Monday, March 29, 2010

A tear for a stranger in a strange land

by Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard

“Bomana” means “comrade” in what must be one of the most beautiful languages in the world, Motu, the language of the people who live along the stretch of the Papuan coast around Port Moresby.

It is a fitting name for the war cemetery outside Port Moresby where 3,819 troops killed in World War II lie buried. Australian, British and a handful of Papua New Guineans from the Volunteer Rifles lie here, most victims of the Kokoda Track horror.

No “fuzzy-wuzzy Angels” though, the carriers who gave their lives to supply the troops and made themselves famous in Australia by carrying wounded to safety or at least to have the consolation of dying among friends. The carriers paid a horrendous price in suffering and death on the Track which has only recently been publicly recognized..

The dead lie under serried ranks of marble headstones in a meticulously maintained green field which is almost shocking in contrast with the dusty scrub beyond its boundaries. A disturbing number of the headstones carry only the legend “Known Unto God”. Others give name, rank, serial number, home and address and age.

Although I lived in Port Moresby for five years in the 1970s and have visited the Papua New Guinea capital on a number of other occasions, I visited Bomana for the first time only yesterday.

I am glad I delayed my visit for two reasons. The first is that if I had visited before, I would not have known as much as I do now of the story of the battle for Kokoda and the other battles around the islands in which these soldiers died, to say nothing of their comrades whose bodies have never been found.

The second is that I was taken to visit yesterday by a group of Papua New Guineans who were totally separated from the war and Kokoda.

It was a Sunday family outing. All except one of the group were Highlanders, people who had no history of WWII, the first contact between them and the outside world, represented by Australians, had occurred only 10 years before the war began and neither invaders nor defenders took the war to their region. It offered no strategic advantage. This group was also separated from the war by a generation or more; all the adults were in their thirties, born 30 or so years after WWII ended.

While the children chased each other around with happy cries and wrestled and rolled on the soft green grass, one cousin -- your average working man, does a bit of driving, a bit of clerical work, a bit of labouring, took me aside to talk about it all.

“One of them was only 16!” he said in stricken wonder, a tear in his voice.

I was somewhat taken aback. When you think of Highlanders in Papua New Guinea, you think of tough blokey blokes who look as though they’d as soon have a fight as have a good feed. Of course, that’s a gross generalization, but I’ve never seen a wispy Highlander.

So I told him about the Australia of that time, the Australia I had heard about from my parents and other relatives and friends of the same era -- the Australia I had seen disappearing as I grew up in the immediate post-war period. The Australia where 16 year olds would lie about their age to enlist out of bravado, out of a wish to emulate older brothers or friends, out of fear of community disapproval, or out of sheer boredom.

He understood that. He came from a small village near a small town in the Eastern Highlands, and had run out of options there himself.

I also told him what I had read of the shocking way those young men were lied to, dumped on ships bound for Port Moresby without so much as the chance of a good-bye kiss from their mothers, wives or girlfriends. Thrown ill-trained, ill-equipped, ill-clothed, and under-supplied into combat against a vastly superior force by incompetent generals sitting on their bottoms in Australia who were judging their bravery by the body count.

“But they wouldn’t know the country. They wouldn’t know what was good to eat, or what leaves to chew to give themselves strength, or what to dress a wound with,” he said.

No, they didn’t; and they died all the more miserably for it.

He left me to wander further among the gravestones. “There’s a woman buried here!” he called back. “A nurse?” “Yes, she was a nurse.”

He contemplated the nurse’s grave for a while, then ambled over to the visitors’ centre. He opened the little door which gives access to a visitors’ book and the list of the dead. He leafed through the list, picking up names he had seen, then opened the book and borrowed my pen to add his line.

“Only 16,” he muttered as he recorded his visit.

There’s a bit of a mania in Australian political circles these days to “bring home” the war dead.

If there is ever a move to empty Bomana and transport the long buried remains back “home”, every Australian should resist it vigorously.

Not only is this a most fitting final resting place for those who fought so desperately and bravely for their homeland which had abused them outrageously, but it is a silent ambassador that enables ordinary Papua New Guineans to maintain friendship and respect for Australia regardless of insults dumped on them from time to time by petulant Australian foreign ministers.

We drove out of the cemetery. Around the corner, we passed the nation’s maximum security prison. Bomana, indeed.

Then we made another visit -- a gentle foreigner who was making his way on a 14 acre block outside Port Moresby, a softly spoken Muslim missionary from Sumatra in Indonesia. About 700 Papua New Guineans have converted, he told me. It turned out we had a common acquaintance in the Muslim community in Australia. We discussed Islam for a little while, and he offered me an introductory book. I thanked him for the compliment but declined. Been there, looked at that.

Just another Sunday afternoon in today’s Port Moresby.


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010.

Geoffrey Heard worked in media in Papua New Guinea in the 1960s and 1970s and has just returned to that country as an Australian Volunteer supported by AusAID working with the Media Council of Papua New Guinea. The opinions and comments in this article are his own and do not represent the views of the Media Council of PNG, Australian Volunteers International, or AusAID.

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