David Robie also blogs at Café Pacific. This was his book launch address.
IT’S HARD to believe that it is now 30 years – three whole decades – since state-backed terrorists blew up the peaceful environmental ship Rainbow Warrior – a vessel with such an inspiring name – and our friend and campaigner Fernando Pereira lost his life.
I vowed to myself that I would continue the crusade as an engaged journalist by telling and retelling this story on any occasion I could.
This was the best I could do to keep Fernando’s memory alive, and to support the struggle of the Rongelap people – and all Pacific peoples harmed by the nuclear powers and their testing for more than a half century.
I remember the launch of the very first edition of Eyes of Fire in early 1986 out on the Viaduct aboard an old Auckland ferry.
Thanks to publisher Michael Guy, we had this giant cake iced with the French Tricolore. Dancing on the top of the cake were three frogmen and the phrase “J’accuse”.
These immortal words were coined by that celebrated French writer Emile Zola who called for an inquiry into the Dreyfus case in 1898 when Captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely imprisoned on Devil’s Island for selling national secrets. He was innocent and eventually set free.
Almost three decades on from the first Eyes of Fire launch, I have a cartoon in the new edition – the only French one – by that wonderful cartoonist from Le Monde, Plantu.
It shows President François Mitterrand, the national leader at the time of the bombing, as a frogman. He is standing in the classroom lecturing a French history class about the Rainbow Warrior. “At that time,” he says, “only presidents had the right to carry out terrorism.”
The cartoon was actually penned to mark the 20th anniversary of the bombing in 2005 and coincided with revelations in that paper about Mitterrand’s ultimate green light for the botched Operation Satanique.
It was certainly a military operation out of hell that devastated the French reputation in the Pacific right up until when nuclear testing was finally abandoned in 1996 in the face of sustained protests by Greenpeace and many other nuclear-free movements and people.
I hadn’t actually sighted this cartoon before and it was only during the “Je Suis Charlie” campaign following the horrendous massacre of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists by jihadist assassins in Paris in January, that it came to light.
And I am indebted to Plantu for being able to republish his cartoon. He even sent a message saying that he wished he could be here for the book launch and good wishes. Cartoons by Malcolm Walker and Trace Hodgson are also included.
In the face of such terrible crimes and tragedy, humour is so important for healing.
Over the years, since the Rongelap voyage and the bombing, I have tried to keep faith with our mission as a journalist and educator in various ways.
Many of you are already familiar with Eyes of Fire and may even have the odd dog-eared copy in your book case.
But there are other episodes as well in this journey. Also in 1986, along with John Miller and Gil Hanly – whose wonderful work is being celebrated around you today as part of the “Courage Works” campaign – I produced an exhibition of photographs called Nuclear Exodus: The Rongelap Evacuation, which was shown in galleries in Auckland and Wellington.
This exhibition was eventually given a special protective coating and was donated to the NZ Peace Foundation for circulation among schools.
Also, this exhibition led to the making of a 12-minute video, naturally called Nuclear Exodus, with the collaboration of TVNZ and Chris Cooper and Michael Fleck as co-producers along with me.
My reporting on the Rainbow Warrior voyage won the 1985 Media Peace Prize, which I confess that I valued much more than other various media prizes that I have won. The Nuclear Exodus video also won a Media Peace Prize citation.
In 1993, my wife Del Abcede, who I met on the Peace Brigade in the Philippines four years after the bombing, and I went to live in the Pacific for 10 years – half of that time in Papua New Guinea and the rest in Fiji.
While in Port Moresby, I was head of the journalism programme at the University of Papua New Guinea, so I assigned our student journalists to do a series of stories about the impact of the Rainbow Warrior bombing in the Pacific and we ran a special lift out section in the student newspaper Uni Tavur.
I also participated, writing an article for the main daily newspaper, Post-Courier, and for other media around the Pacific.
Twenty years after the bombing, I was working for AUT University and I produced a new edition of the Eyes of Fire, this time thanks to John Ringer of Paradigm Associates who did a lot of work for Greenpeace at the time.
The 2015 adventure
When it came to this 2015 edition, I approached Tony Murrow of Little Island Press, with whom we have collaborated with on a number of projects, including my book Don’t Spoil My Beautiful Face about human rights in the Pacific published last year.
