The Bougainville Revolutionary leader Francis Ona's death remains a mystery to his wife, Iron Lady Elizabeth Ona. She didn't know till todate what killed her husband. Read the full story compiled by Calvin Caspar after interviewing the Iron Lady Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Ona, the Iron Lady Behind Bougainville Revolution
By Calvin Caspar | May 16, 2021.
“He was the first black man I’ve ever seen in my life!
“He was so black! Seeing him had left me wondering how a person could have so much pigment to produce such black skin colour,” Elizabeth was recounting to me her yester-years of meeting the love of her life, the late revolutionary leader of Bougainville, Francis Ona.
But her eyes seemed far away from me, staring into the clear blue skies from underneath the home she was accommodated in on Buka Island.
It was a day after the inauguration of the 4th Bougainville House of Representatives in September 2020, when I met her.
She’s never left Guava Village – a place which had become home to her, since the start of the 1994 ceasefire from the bloody Bougainville Crisis.
This was her first-ever travel outside Guava on a special invitation by the Governor of Madang, Peter Yama, and I’ve had the privilege, along with the consent, to meet with her.
The year was 1974 and Elizabeth, the young ‘aine barasi’ (pretty lady) from Bokure Village on the volcanic Manam Island was at the Madang Technical College studying secretarial duties when she had met Francis Ona.
One of Elizabeth’s elder brother was married to Ona’s cousin and he had informed Ona of her younger sister studying in Madang.
Ona was studying at the University of Technology in Lae in Morobe Province, and had gone to Madang along PNG’s north coast to do his practical study on surveying.
He’d taken the time to visit the college to meet Elizabeth.
“I was scared of him because he was so black,” Elizabeth grinned across me. “We were having dinner at the mess when one of the college’s head boy, announced that I had a visitor.
“I went across to see who it was. I never got close to him. It was the first time a man had asked to see me. And he was black.
“He told me he was my in-law because of my brother and his cousin sister. He showed me a photograph of me and my brother and I believed him.
“He visits me in school from then on, although I never really took any keen interest in him.”
In 1975 Elizabeth had traveled to Bougainville to visit her brother who was working for the SHRM, a contractor to the Panguna Mine.
Ona had helped to pay for the airline ticket, and took her home to Guava.
“I did not finish school. I was supposed to finish school in 1975 and I was supposed to be working for the Stevedores in Madang in 1976. I’ve never returned home since.”
But Ona’s family were initially against their union because Elizabeth was a ‘redskin’.
“I did not mind what they were thinking. I had become Francis Ona’s wife; the black-skin man I once was so afraid of and did not have any feelings for.”
Like all normal couples Elizabeth and Francis had their ups and downs in the initial years of their union. However, Elizabeth who had come from so far to be with her husband, never once thought of deserting him to return home.
Francis Ona had never really finished school too. After only returning to the University of Technology in 1976, his mother died in October that same year, forcing him back home. There he found employment with the Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL) until his resignation.
It was in the early 1980’s that Elizabeth started seeing her husband and his sisters (both of them married to Madang men) talk of a revolution against the Panguna Mine.
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“I am a woman and I know my place was with my kids and in the home. I did not pay much attention to their discussions or what it was about.
“Until 1988 my house had hosted many meetings between my husband and his sisters or with other people. I was at times privy to some of the conversation.
But I kept reminding myself that I am from another place and whatever they were talking about is because they were landowners and have the right to talk about or dispute with the company, not me. And that kept me away from their discussions, which had grown in frequency in 1988.”
It was on November 25 1988, when her female in-laws broke the news to Elizabeth that everything that were deliberated in all their meetings at their home, will be “executed tonight” she recounted the exact words.
It was the same day Francis Ona had resigned from his job with the mine, brought home all his finish-pay and airline tickets for his wife and children and told Elizabeth to “take the money and the kids and return to your home”.
“Our father told me he can’t say whether or not he will make it out alive from what he’s planned to do.
“But I refused to leave him. I told him that I had come all this way to be with him and that I will stay here with him.
“I have seen barely little of him since then. How he disappeared from us that afternoon and was whisked away, I would not know. He was the leader and he was well protected by his security guards.
“I was scared and confused. I had so many things in the house. I was given an hour to pack, however, I packed from 5pm in the afternoon until 10pm in the night. One of my brothers, another in-law of my husband, brought a truck and all our belongings were transported to the village.
“That night, the Pink Palace at the mine township of Panguna – an administrative building was the first structure that was blown up. Right at 12 mid-night, signaling the start of the revolution against the BCL and Panguna Mine.”
Locals surrounding the mine were aware of what would happen and they stood and watched as the night sky was lit up by the huge explosion.
From their union up until eruption of the ‘Bougainville Crisis’ in 1988, Francis Ona and Elizabeth had five children.
“Our fifth child, a daughter was 3-days old when the fighting started. I did not have the time to clean her up properly when I ran off with her and the other children into the forest.
“I ran away with three small children – one of them a three-day old baby. The two boys were with their uncles at Mamu, a place on the hills behind Arawa Town.
“You cannot imagine those times, when we would scramble for cover when PNG Defence Force helicopters hover over us and were spraying bullets from their machine guns into the forests.
