Memories of an attack

Professor Miriam Meyerhoff from Victoria’s School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies has heard some surprising and gripping stories while researching sociolinguistics in Vanuatu.

Boys washing kava root before the men chop it finely (Hog Harbour village, East Santo, Vanuatu)
Boys washing kava root before the men chop it finely (Hog Harbour village, East Santo, Vanuatu). Photo supplied

Oral histories provide perfect data for a sociolinguist, she says.

“When people are engaged in relating a story, they give you natural vernacular.”

For most of the past 20 years, she has focused on the local Creole language, which is spoken across Vanuatu. But since 2011, she has been studying one of the other 104 languages of Vanuatu, Nkep, assisted by funding from the Endangered Languages Project in the United Kingdom.

It was in this pursuit that she sat down one day to record a story from local woman Janet Nial, who said, “I want to tell you what happened during the Rebellion.”

Janet told how, 21 days after the declaration of independence in Vanuatu, rebels had visited her village, Hog Harbour, on the island of Santo, in retaliation for some earlier violence, and then used four machine guns to fire on the village for an hour.

Miriam says she had not heard the story before.

“The story had never been properly documented in any histories of Vanuatu.”

The villagers asked her to record the story on a DVD, an initially daunting task as she didn’t have the resources. However, she made approaches to several people and put together a production team. They included a director and videographer with National Geographic experience, Steve Talley, editor Gloriana Roebeck and Pop-Up Workshop and RPM Pictures in Auckland.

Under the direction of Manasseh Vocor, Sapo Warput and the community at Hog Harbour, they made a 40-minute film that records people’s memories of the attack, acts of heroism, violence and a reconciliation afterwards.

The film includes re-enactments from people who were there in 1980, young people in the village today and the Vanuatu Mobile Force (army), who play the rebels with their machine guns.

The film, called Heher hür nwesi cei netvoocvooc (Days of Struggle, Days of Hope) was played to the village on 21 August 2014. Traditionally, the day has become a day of rest and remembrance for the village.

Several hundred people packed the village nakamal (meeting house) for the viewing, the Vanuatu Mobile Force marching band put on their most spectacular show and the day was rounded out with blessings and shared food. “People said it was the best 21st of August they’d ever had,” says Miriam.

Although no one was killed in the attack, it was a terrifying experience for those there who had to flee for their lives and hide in caves and in the bush. The attack finished only when one of the rebels was wounded by a shot from a defending villager. A villager was also wounded.

The village holds the film’s copyright. On her next visit to Hog Harbour, Miriam will explore with the villagers whether it can be distributed to a wider audience.

She says the film was a career highlight. “The project pulled so many people together. I think I’m more proud of this than anything I’ve ever done.”