with a past - interview with a massacre survivor
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
"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.
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
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
They were made to face the sea and their eyes were
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
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
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.
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
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.