As a teenager, Jeffery Noro’s father was taken away and tortured on several occasions by members of a Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) faction in South Bougainville. Then his whole family were arrested and taken away to live in a camp run by the BRA.
In the beginning of the 90s, while other kids his age were in high school, he joined a group of resistance fighters with many other teenagers in Bougainville.
Today, Jeffery Noro holds a PhD in Marine Biotechnology. He is one of a handful of Papua New Guinean scientists in this field of study that looks at producing medicine from naturally occurring bacteria in the environment.
His story provides a tiny glimpse into the lives of Bougainville crisis era kids who are now in their late 30s and early 40s. Many are now able to articulate the difficulties they and their parents faced during the 10 years of war.
Jeffery’s dad, late Mr. Joseph Noro (passed away in may 2013), was an internal auditor in the Bougainville Provincial Government. After graduating from the PNG University of Technology in 1973, he was one of the few who became a certified practicing accountant at that time.
In 1989, when the Bougainville Crisis began, late Joseph Noro, and other senior public servants were suspected of supporting the Papua New Guinea Government as spies.
“Dad was taken away and tortured on a number of different occasions between 1989 and 1992. Sometimes he would come back with burns on his body. He was even smoked over the fire in one of the torture sessions in 1991.”
“Then in 1992, our whole family got arrested. The BRA in the Siwai District were split into factions and my dad and others were held as political prisoners.”
“Others were taken away and killed. We are still in the process of healing and reconciliation in order to leave to recover from the hurts of our past. “
After spending time in a BRA camp, the Noros escaped. Jeffery, his parents and three other brothers and a sister walked for three days without any food to the nearest PNG Defense Force base that was set up at Tonu.
“During our escape through the jungle, we saw planes flying overhead, heading towards the Tonu Defense Force base and that gave us a sense of comfort and direction. Our village was the frontline. Our houses were all burnt to the ground.”
When they got to safety, the family was taken to a care center. At the time, the Bougainville interim government was being set up and his dad, was asked to be part of the South-West Bougainville Interim Authority under the newly established Bougainville Transitional Government.
While the conflict was ongoing, Bougainvilleans tried their best to rebuild basic services. Jeffrey returned to school in 1993, joining a Grade nine class at Asitavi High School, which used to be an all-girl Catholic high school before the war.
“I was the smaller one then in Grade nine because I didn’t want to do Grade Eight and headed straight into Grade nine.
“By then I had wasted 3 years without any schooling and I wanted to just finish off high school.. Grade nine was very basic. Our math teacher was a practical skills teacher in Carpentry. Without having Grade 8 Mathematics and with very basic year 9 mathematics, I was worried I wouldn’t do well in the National Grade 10 exams .”
For at least a year, some semblance of structure and stability appeared to have returned in 1994 when the school gained the services of an Australian Marist brother who was a seasoned Mathematics teacher. With the help of the Marist brother, Jeffrey was able to gradually improve on high school mathematics after failing an evaluation test.
“Then the BRA attacked the school at about 6.30pm one afternoon and shot one of my classmates. They also shot and killed our school guard.”
“The school was beside the sea. We all rushed to the sea and swam out. A boat came by later and started picking us up. I was pissed”
“A lot of the boys who attended school were either former resistance fighters or BRA. And when they returned to the Care Centre, they picked up weapons and became fighters again.
“These were 17, 18, 19-year-old kids transformed into fighters once more.”
Jeffery’s dad was by then the District Manager for Siwai District. Jeffery retuned home after the attack with little hope of continuing his education in the midst of the conflict.
“Out of frustration, I joined the resistance fighters.”
As part of a small group of fighters, their job was to rescue civilians held in hostile BRA territory and assist the PNGDF restore order, government control and basic services. On one of the operations, a BRA member was captured when he was driving a group of civilians.
The people he was carrying were brought back to the care center and the information he held passed on to the army.
On Good Friday in 1994, trucks loaded with armed resistance fighters were preparing to head off for another job to pick up some civilians to bring back to the care centres.
“I was on one of the trucks and my mother came and ordered me to get off. I was angry. I went home and slept.”
The convoy left without Jeffery and was ambushed along the way.
“A vehicle pulled up later and on it, were five bodies all shot up. Two of my cousins were also shot. I thought to myself… I could have been on that truck.”
One of those who returned, a school mate, who was much older than Jeffery then said something to him that he still remembers.
“He said to me: ‘You shouldn’t be wasting your time doing this. Go get an education.’
“He was my schoolmate, but what he said carried a lot of wisdom in it.”
In 2015, Jeffery Noro, marked an important milestone in his life when he completed a PhD in Biological Sciences from the University of New South Wales in Australia. The cause of the crisis still lingers in his mind as Bougainville prepares for a referendum for independence and the possible reopening of the Panguna mine.
“I’m just lucky to be alive. Up to 20,000 people died. Seventeen members of my extended family members were killed.
“We have to realise the value of dialogue, transparency and decolonising approaches to development especially in dealing with our people. If the mine is to be reopened, it must be made within a broader economic plan for the region. Conditions for competition and investment have to be developed and regulated in order for our people to reap the benefits and to prevent Bougainville from repeating the same mistakes that led to the loss of many lives.”
“Incidentally, the Bougainville crisis taught us many things; how to be innovative and create coconut oil to fuel cars, we built micro hydro power systems to generate free 24 hour electricity. Necessity made us become creative and we survived 10 years of civil war. That is a positive thing and I see investment in human capital development and the prowess for frugal innovation as being Bougainville’s comparative advantage. We just need to strategically invest in it. Knowledge and innovation can become transformational to our economy.”
“I have no problems with resource extraction. It’s how we do it and make development become sustainable for our communities. There are still many development challenges and it’s been difficult to attract Direct Foreign Investment to grow businesses and the economy to rebuild Bougainville.
“The most important thing for me in the short term though is to look to the future with forgiveness, make peace with our former enemies and to collectively change Bougainville for the better.
“In my life, I have found forgiveness and peace to be most powerful tools to have for anyone to overcome past hurts and to enjoy success.