Man with a past - interview with a massacre survivor



Michael Field

At 83 years of age Kabunare Koura still manages to cut toddy although he laughs that it is no longer from the 
high coconut trees any more.

Life is good, he says sitting in a small traditional house on Bairiki Islet in Kiribati's Tarawa Atoll, and he is happy with his nine children, 20 grandchildren and four great grandchildren.

"The past is gone."

His deeply lined face breaks into a smile and he laughs easily and loudly; and you wonder how he can after what he saw. And after his terrible suffering it is  equally surprising to find him alive and well.

Kabunare is the solitary survivor of a massacre when  the Japanese, as World War II was ending, put 150 Gilbert  Islanders along the cliff tops of Banaba (then Ocean Island), stabbed them, kicked their bodies over the edge and fired bullets into the corpses.

He later had the mixed satisfaction of seeing the man who commanded the massacre hanging swinging from the hangman’s rope.

Kabunare, from Nikunau atoll, has never spoken to the media although he did give evidence to a military trial in Rabaul after the war. His Sunday afternoon conversation was translated by Raion Bataroma, although it was not always a literal translation. Bataroma was at times taken with the story and was given to explaining what he thought Kabunare would want understood.

"He is a very wise man," Bataroma said.

Banaba was one of the great scandals of the 20th Century. Its people were robbed of their phosphate rich top-soils by the British Phosphate Commission and even before the war began, the British had planned to move its people off altogether.

The plan was interrupted by the Japanese occupation on August 26, 1942. The Japanese then moved most of the Banabans to Nauru or Kosrae in what is the Federated States of Micronesia. They never returned, most of them ending up in Rabi, Fiji, after the war.

Left on Banaba were around 160 men from the Gilberts  and six whites, including a New Zealand radio operator,  Ron Third. His fate has never been known.

Kabunare remembered seeing him on what he believes was the day he was to be murdered.

"There were two i-matang (white) people and they knew they would be killed, but we didn't know how," he said.

"They were being taken to Buakonikai which was were most people were killed.

"The i-matang shakes the hands of the i-Kiribati and they take off their hats and wave to the i-Kiribati."

Kabunare had no doubt that Third and the other man, both well dressed, were being taken to their executions.

"It was very sad."

During the occupation the Japanese were ruthlessly  cruel to the local population and many were executed.

Evidence to a Kiribati Te Maneaba ni Maungatubu (Legislative Assembly) select committee, which published its report in 1996, quoted Bauro Ratieta as saying when  an islander committed a crime "he is beaten with a hard stick and tied up to a tree for at least two days."

As part of their defences the Japanese erected an electric fence.

"When this work was completed, the Japanese, in order to test the efficiency of the wire, ordered some natives who had been prisoners, to run blindfolded towards the  live wire. They were told that if they failed to comply they were to be shot at," Ratieta said in evidence.

"The natives of course died of electrocution."

On August 20, 1945, the Japanese occupiers rounded up  the Gilbertese they had had working for them on Banaba. Massacre survivor

Kabunare said they had been fishing the previous day, catching plenty of tuna.

"They say they were feeling uncomfortable during the  day, something will happen tomorrow," interpreter Bataroma said.

The Japanese told them everybody should go to the meeting houses in either of three villages.

They gathered where the Japanese took their names and home islands.

Kabunare demonstrates as the Japanese drew pistols and begun pointing the bayonets into them.

"We were made to sit down and the Japanese with the pistol, he puts it into your back as they tied our hands."

They were taken to a place close to the sea.

"If you fell off from there you would be killed, very  risky place."

They were made to face the sea and their eyes were  covered.

Kabunare says then the Japanese thrust their bayonets  into the backs of men, and with the force of the blow 

pushed them off the cliff.

At the Rabaul trial Kabuanase told of standing beside  an Ellice Islander, Falailiva.

"He said to me 'are you ready?' and I replied 'yes I  am ready to die.' Then Falailiva asked 'you remember God?' and I replied 'yes I remember'."

In the interview he describes, by action, how the bayonet hit him in the lower back, but did not penetrate.

It did leave him with a gash and it pushed him down the  cliff and he hit the rocks with his left shoulder. That  saved him.

"Everybody else, they hit on their heads and they  die."

He was alive though, his hands and eyes still bound so he pretended to be dead.

Then the Japanese fired into the bodies. Kabunare  counted the shots; 40. Some were close to him.

He understood some Japanese and be could hear the guards saying they would come back next day.

"The waves will kill them, the rocks are very  prickly," he explained one guard saying.

He heard them leave and carefully be tried to walk  toward the cliff, still tied up. He found a sharp rock  and freed his hands, then uncovered his eyes.

"I went back to see if anyone was alive. They all die."

He found a small cave near by and hid there for a couple of days. The bodies kept sweeping into the cave.

"I try to push them off, very strong smell."

Dressed only in a sulu he finally left the cave and  tried to go inland, nearly killing himself on a mine.

When he saw the Union Jack flying on the  administration building he thought it might be a trick to make him reveal himself. But it was the Australian Army  and he was safe.

Kabuanase was taken first to Bougainville and then to Guadalcanal where he was shown prisoners and asked to identify the Japanese commander of Banaba. He picked out Suzuki Naoomi and his deputy Nara Yoshio.

They said they had killed the Gilbertese because Tokyo had told them to fight to the end and the Micronesians knew their defence layout on the island.

Naoomi was sentenced to hang.

Kabuanase said he saw the execution.

"They left him to hang," said Kabuanase who  demonstrated what the body looked like, "and they let the people watch."

Now it is behind him. Sometimes when he sees Japanese in Tarawa he remembers what happened.

"Sometimes I remember my friends who were killed."

He stresses now though that while he is happy to talk  to i-Kiribati about it, he is more interested in life today. He wants to stay physically well and keep fishing  and cutting his toddy.

"Toddy is better than imported sugar," he said.

Copyright; 1999



I went to Tarawa in 1999 to research the fate of a band of New Zealand coastwatchers who had been executed by the Japanese during World War Two. That features in my book Swimming with Sharks. As far as I can establish, this was the only journalist to interview Kabuanase ever. It remains a vivid memory.

He has since died and his family now live in Hamilton, New Zealand. My interview has been used in a number of books and publications over the years. Below are some links to these.

The story above I wrote for the Suva based Pacific Islands Monthly. Operated out of the Fiji Times building, the Monthly was the smallest title in Rupert Murdoch's global empire. He closed it down in 2000.




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