This was an excellent production, although some wit told me at the time, “Oh so you’re getting in early to write your memoirs.”
Actually, the subtext of this publication is that it actually spells out my philosophy around human rights and deliberative, or peace journalism.
Well, when I talked to Tony – and I also talked to Bunny McDiarmid around that time as well – I thought there were so many books about the Rainbow Warrior that perhaps there wouldn’t be enough interest.
At least, related to the real activist and humanitarian aspects about the Rainbow Warrior that I am interested in, not just the spy drama being rehashed. I didn’t hear anything back from Tony for quite a while and I thought, okay, that’s the end of that idea.
But no, he came back to me and said, “Yes we’ll do the new book, but we want to do something more than that. We want to produce a public good of value to the community, we want to produce a digital microsite with some video interviews with the crew and people involved.”
So this seemed an ideal opportunity for a major educational project involving our television and journalism students at AUT University.
Television lecturer Gilly Tyler and Television journalism lecturer Danni Mulrennan came on board and the next thing we had an exciting project involving some 40 students, including my colleague Pacific Media Watch editor Alistar Kata who is in Samoa this week.
Over the next few weeks our crew produced more than 20 video stories and interviews, a journalism project on an unprecedented scale for a journalism school in New Zealand. Living history.
I don’t want to steal their thunder, as others will be talking about this, but I do want to thank Tony for his vision in producing such a tremendous microsite, and also thank his colleagues, Evotia Tamua and Robyn Bern, for their support.
The best publishing team I have experienced without a doubt.
And I would like to thank Gilly and Danni for recognising the importance of project journalism and joining me on this adventure. We have all learned so much along the way, as well as the students.
Also, thanks to the core of the Rainbow Warrior crew, both on the Pacific voyage, and the originals (like Hilari Anderson and Susi Newborn) for their recollections about the ship and sharing on the Rongelap evacuation. So thanks to Bunny McDiarmid, of course, who wrote the foreword to both the memorial editions and has kindly agreed to launch the book today.
Special thanks to:
Susi Newborn and Brenna
Bene Hoffmann for his Mejato Diary that he unearthed from his archives
and the many others who have contributed, like French journalists Pierre Gleizes and Amelie David … And a special thanks to shipboard “Breakast Club” stalwarts Davey Edward and Lloyd Anderson, and to Selwyn Manning who has brought a tremendous freshness to journalism with his Rainbow Warrior series coverage in his innovative Evening Report.
Our students were fortunate to have excellent interviews with Steve Sawyer – by Skype – and even skipper Pete Willcox in the short time he was here in Auckland before joining the Great Barrier Reef campaign.
I would like to pick up on one point raised in the video and print interviews by our students Senka Bosnyak and Michael Neilson and quote Pete’s response. We put a provocative question to Pete about whether he ever thought of “retiring” in the wake of events like the Rainbow Warrior bombing and his many arrests, including by the Russians in the so-called Arctic 30 affair.
“On the boat we were like, ‘If we’ve scared the government of France so badly they have set out to kill us we must be doing something right.’ And so none of us stopped.”
And this is something that really stands out for me, we have all carried on our environmental mission in various ways.
Eyes of Fire and the microsite are dedicated to Fernando, our friend and comrade. But the book is also dedicated to several other nuclear-free and pro-independence campaigners who have been inspirational for me in my life journey and have passed on – they are:
- Amelia Rokotuivuna, one of the founders of the Fiji Anti-Nuclear Action Group (FANG)
- Bengt and Marie-Therese Danielsson co-authors of Moruroa, Mon Amour and Poisoned Reign
- Owen Wilkes, a doyen of the peace movement and brilliant researcher
- And Elaine Shaw, long the coordinator of Greenpeace. It was Elaine who was responsible for me joining the Rainbow Warrior.
I have had lots of messages of goodwill for this launch over the last few days, including Dover Samuels from Matauri Bay. I can’t share them all, but I would like to mention this one from Sue Stover about Elaine Shaw:
Titled Remembering Elaine Shaw, Sue wrote after hearing me on a radio interview talking about Elaine:
Just turned off the radio and want to share what is on my mind.
