On this night of July 10, 1985, the Vanuatu Government representative Charles Rara is spending the night with Baldwin Lonsdale (current Head of State) at his home at St. John’s Anglican College in Auckland where he is doing his theological studies, while Captain Pete Willcox and some of his crew are already asleep on the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior.
Rara’s roommate Fernando Pereira (photographer), a Portuguese and a few others are still chatting around the mess-room, sharing between them the last two bottles of beer.
Suddenly, the lights go out. There’s the sharp crack of breaking glass. Then, a sudden roar of water. The crew’s first thought: We’ve been hit, possibly by a tug (boat).
Then, there’s a second explosion. One of the two bombs has torn a gaping hole to the room which Rara and Pereira share.
The eight sentences above report the historical bombing of the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior, after its passage through Port Vila Harbour where Rara boarded the vessel, as it set sail for Murorua Atoll in French Polynesia, to protest against France’s nuclear testing on the atoll.
The banner calling for a total ban of nuclear testing towards a ‘Nuclear Free Pacific’ was drawn up in Port Vila following a regional meeting by Governments and NGOs from round the Pacific that was held in Port Vila.
The following is a first hand; first ever report of the suspense and trauma the Rara Family experienced in their quiet village at La Bwaru in North Pentecost. Their only connection to the outside world at the time was Radio Vanuatu. This is how Charles’ younger brother, Patrick Rara tells it:
“The moment we heard on the radio that the Rainbow Warrior was bombed and sunk by French secret agents in Auckland Harbour, silence fell over our home. Nothing was said of the fate of my brother or the crew.
“Our mother and Charles’ wife from Isabel in the Solomons were the only two crying.
“I was the second last born in the family.
“We all kept our ears close to the radio to hear the next news. It was hard to take; it was too far away to understand what life was like over there. Why would somebody want to bomb a ship, let alone the Rainbow Warrior?
“International politics and military sabotage were strange to our ears in our village but not to my brother. Charles understood such extreme behaviour, especially if it were in connection to France.
“The French at the time did not see eye to eye with Vanuatu because people protested in Port Vila against Paris for its nuclear testing at Tahiti.
“They argued that if the testing were safe then French nuclear scientists should test their nuclear bomb in mainland France and not on a faraway Pacific atoll.
“When the Rainbow Warrior dropped anchor in Auckland Harbour, my brother was overjoyed that someone knew him in the strange city.
“It was Baldwin Lonsdale who went to school with him in the Solomons. Baldwin took him to his house where they stayed and chatted and had lunch and continued until supper.
“After supper Charles said their stories became “so sweet” he had to stay the night. Charles said God was good to keep him from the ship or he would have been bombed to death in his room.
“Charles returned to the wharf in the morning and it was teeming with security. He did not understand a thing and forced his way through the throng of people but could not see the glorious Rainbow Warrior where it was anchored.
“Someone whispered to him the most frightening news that it was bombed and was sunk to the bottom of the harbour. Nobody could understand it then that the French had ordered its sabotage.
“But for Charles, he told us that his immediate guess at the time and he blurted it out was that it was the work of the French, that French men would go to that extreme to commit such a terrorist act in peaceful Auckland.
“As a first time arrival in Auckland, he asked where his colleagues were and he was taken to them at a hotel. He said, ‘When they saw me, they burst out crying knowing that it was the end of the journey because there was no Rainbow Warrior to take us to challenge the French Navy blockade at the nuclear testing site’.
“Charles said they had been fully briefed by the American captain of the Rainbow Warrior to follow his instructions, and not make any mistake because they were going to evade the French navy blockade, to enter the restricted zone.
“But for my brother, it was just the start of his trauma because Auckland police caught up with him and arrested him for what he said, on suspicion that he might have known of the bombing thus his spending the night ashore with his friend.
“Police interrogated him at the police station for a whole day until he convinced them that he grew up in Vanuatu and he knew the French attitude towards ni-Vanuatu regarding their nuclear testing activities. He reminded them that he had lived with the French all his life and the French (and British) had controlled Vanuatu for 74 years until Vanuatu became politically independent on July 30 of 1980. Satisfied, the police took him back to the hotel.
“The crew lost everything including their travel documents so they were provided with clothes and shoes by the Red Cross and finally they were flown back to their respective countries. You see the Rainbow Warrior had an international crew from round the world.
“Once he returned safely to Vanuatu, Charles said he was appointed by the Walter Lini’s Vanua’aku Pati Government to represent Vanuatu’s young, nationalistic call for a Nuclear Free Pacific on the ship. He said he was issued with a “Red Passport”, a diplomatic passport to prove that he was not an ordinary man and that if anything should happen to him then those who found his passport would know who he was”.
Charles has 5 children, three boys and two girls. He has since passed away leaving behind his wife and children who are now back in her native Solomon Islands.
Patrick, who is now 53 years old, says his brother was a man with unique, silent qualities that allowed his actions to speak for him. Charles was close to Father Walter Lini. He heard Father Lini’s famous utterance that Vanuatu would not be fully free until all colonised countries in the Pacific were all free of colonial rule.
Asked his brother if Charles was acknowledged for his brave stand to the might of super power arrogance, he shook his head without saying anything.
Finally the French ended their nuclear testing at Moruroa Atoll.