attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor.

In the jungle of Bougainville still lies the wreckage of the Mitsubishi G4M aircraft in which General Yamamoto Isoroto was shot down on April 18, 1942 / © Photo: Georg Berg

Report on an unusual mission: Yamamoto wreckage in the jungle of Bougainville

Travel advice: Australia for European tourists

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The cost of the boat trip was not calculated

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