Thank you for remembering the significance of Elaine Shaw’s contribution to the work of Greenpeace but also for peace and justice more generally.
I regularly travel down Whitney Road, Blockhouse Bay on Tuesdays mornings when I head to playcentre with my grandson at New Windsor. And Elaine is often on my mind as somewhere along there is the house where she lived with her husband and school age children in the early 1980s. I knew her well when she was in one of her episodic sojourns away from Greenpeace and was working for a while at Corso when I was regional organiser.
The last time I saw her, she was very much a woman on her own – not with her family, not with Greenpeace. She was working the night shift in Auckland Hospital as a nurse and she came to see me when I had an overnight stay there in 1987.
I was delighted to see her and said something how patients and colleagues must be pleased to be in the presence of the famous Elaine Shaw. She was somewhat bemused and said something about being “Elaine Nobody”. I know she died of cancer not long after that.
I do hope her children remember her and her work with some pride.
Thanks again for bringing Elaine’s memory into a public space.
A special word of thanks for Gil Hanly and John Miller who both contributed so much, with John’s photos adorning the covers of the first four editions, and now Gil’s bombing picture is the back cover.
While I had masses of photographs of Rongelap, I had nothing of the bombed ship or the aftermath.
I think that one of the effects the bombing had on me personally was that I couldn’t take any photographs for a while. I couldn’t photograph the death of the much-loved ship that I had lived on for so long.
And I especially want to thank my wife, Del Abcede, for her tremendous support as always, but also for her talent for photography and design that she has put to use in many ways for my book and social good projects.
A sting to the tail
Now a sting to the tail with some serious thoughts:
I believe the Pacific Islands Forum and Melanesian Spearhead Group ought to follow the lead of the Marshall Islands, which is trying to sue the nuclear powers, and give a region-wide push for nuclear justice in the region.
We have “relaxed” too much since the end of French nuclear tests at Moruroa Atoll in 1996.
Just ending the tests isn’t enough, it’s the unfinished business of the massive clean-up and health burden left by at least 269 nuclear tests in the region, many of them toxic atmospheric tests.
The Marshall Islands took the bold step of filing unprecedented lawsuits against the nine global nuclear powers in the International Court of Justice in The Hague and the US Federal Court last year.
This move may roll out for years, but if all Pacific countries, including New Zealand, got behind this brave example and opened up other challenges it could raise the legal and political stakes.
The United States conducted 67 tests in 12 years at Bikini and Enewetak atolls in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958.
The Marshall Islands government argued the nuclear powers were in “flagrant violation” of international law for failing to disarm. However, a US federal judge earlier this year dismissed the case on the grounds that the alleged breach of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT) was “speculative”.
While this is discouraging, the Marshall Islands legal advisers planned an appeal – which is due to be heard this coming Monday. And their International Court case may gain more traction.
Reports of leaching at the Runit Dome on Enewetak Atoll – known locally as “The Tomb”, where masses of radioactive waste have been dumped under concrete slabs that are now cracking is another serious development.
This brings the nuclear legacy face-to-face with climate change and the huge potential disaster.
France conducted 193 nuclear tests over three decades between 1966 and 1996 at Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls in Polynesia.
While the so-called Morin law opened the door to greater compensation for the nuclear tests in Polynesia and there have been 10 successful compensation cases awarded earlier this year, this legislation has been criticised as inadequate.
Moruroa and Fangataufa have yet to be “cleaned up” and handed back to Tahiti.
In the case of the 9 British nuclear tests in two years at Malden Island and what was then Christmas Island (now Kiritimati island) in Kiribati, the compensation track record was also poor.
Ironically, it is the government of Fiji that has shown the way to the nuclear powers and earlier this year awarded compensation to 70 Fijian veterans who were deployed by the Britain to Christmas island for the tests as a result of “an unfortunate chapter”.
Finally, I want to say it was a privilege to have been on the Rainbow Warrior and to have served with a courageous and dedicated crew and to have been able to help the people of Rongelap.
I have two treasured mementos from the Rainbow Warrior – my bombed passport, which sank with the Warrior, and my copy of Greenpeace journalist and founder Bob Hunter’s Warriors of the Rainbow. It was my inspirational reading on board and you all signed this copy when I left the ship.