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Remembering turbulent times in Pacific history

Saturday September 26, 2015 Written by Published in Weekend
From left, the anti-nuclear ‘dream team’ Peter Heays, Brian Mason, Travis Moore, Jolene Bosanquet and Captain Tua Pitman reunite to relive their shared memories. From left, the anti-nuclear ‘dream team’ Peter Heays, Brian Mason, Travis Moore, Jolene Bosanquet and Captain Tua Pitman reunite to relive their shared memories.

Sarah Wilson recalls the time back in 1995 when a group of Rarotonga residents became involved in a huge protest campaign against nuclear testing on the French Polynesian island of Mururoa. The local protest effort was aided by the Cook Islands government, which arranged for the voyaging canoe Te Au O Tonga to join the protest flotilla.

In 1995, a brave group of Cook Islands voyagers watched from the harbour at Papeete as anti-nuclear protests set Tahiti on fire.

Back on Rarotonga, a passionate group of locals united the nation to tell France the Pacific was no place for testing nuclear weapons.

Jolene Bosanquet recounts the events 20 years ago which lead to the nation-wide protest, and standing on the wharf at Avana Harbour, Tua Pitman recounts the day his crew left that very spot for one of the most dangerous voyages of his time.

Nuclear weapons testing in Pacific waters occurred between 1966 and 1996 at Mururoa and Fangataufa in French Polynesia. The number of tests performed has been variously reported as 175 and 181.

French president Jacques Chirac's decision to run a nuclear test series at Mururoa on September 5 and October 2, 1995 caused worldwide protest.

Riots took place across Polynesia, and the South Pacific Forum threatened to suspend France.

Bosanquet says Greenpeace approached the Cook Islands about the possibility of the organisation’s “Peace Flotilla” visiting Rarotonga before heading to Moruroa.  

Containers of supplies arrived at Avatiu for those privately owned vessels whose owners had joined the anti-nuclear protest.  

The late Captain Don Silk “shoehorned” as many vessels into the harbour as he could – at one count, 36 yachts. The crews were grateful for the shore time before the long sail to Moruroa.

On Rarotonga, Bosanquet says a lawyer, a printer and two hoteliers met to discuss if the Cook Islands should, and how they could, be involved in the international campaign.

Travis Moore posted signs on every lamp post on the island, taking advantage of a visit by the President of French Polynesia, Gaston Flosse, to drive home the message.

The signs, which read “Gaston Flosse, leave us as you found us – Nuclear Free”, were distributed by Bosanquet and her daughter Luana, who was six years old at the time.

Lawyer Tim Arnold climbed a bluff high above Avarua and put up a huge sign reading “Nuclear Free Rarotonga.”

Hoteliers Peter Heays and Bosanquet provided communications to the world about the protest campaign, mainly during the night when Europe was awake and wanting the latest news.

A Cook Islands dance team visiting Paris also publically asked the French Government to stop their nuclear testing programme in the Pacific.

Businesswoman and former Miss Cook Islands, June Baudinet and a group of women flew to Papeete to participate in a protest march organised by Oscar Temaru.

Meanwhile, the Greenpeace ship “Rainbow Warrior” had spent time during its visit to Rarotonga  promoting awareness of  the anti-nuclear stand, and crew members participated in the first-ever protest march on Rarotonga lead by the Prime Minister, MPs, traditional leaders and church leaders.

Bosanquet says the campaign captured the hearts and minds of the people of the Cook Islands who not only wanted to support their Tahitian fanau but be part of the global movement. 

“People from all walks of life, took time to personally show their concern about the nuclear tests.”

Lawyer Brian Mason spoke with then Prime Minister, Sir Geoffrey Henry, who gave the support of the Cook Islands Government for an anti-nuclear campaign. 

At that time the Government owned the vaka, “Te Au O Tonga”, and so Sir Henry asked the voyagers to visit the  Mururoa as a peaceful Polynesian protest. 

Remembering the whole ordeal, Bosanquet says she can recall the very emotional departure of Vaka Te Au O Tonga from Avatiu.

She also recalls hearing over the radio the sound of French air force jets flying low and using scare tactics to frighten the vaka crew at Moruroa.

“Thinking back to the whole thing is just very emotional,” she says.

When Sir Henry asked Tua Pitman if his crew would lead a peaceful protest, Pitman says they had just returned from a long voyage to Hawaii.

“I went back to the crew and I said look, there’s a voyage coming up and we need to go and represent our people.”

Pitman says everybody said “yes let’s go,” without thinking of the consequences.

“We were going into unknown territory and we weren’t sure of the threats that would be out there. We were right in the firing line.”          

The vaka left Rarotonga in mid-August amidst a tearful farewell from family and friends, and Pitman says it was almost as if they were sailing off to their graves and people were saying a final goodbye.

“It was very emotional and everyone was crying like they weren’t sure if we were ever going to come back. But we knew that if we stuck to our safety first protocol that we would be alright.”

Pitman says they had been to Tahiti a few months beforehand, and everybody had visited the canoe freely.

But, this time he says they were on their own because the Tahitian people didn’t want to be seen as associating with anything nuclear.

But at night time, he says they all came down to the harbour when they couldn’t be seen and gave the crew food and messages of support.

One of the scariest parts of the expedition, Pitman says, was when they left Tahiti and set sail for Moruroa.

“We were followed by navy ships and destroyers, and fighter planes and helicopters were hovering over us trying to deter us from going to the bomb site.”

Then, when they first got to the 12 mile zone at sunrise, they were on their own with no other vessels in support.

 “But then off the horizon as the sun was coming up, all these yachts and ships came up around us to support us. That was huge for us.”

The night before, when they were getting close to the 12-mile zone, Pitman says they could hear the engines of a big ship behind them but they couldn’t see it.

When they got closer, he says they saw big frigates come up behind them trying to cut them off, thinking they were going to make a run for the beach.

“But we would never have done that because the safety of the vaka and the crew was paramount.”

“It was very intimidating, because the French came by and they had all their military on board with all their guns pointed at us.”

But as it went passed, he says the crew of the vaka did a haka as a way to voice their views and protest the testing.

“When the ship went right past, we saw all the Tahitians standing on the back supporting us and telling us to go for it.”

Pitman and his crew were then told that there was a chance a bomb would go off at the site, so they left and headed back to Tahiti.

“The very next day when we got back to Tahiti, the bomb did go off, and while we were sitting on the beach, Tahiti lit up.”

He says the airport was on fire, the downtown area was on fire, there soldiers everywhere and gun fire.

Right at that time, the crew decided that they needed to get out of there.

“It was sad really. But, our role was to voice our views in a peaceful manner, but in our own traditional way.”

If the vaka crew had been confrontational, the French would have come down and smashed them, like David and Goliath, Pitman says.

“But it was a great mission, and very humbling to be able to represent the Cook Islands in that way.”

On September 6, when the French detonated a nuclear bomb at Moruroa, the world heard the news in disbelief. 

Since the controversial events, New Zealand has remained nuclear-free, and the Cook Islands part of a nuclear-free Pacific.

“There were no winners. One country in the world, France, lost respect.” 

“However others, like the Cook Islands and New Zealand, gained mana from their campaigns,” Bosanquet says.