Commemoration for fallen Kanak leaders


At dawn, driving to the Hienghène valley on New Caledonia’s east coast, the radio starts playing “Loulou.” It’s a sad lament, a song from the 1980s by local band Bwanjep, which recalls the murder of Louis “Loulou” Tjibaou, his brother Tarcisse and eight other men.

It’s an eerie coincidence, as I soon drive past the site of the massacre that took their lives in December 1984. Eighteen men were driving home to the Kanak tribe of Tiendanite after a meeting of the newly formed independence coalition Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS). Ambushed at Wan’yaat by members of the Lapetite and Mitride families – local settlers opposed to independence in New Caledonia – ten were shot dead and five wounded, with three others living to tell the tale.

Today, their two rusting, burnt out trucks are a physical reminder of the massacre, now sheltered from the elements in a newly refurbished memorial on the road to Tiendanite.

The murder of his brothers and clansmen was a terrible blow for Jean-Marie Tjibaou, the charismatic leader of the FLNKS. Tragically, on 4 May 1989 he too was assassinated on the island of Ouvea, together with his lieutenant Yeiwene Yeiwene.

On 4 May this year, the thirtieth anniversary of Jean-Marie Tjibaou’s death, hundreds gathered at Tiendanite, the Kanak tribe that was his home, twenty kilometres into the mountains above Hienghène. People arriving by early morning joined a mass in the community hall, followed by the laying of wreaths and flowers on Tjibaou’s grave. The priest urged the congregation to follow the message of hope from “our papa, our brother, our friend Jean-Marie.” Later, people travelled down the road to Wan’yaat, to inaugurate and bless a new memorial and sculpture to the 1984 massacre.

As people met on New Caledonia’s east coast, other ceremonies were being held in the outlying Loyalty Islands. On Mare, friends and family mourned the loss of Yeiwene Yeiwene, Tjibaou’s right hand man. A leading figure in the movement for Kanak independence, Yeiwene campaigned alongside Tjibaou during the period of armed conflict that wracked New Caledonia between 1984 and 1988. Known as “les événements”, these years pitted the Kanak people against the French armed forces, as well as armed militias from the settler community.

On the island of Ouvea, in the village of Gossanah, people gathered to remember Djubelli Wea, the Kanak activist who killed the two FLNKS leaders in May 1989, before being shot dead by Tjibaou’s bodyguard Daniel Fisdiepas.

Looking back, looking forward

Speaking after the ceremony in Tiendanite, Tjibaou’s son Emmanuel told me that remembrance of his father and others killed during “les événements” is a vital part of looking to the future.

“The importance of this day is to commemorate their fight, to celebrate their life, but also to reflect on the reasons that we honour such men,” he said. “Their political vision has led us to where we are today. To commemorate them through custom, through prayer, is our way of making them live again, their words, their commitment.

“It also reminds us to take up our own responsibilities today,” Emmanuel Tjibaou noted. “Looking back over thirty years, it’s time for us to take stock, and look forward to making the right choices for our country. This is not a matter of history. It’s a matter of integrating their vision into our action today, thirty years later, to lead our country to independence and sovereignty.”

For a younger generation, the death of Kanak leaders decades ago might seem like ancient history. But Tjibaou remains an emblematic symbol of the Kanak struggle for self-determination. After he took a leading role in the independence party Union Calédonienne (UC) in the 1970s, a central part of Tjibaou’s work was promoting Kanak culture and identity, marginalised by French colonial society. In 1975, he organised the Melanesia 2000 festival, an unprecedented celebration of Kanak culture, music and dance. Two years later, UC adopted a call for independence rather than greater autonomy in the French Pacific dependency.

In Tiendanite, the current President of UC Daniel Goa said that Tjibaou’s vision of an independent Kanaky-New Caledonia still resonates with both old and new generations of independence supporters.

“His words are still relevant today, and they are especially relevant for the young people who are seeking to find their place in society,” Goa said. “Jean-Marie’s words can still guide them. You see here today that there are many young people. It’s a way of returning to the source to rediscover their culture.”

Beyond this, the commemoration ceremony united people across the political spectrum. Representatives from different independence parties and the Kanak Customary Senate were joined by New Caledonia’s representative in the French Senate Gerard Poadja and former politicians like Jean Pierre Aifa.

Standing at the graveside beside Tjibaou’s widow Marie-Claude, Poadja – a member of the anti-independence party Calédonie Ensemble – recalled their work together for the Melanesia 2000 festival: “He was a man we respected enormously…Today, I am here because we cannot forget what we lived through together.”

UC’s Daniel Goa noted: “Thirty years after his death, today we’re on a path set by Jean-Marie Tjibaou. The example he gave was that, at a crucial time, it’s possible for the Kanak people to link arms with other political forces. So, you can see that all the political tendencies in the country are present here today. Today is an important day for everyone, a chance for each of us to reflect on where we are and where we’ve come from.”

The ceremonies in Tiendanite, Ouvea and Mare were held just eight days before New Caledonia’ national elections. On 12 May, voters will elect 76 representatives for New Caledonia’s three provincial assemblies and national Congress, political institutions created after the 1988 Matignon-Oudinot Agreements and the 1998 Noumea Accord.

In Tiendanite, Jean-Pierre Djaiwe of the Parti de Liberation Kanak (Palika) said that the day went beyond the current electoral contest: “For us it’s a day of commemoration, a day of remembrance, a day to recall this man who was for us an extraordinary figure, a man who by his bearing, by his words, is still with us in our hearts. His words were spoken many years ago, but they remain in our hearts and are still relevant today.”

Djaiwe added: “The greatest honour we can render to such a man is to continue the work he began, the struggle he undertook. This is true not just for the Kanak people, but for all the communities that make up the New Caledonian people.”

