Kanak huts demolished by bulldozers early one morning
The police arrived at 4 in the morning. No one said they were coming.
“Please leave your huts so the machines can do what they’re here to do,” they said.
Just after 6am the remaining 7 huts built by Melanesians (or Kanaks) from all over New Caledonia for a Citizenship Day event at end September (and that had stood in central Nouméa for 50 days) had been levelled. By 9am the remains were swept away and dump-trucks were carting the debris away. By 10am, nothing was left.
The people operating the machines wore hoods to protect their identities.
The police stood watch and stifled unhappy protests. Some Melanesians sat in front of their hut in a non-violent protest to protect it, in vain.
Finally, the Kanaks collected their things and moved off to the side, some calmly, some less so.
This happened yesterday, not 50 years ago in some long-lost colony, but yesterday, in a “civilised” country, where Europeans make up 29.2% of the population (the indigenous population is at 40.3%). In a country where tensions are mounting over cost of living, inequality (some say racism) and a process towards independence set to start in 2014.
When I drove by yesterday, just a small distance from where we live, I was shocked, surprised and dismayed. I am in the minority on this. Very much so. (In fact, a poll of local newspaper readers currently shows 75% of voters behind the decision to demolish the huts.)
Nearly everyone I speak with says something along the lines of, “They didn’t respect the agreement. It was time for them to go.”
With bulldozers? In the middle of the night/early morning? Without warning?
Are they criminals? Are their huts posing a security threat?
Where did our respect for human beings (which, interestingly enough, kanaka means in Hawaiian), their culture, and their creation go?
These huts are sacred to them, the Melanesians explained to me on several occasions. “To destroy (or burn) a hut is worse than a crime,” said one member of the Tribu, just Monday when interviewed by the local paper (of course I can’t help wondering what the press knew, given the question, “What would happen if the huts were destroyed?” the day before they actually were demolished.) The interviewee went on to liken the eventual destruction of the huts to breaking the Nouméa Accord.
And yet, masked men hired by the city, carried out the demolition in just over 2 hours.
How did we come to this? It depends on who you ask.
Here is the official chronology of events:
18 September – The city of Nouméa refuses the request to build 9 huts on the parking lot of Baie Moselle (for security reasons) for the Citizenship Day celebrations (23 September). Note, they had previously accepted the proposal and reversed their decision on 18 September, just days before the huts were to serve as part of the Citizenship Day celebrations.
20 September – An agreement is signed between the city, the 150-Years-Later Committee (the originator of the proposal), the government and the state to build the 9 huts (temporarily only). My recollection was that the agreement also stated that the huts were to be dismantled at the end of the day on 24 September. (When I spoke with the Melanesians – members of Tribu dans la ville – about this on the 23rd, they were unaware of this agreement.)
22-29 September – During the Citizenship Day festivities, a group called Tribu dans la ville (Tribe in Town) (those who had built the huts and were tasked with caring for them) formed and started a petition for the huts to stay. The petition collected over 10,000 signatures.
1 October – The occupation of the parking lot by the Tribe in Town group becomes illegal.
3 October – The government proposes to relocate the huts to Quai Fed (near the port where the cruise ships come in). The port officials agree to this. The 150-Years-Later Committee accepts the proposal to move the huts. (Note, the Tribe in Town group had not been consulted or involved in this agreement – thus, they did not “agree”.)
13 October – The day following a visit from a delegation of Sénateurs coutumiers, the hut representing the Djubéa-Kapone aire is completely taken down. This was appreciated and recognised by the 150-Years-Later Committee, and criticised by the Tribe in Town group.
27 October – Helped by city personnel, the 150-Years-Later Committee takes down the communal hut.
9 November – Members of the Sénat coutumier, representatives from the 150-Years-Later Committee and the Grand Chef vist the site to convince the Tribe in Town group to move the huts. The Tribe in Town group states that it does not recognise present coutumier institutions as they’ve been created under the colonial system.
13 November – The huts were demolished by bulldozers and masked men between 4am and 6am. Everything was removed by 10am.
Clearly in the minority in my view that this act was overly aggressive and disrespectful, I stand by my view that this was a short-sighted and potentially harmful move. The city has willfully destroyed what was beautiful, culturally rich and an opportunity for the cultures here to continue to exchange and learn together. They did so in a particularly violent way, winning friends among those who value parking lots and agreements more than humanity, and forever embedding in the minds of onlooking children (including my own) the powerful image of what people with big machines can do.
I realise it must be far more complex than I can grasp, and that as a newcomer I must sound painfully naive. But I loved the huts and I loved talking with the Melanesians. I loved admiring their sculptures and their art. I loved being able to share and learn with them. A friend who spoke with them just afterwards tells me one said, “We are submitting for now. Our time is longer than yours.”
What will happen next?
Time will tell.