Yesterday, my coach shared Friday’s post on Facebook and commented: “One of the most appealing bits of Tash’s original story was the getting rid of all the possessions. We have to travel lightly in this world if we are to travel at all.”
I agree and I thought it warranted another post. I think I had no trouble doing it then because I learnt very early on in my life that it was ok to lose everything. Thinking about it now, it seems reasonable to assume I also learnt that it can be dangerous to try to hang on to things:
When I was but a wee sproglet, we lived in Vanuatu, a South Pacific archipelago known at the time as the New Hebrides – a condominium jointly administered by France and Britain. We lived on the island of Espiritu Santo and it was a rather idyllic life I have very fond memories of.
That is until the so-called Coconut War. When Papua New Guinea stepped in, it was the end of life as we knew it. My mum and a friend of hers had run a pirate radio station supporting the rebellion. They would drive around at night and broadcast from different locations to avoid getting caught, but of course their identity was known in spite of the aliases they used.
One morning she received a phone call from a representative of the French government: “The French government can only guarantee your safety here for another 24 hours. Tomorrow morning you must take your family and one suitcase of belongings to the airport and the French army will transport you to the closest French territory.” New Caledonia.
I was only 5 or 6 at the time, but I remember it like it was yesterday. The next day we all piled into the car and on the way to the airport I remember feeling tense as we drove past troops and blockades. At the airport we joined the queues with other French families who were being evacuated, and Mum was told that she had been blacklisted by the new government and would never be allowed to return.
As we prepared to board the plane, my father bent down to say goodbye. Goodbye? Wasn’t he coming with us? No, he said. He had to stay behind to try to save some of our belongings. I was terrified for him and really thought I would never see him again.
My two sisters, Mum and I boarded the army plane. I will never forget it. It was a parachutist plane with two rows of steel bucket seats facing each other. The cabin wasn’t pressurised and my sister Kat suffered terribly from pain in her ears. She spent the entire flight screaming and crying. We were powerless to help her.
When we got to the airport in Noumea, we were rushed off to a hangar where journalists from all over the world were waiting to gather our stories. Once the interviews were over, we were ushered into big buses. Escorted by police cars and motorbike police, we were taken to our refugee camp. We weren’t in tents or anything; from memory, two or three families had to share a sort of small house/cabin. The French army would come and deliver our meals and we would queue up behind the trucks to collect them.
I have no idea how long we actually spent in that camp before we were moved in to low-income apartments. I just remember that one morning there was a lot of hustle and bustle around the camp and the rumour circulated that the men were returning.
I was really excited, because I hoped I would see my father. When the time came, we all rushed up to the camp entrance to greet the buses as they arrived. I could see my dad in one of them! The men alighted one by one and I wondered why there were ambulances waiting.
When it was my dad’s turn, I saw that he was crying as he looked over at us and his body would no longer carry him. He crumpled out of the bus, landing on his knees, and before we could even go to him an ambulance whisked him off to hospital.
On the way home from dropping us off at the airport in Santo, he had been stopped and captured by Papuan troops. Other friends of his had been taken also. I have never asked for full details of what happened there, but he did tell me they had been deprived of food and beaten, sometimes with chains. A friend of his had later lost an eye as a result of the violent treatment and their ordeal.
And our belongings stayed where they were meant to.
That was the first time – and certainly the most dramatic.