Ouvea tragedy, twice over

The Ouvea crisis of May 1988 and the assassination of Tjibaou and Yeiwene a year later were crucial milestones in New Caledonia’s troubled path towards a new political status.

After nearly four years of conflict, the FLNKS decided to boycott the May 1988 French Presidential elections, and elections on the same day for a new local government. The independence movement had planned a nationwide mobilisation to highlight its opposition to French militarisation, but the uprising only took place in Canala on the main island of Grande Terre, and in the outlying Loyalty Islands.

On the island of Ouvea, a local group of Kanak independence activists attempted to take over a police station at Fayaoue on 22 April 1988. In the subsequent melee, three French gendarmes were killed and another mortally wounded. Twenty-seven others were taken hostage and hidden in caves, most in the north of the island near the village of Gossanah.

The Ouvea crisis led to a major military mobilisation and the torture and maltreatment of villagers by French troops trying to find the location of the hostages. Djubelli Wea, a former Protestant theology student and leading independence activist from Gossanah was dragged from his sick bed, questioned about the location of the hostages, and tied to a tree. His father, beaten by French troops, later died.

The assault on the caves to free the captured police co-incided with a final (and unsuccessful) attempt on the part of then Prime Minister Jacques Chirac to glean votes between the two rounds of the 1988 Presidential elections. On 5 May 1988, the French government abandoned negotiations and launched a military attack, with elite police and a commando unit storming the cave. Nineteen Kanak activists were killed, with at least three executed after surrendering. Their leader Alphonse Dianou was shot in his knee during capture, and left to die. Two French special forces soldiers died in the assault.

Twenty-nine men from around Ouvea, including Djubelli Wea, were arrested and transported to jail in Paris. Ouvea was left with a legacy of bitterness and tragedy – men from over half the villages on the island were dead or in jail, and there were sharp tensions with the FLNKS leadership.

The Ouvea tragedy made all parties step back from the brink and incoming French Prime Minister Michel Rocard proposed negotiations. The subsequent Matignon and Oudinot Accords, sealed by a handshake between Tjibaou and anti-independence leader Jacques Lafleur, included amnesties for crimes committed before August 1988. For the families of the dead soldiers and the 19 Kanak martyrs, this could not resolve the legacy of grief and division left after the Ouvea massacre.

A year later, Jean-Marie Tjibaou and Yeiwene Yeiwene came to the island on 4 May 1989 to mark ‘la levée du deuil’, the end of a period of mourning for the 19 Kanaks killed by the French forces.  At the ceremony in Hwadrilla, Tjibaou and Yeiwene were shot and killed by Djubelli Wea, who was immediately gunned down by Tjibaou’s bodyguard.

Promoting reconciliation

Isolated by the death of key leaders, the local community could not recover for many years. However, over time, a customary reconciliation process – between the Gossanah community, the family, clan and supporters of the slain FLNKS leaders, and the families and supporters of the four slain police officers – built trust that has broader national implications.

Religious and customary leaders began charting a path towards dialogue, moving from Tiendanite to Ouvea, then to Yeiwene’s home on the island of Mare, always using the traditional paths that link clans all over the country, across the mountains and the valleys, across the sea. The signing of the Noumea Accord in May 1998 opened the way for France’s Overseas Minister travelled to Gossanah in August that year, the first of many more public gestures of reconciliation involving the French state (last year, President Emmanuel Macron visited Hwadrilla for the 30th anniversary of the hostage crisis).

The central role of the churches was a crucial part of this reconciliation process. Jean-Marie Tjibaou was a former Catholic seminarian; leader of the Ouvea hostage takers Alphonse Dianou trained for the priesthood at the Pacific Regional Seminary in Suva; Djubelli Wea did pastoral training at the Pacific Theological College in Suva; and leading Kanak theologians Jean Wete and the late Pothin Wete are originally from Gossanah.

Ecumenical figures like Pastor Jean Wete and Father Rock Apikaoua played a central role in the reconciliation process between the Wea, Tjibaou and Yeiwene families. Based on the Kanak tradition of dialogue, they promoted face-to-face meetings and ultimately reconciliation between the wives, then the children and then the clans of the three central figures. Although some family members were reluctant to participate in the process and many tears were shed, this process was vital in sealing a breach that could not be healed by judicial mechanisms.

Today there are plaques in Ouvea, Mare and Tiendanite, highlighting the day in July 2004 when people transcended the bitterness of the past. The plaque next to the gravesite of Djubelli Wea pays homage to the three Kanak leaders who died in 1989, and to the reconciliation that followed: “To all generations to come — remember that on the night of 4 May 1989, blood was spilt on Ouvea. Pardon — Haiömonu me ûsoköu.” A similar plaque marks Jean-Marie Tjibaou’s grave in Tiendanite: “Pardon – do kan ôdavi vin mala da – so a new dawn can rise.”

Speaking after the 30th anniversary ceremony, Emmanuel Tjibaou told me that the strength of Kanak culture made reconciliation possible.

“Just as in Papua New Guinea, or Solomon Islands or Vanuatu, custom is what makes us Pacific islanders,” he said. “The yam, the sacred, respect for others, respect for the community, the dimension of justice, of sharing: it was through these cultural values that we were able to reconcile with the family of Djubelli Wea, who killed my father.

“Through this reconciliation process, we tried to show that we share history, but we should all share it together. That’s what we did here in July 2004, with the relatives of my father’s assassin. We hope that this spirit of reconciliation might inspire others – in Bougainville, in Solomon Islands – to bridge the gulf between combatants and their clans still living with the loss. We hope to share our experience of reconciliation, in the tradition of Wantok – one way, one spirit.”