“We were deep in the jungles over the Crown Prince Range. People from this area took us in and helped us hide from the fighting. The place was so rugged. Sometimes we would trip and fall in the dark when the choppers were shooting down. But the adrenaline quickly got us back on our feet as we race for cover.
“My baby would be hanging in a lap-lap in front of me and I would be dragging her older sister, who was 5, behind me when we race for cover. My dear mother would be carrying the elder sister of the two and following closely behind us. It was a tough going.
“The place was mountainous, very rugged and so slippery under the rain – and it rains often in the jungles.
“Except for the ‘taro-kongkong’ there was no other food in the area. We lived on the ‘singapore taro’ until we returned back to our village after two years.
“My children were town babies. But it was a blessing to me that none of them cried or nagged me for store goods. They all fed from the ‘taro-kongkong’ or ‘singapore taro’ that were available to us.
“It was also a blessing that none of my children were sick when we were in hiding. I was apprehensive about my three-day old baby; given she was newborn. But God was good to us. None of them fell ill until we were allowed to return to our desolated home.
“My children only know about sleeping on mattresses and it was really heart-breaking to see them sleeping on the damp earth and out in the cold with nothing to keep them warm.”
Elizabeth’s mother passed away and was buried at the village after they were allowed to return home.
In all those years of hiding, Elizabeth and her children only met their father once. He was brought to them by his security guards.
Francis Ona was highly guarded and protected. His movement, his hiding and his rendezvous with whoever he wanted to meet with, in those fighting days, was always top secret.
“During that first-ever meeting with us, his youngest daughter did not know that the man who had cuddled her was her father. She had refused him carrying her. She was over a year and was able to speak so she had told him then that ‘you’re not my daddy’.
“I wasn’t that scared even with the fighting. It was a very scary experience for everyone in Bougainville. But I could not let fear cripple me from caring for my small children. I only worried about the safety of our father, not scared. I was thinking, if I would be scared who will take care of my children. I have to be strong for them.”
After a year in the jungles, the people were urged back to their villages by the security forces.
“We did not return directly to our village. The first year out from hiding, we had spent at another village before we were certain we could return home. It was two years before we actually returned home.
“I’ve been there, well before the start of everything ever since until today,” she smiled openly at me.
In saying that, Elizabeth literally meant she has never ventured beyond her Guava Village, since fleeing the fighting and after returning to resettle in 1990, either into the now-battered townships of Panguna or Arawa.
Elizabeth later gave birth to two more children in 1995 and 1997. Both of them are now attending colleges in the country.
She however, lost her third-born daughter in 2004, eight (months) before she lost her husband, the late revered revolutionary leader, Francis Ona.
“She was 21. We were still mourning the loss of my daughter when we lost our father. We did not have time to complete burial rituals and customary obligations. It was painful.
“But I still remained at Guava, my husband’s home, to this day.”
The death of Elizabeth’s husband is still a mystery to her. Francis Ona was sick for exactly a week before he succumbed to his fate.
“He had fallen ill on a Sunday, and passed away quietly the following Sunday. He would say he felt a paralyzing heat pass from his feet up to his heart. But we never actually knew what was wrong with him.
“I still visit and clean his grave every time I can.
“Since he had come out of hiding for the first time in 1995, I have always been suspicious of some of the company he kept. There was one time two expatriates who were among a rally hosted by our father in Arawa, when one of them told me he was a spy and that he had taken a photograph of me.
I told our father to be wary and careful of the people who are about him. But he never really bothered about what I had said.
“So like everyone else, till today, I still do not know what killed him. He’s death is still a mystery to me.”
Apart from the fighting, the death and the misery that came with the decade-long Bougainville Crisis, Elizabeth is proud of the cause her husband had led.
“He was not a criminal. He stood up for his people, the landowners and especially women. His sisters and women landowners would be really worried visiting him and telling him about the destruction and what the company (BCL) had done to their land and he would sympathize with them.
“The way I see it is, land is a mother to all of us. If we destroy it by digging it up and rudely cutting it open for greed, who is going to look after us, our children and our grandchildren into the future?
“God gave us land to look after and it will in turn look after us. But the land around Panguna is destroyed beyond repair. It is so ruined. How will it look after our children and their children into the future?
“So I think my husband stood up for a worthy cause.
“But of course there are people who celebrate me as the woman behind the revolution, and there are others who don’t think the same about me.”
Prior to our meeting, Elizabeth had made me promise that I would not ask her anything political about the entire bloodied history of the revolution her husband started and led.
However, having settled in and opening up to our conversation, Elizabeth told me, having suffered through all these years, she wants to see something fruitful from what her husband had championed.
I was curious about what she meant by a ‘fruitful outcome’ and so I ventured cautiously.
“Oh well, I want to see Bougainville becoming independent. Not independent in the sense that it would completely break away and isolate from Papua New Guinea, but being independent in the sense that it can still remain a very close friend to PNG, just like what’s currently going on between Papua New Guinea and Australia. This is what I want to see in the end.
“It would mean much to me. I will be a happy woman.”
Words and picture credited to Calvin Casper.
Calvin Caspar is former Chief Sub Editor with NBCPNG. He is now the Chief Editor for the Bougainvillean, A newspaper company based in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville.