Vudal and the Mataungans 1970 #5

By Gordon Dick

Gordon Dick was Principal of Vudal Agricultural College in 1970. This is Instalment #5 of his story.

Recollection Nine: The October Evictions

There were periods when we appeared to be living with a stalemate. The presence of police personnel and vehicles became all pervasive in Rabaul as well as on the country roads. Rumours of a coming major confrontation with the ‘squatters’ grew. I asked for information and for adequate pre-warning so that staff and families could move out. Many of those who had families or access to accommodation in Rabaul had by now moved.

When the big raid began (before 6 am) the leading vehicle entering the college area turned into the principal’s residence. A senior patrol officer shouted at me “We were told to give you warning. This is it. Don’t try to leave. We have a total road block behind us. “Again about 40 truckloads of armed police were in the first group.

I dressed and hurried to visit all staff on the campus. I suggested that we all move into the college administration area – and that is where we spent most of the day. Helicopters clattered overhead and a few more vehicles came up the road. Blessedly we heard no gun-fire. I met the students coming to the dining hall for breakfast. Many were agitated and I tried to calm them. I told them that because of the noise and uncertainty there would be no classes that day. They could do private study or catch up with laboratory practical work. But no-one was to go out of the college area.

These things done, I drove to Keravat where the usual road-block was on the Keravat bridge – drums of concrete with heavy chains holding them in pairs and padlocked chains from these across the roadway. As I arrived I could see the highest ranking police officer* addressing rows of mostly European police. As I walked towards him I saw European primary school children playing about the open area. I asked “Who is looking after the children?” He said “I presume the teachers are.” I replied (knowing both teachers were from Vudal) “They, good souls, are on the other side of your total road-block”. He said “It was never a total road-block.” An officer nearby said “Excuse me sir, you told us it was a total road-block.” I thanked him, said a few words and left.

About mid-morning, the first trucks carrying evictees from the trans-Vudal area arrived at the college area and began unloading their all-male cargo onto the college lawns. I went out and spoke to the young European patrol officer who seemed to be in charge. This was where he was told to unload. He was not sure, but did not think they were under arrest. So, could I speak with them? Again he was not sure. It was a steamy tropical day. More truck-loads were arriving. I approached the evictees and greeted them cheerfully. What did they need? Water. The college had a tractor-drawn water carrier so I sent a driver to bring it up and park it under the trees where the evictees could have access to it. Next day I heard from Port Moresby that it had been reported to Canberra that I had provided food and drink to the evictees. Would that I could have! (I don’t know whether this was reported with approval or not. )

The ranks of evictees lining the road and clustered under the trees should have sent a message to the administration and to Canberra. Many were not villagers, but by their dress were clerical and town workers or teachers. Among them was the Anglican bishop of Rabaul showing solidarity with his people. With the Tolais evicted, the administration sent a convoy of trucks carrying prefabricated camping huts, bathrooms, water tanks and camping equipment into the area and set up a new presence. But a week or so later they all withdrew.

* I have decided not to use the names of the police. I did not know all of those I had dealings with. Several were open and helpful, and some were not.

Recollection Ten: Living with Tension

The October evictions were followed by a period of confusion and increasing tension. The establishment of a field base of police and Department of Administration officers in the Trans-Vudal area was obviously re-considered and it was withdrawn. The [male] Tolai population increased and more traditional “village elders” influence appeared. Threats and accusations were made against College personnel. My wife was surprised by a group emerging from the forest plantation beyond our house – where no-one was known to be living – and accusing her of having police living in our home. One of the accusers was the one-armed man named Todam, leader of the land-settlement group from the other side of the college lands. We had thought that we had established good relations with him and the settlers and Beverley was taken aback at his accusatory approach. The issue of having police living with staff at the college had been raised a number of times, both with the staff themselves and from the Mataungans. I had advised against it, but made the point that each staff family paid rent on their house and could make its own decisions about whom it accommodated]. So insistent were the accusations against my wife and me [I was absent] that Beverley simply invited the group in and took them through the house. They appeared convinced and left.

Nerrius Tiotam, a college staff member, who was from the local community, warned me of changes in the attitude of the Tolais, and that they were hearing talk of armed police coming against them and using live ammunition. I would have tried to counter this line of fear but two things happened which shook my confidence: first a tape recording [made by an A.B.C. staffer] was brought to me and played. It was a recording of a briefing by a South African accented officer at the distribution of ammunition to police officers. It was brutal. The second event was a visit by two fairly senior patrol officers. One I had known and worked with in the Highlands, the other was a newer acquaintance. They urged me to “toughen up” and “deal with reality”. “Can’t you see,” said the ex-Highlands ADO “that this business will be all over as soon as a couple of them are kicking in the dust?”

At this time two Australian journalists got themselves into the Trans-Vudal and reported from there. Their headlines spelt out what appeared to be happening: “These people have gone back hundreds of years in a few days.” Traditional spiritualism and sorcery were being invoked against the fear of the police. Ancient techniques in the area included the selection of young men for assassination missions. They were drugged with bush medicines and mesmerised with incantations then painted with blue dye. The dye rendered them “invisible” so that no-one would admit to having seen them nor what they did. One evening not a kilometre from the college I saw such young men. Nerrius, in great distress, begged me to turn back, which I did.

Late one afternoon Nerrius came to tell me that several groups of armed warriors were assembled at positions around the college boundary. They had heard that the police were preparing an attack on them. Nerrius feared the warriors would attack the college if the police came.

I drove to Keravat Lowlands Agricultural Experiment Station where the main body of police was encamped. Fortunately, the PNG officer on sentry knew me and directed me to the [European] duty officer. This officer was shocked that I had got past the boundary line. I assured him that it was properly done and that as a matter of urgency I wished to speak to the Commanding Officer. He       told me that was impossible but I told him I would make serious complaints to the Administrator if I could not. At that he gave me directions to a house on the research station. The Commanding Officer was not at the house I was sent to, but I learned there that he was at the house of the Senior Agronomist [who was absent on leave]. I knew that house well and proceeded to it.

As I arrived I met the duty officer who had mis-directed me coming out. I said a few unfavourable things to him and to the Commanding Officer I said “I presume you have been forewarned of my visit.” He said “Come in Mr. Dick. I would like to hear from you.” I entered and in the next fifteen minutes came to appreciate something of one of the finest policemen I have met. He was in an invidious situation and was indeed awaiting orders. But those orders were coming from Canberra! His firearm was in its holster on the table. He stood up and buckled it on, saying “I don’t feel ten feet tall when I wear this.” We spoke of the issued weapons and ammunition, and the fact that the local people were well informed on everything the police did. The prospect of another attack on them was not attractive. As for tonight? He said that in truth he could not rule it out. We walked out onto the veranda. It was dark and the clouds were thickening across the sky. I said it would be a dreadful night to attempt any action against the villagers. He agreed. He said again that he could not anticipate the orders which he might receive, but he could provide many reasons why tonight should not be the night. I said I would go back and tell the people that the police will not be coming tonight. He agreed that that would be a pretty safe step.

I returned to the college and told Nerrius that I had seen the Commanding Officer and that we could tell the villagers to go home and rest – at least for tonight. I drove with Nerrius to several points on the college boundaries where he made contact with the warriors and told them there would be no police coming this night.

During this period of uncertainty those staff and their families who remained at the college were spending more time together, both during the day and gathering for joint meals and social support in the evenings. That evening I remember returning relieved and exhausted to the home of one of the lecturers where most staff had gathered. I told them briefly that the pressure was off for the night. I remember sitting down on the floor with my back against a wall. Someone brought me a plate of food and a drink, and I fell asleep.

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