ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: "Il y a vingt ans, "l’opération Victor" ensanglantait Ouvéa
by Rosa Moussaoui
Translated Sunday 18 May 2008, by
On May 5, 1988 the French authorities ordered an assault on the cave in which pro-independence activists held twenty-two French gendarmes and one magistrate prisoners.
“Carnage on Ouvéa”, the “island nearest heaven”: on May 5th, 1988, this atoll of the Loyalty archipelago in New Caledonia became the scene of a tragedy that long traumatized its inhabitants and left deep scars on this territory conquered by France in 1853. Twenty thousand kilometres (over twelve thousand miles) away in Paris, Jacques Chirac, then Prime Minister, and François Mitterrand, then President of the Republic, gave the green light to “operation Victor”, a military assault carried out at dawn by the French army’s crack commandos. The GIGN (the gendarmerie’s special intervention unit) and EGIGN paratroopers, together with paratroopers of the notorious 11th shock regiment (of ferocious notoriety since its operations in Indochina and Algeria, especially under the sinister General Aussaresses’ command) and commando Hubert (of the Intelligence service) were mobilized to liberate twenty-two gendarmes and one magistrate who were held hostages by Kanak pro-independence activists in the sacred cave of Gossanah. Two servicemen were killed during the assault. Nineteen hostage-takers were shot down “fighting”, the army’s official report insisted. But for some witnesses, they were “shot down in cold blood”, even as “they were surrendering”, the FLNKS (Kanak national liberation and socialist party) and part of the French Left point out accusingly.
The tragedy had been building up for a dozen days. Out of hostility to the new status of the territory drafted by Jacques Chirac and Bernard Pons, Secretary of State for the Overseas départements and territories, the FNLNKS called for an active boycott of the territorial election that was to institute it, on the same day as the presidential election.
Birth of the FLNKS in 1984
On the “caillou” ("pebble", as the island is called), the situation had been extremely tense since 1984, when independence came back to the forefront of New Caledonian politics, thanks to the setting up of the FLNKS party, which was accompanied by violent clashes between his opponents and supporters. Ten inhabitants of the Tiendanite tribe, to which Jean-Marie Tjibaou himself belonged, were murdered one night after falling into a trap set by settlers. Among the victims were two of the FLNKS leader’s brothers. On October 29, 1987, the Noumea court of assizes acquitted the seven perpetrators of the carnage. The acquittal came as a shock, for the pro-independence party saw in it a regular “license to kill” Kanak people with complete impunity.
Another long-rankling, grievous offence fueled the tension: the murder on January 12, 1985, by GIGN gendarmes, of two FLNKS leaders, Eloi Machoro and Marcel Nonaro. Demonstrations followed, and cases of arson, road blocks, strikes, to which the authorities responded by declaring a state of emergency, imposing curfews, and making arrests. The situation was insurrectional. François Mitterrand’s visit in January 1985 did not ease the tension. On December 2, 1986, the UN General Assembly put New Caledonia down on the list of “non-self-governing territories” (to be decolonized), thus legitimizing the action of the pro-independence camp.
If the Left coming into office raised hopes that were soon dashed, the Right’s comeback was followed by a markedly tougher policy. “The policy that Bernard Pons embodied for independence fighters was one of exclusion, control, and constant harassment,” Caroline Machoro, now a Member of the New Caledonia Congress, recalls/
On April 22, 1988, young Ouvéa independence fighters led by Alphonse Dianou responded to the call for an active boycott by occupying the Fayaoué gendarmerie, which symbolized the presence of the French State on the island. Their aim was to hoist the Kanaky flag instead of the French flag. But very soon, the situation suddenly tipped after a gendarme put his hand to his gun. Four gendarmes were killed, twenty seven were taken hostage. Eleven of these were taken to the south of the island. They were freed three days later. The remaining sixteen were taken to a sacred cave, in the north of the island, near the Gossanah tribe. “The operation got out of hand. We had no intention to kill,” Benoit Tangopi recently commented, speaking tearfully on Radio Djiido.
The army sealed off the island
Bernard Pons was immediately sent to New Caledonia. The island was sealed off, kept under tight army control, and declared “a military zone under close surveillance”. All outside communications were cut off, all reporters present on the island locked up in a shed near the landing strip. Far away from embarrassing witnesses and cameras, the military held one brutal questioning after another to make people talk and locate the place where the hostages had been taken. Once the spot had been discovered, Captain Philippe Legorjus who commanded the GIGN and tried to negotiate, was held prisoner in the cave himself together with six servicemen and a magistrate. For twelve days, while the wall of silence concealing the state of emergency had surrounded the island, a few inhabitants were allowed – as “tea-carriers" - to take refreshments to the hostage-takers and their prisoners. The hostages were treated well. A dénouement was possible without anyone’s blood being shed. “The hostage-takers were not against a peaceful solution,” the GIGN commandos’ leader explains.
Except that the second round of the presidential election was only a few days ahead. And so the cynicism of the politicians’ game and the three-cushion billiards game between Chirac and Mitterrand was the final play. Not the smallest gesture was made in the direction of the FNLKS, though it was willing to facilitate negotiations with the hostage takers. “We beg the gendarmes’ families, the people of France to forgive us,” Yéweiné Téweiné, FNLKS’s number two in command declared, putting the tragedy down to the “humiliation” and the “contempt” that the Kanak people endured in their own land. Bernard Pons’ only response to this was to reiterate his threat to dissolve the independence movement.
Chirac and Mitterrand authorized the “operation Victor” which proved to be an incredibly violent assault.
Witnesses said that some of the hostage takers were shot down in cold blood while surrendering. And that others, who were wounded but still alive, were allowed to die unattended. Alphonse Dianou, who was merely wounded in the leg following the assault, was found dead after his “transfer”.
The army’s inquiry into the final phase of “operation Victor” ended with Jean-Pierre Chevènement, Minister of Defence, concluding that there had been no “summary executions”, but only “instances of military misconduct” while “some aspects remained unclear” after the evcuation of Alphonse Dianou.
The day after the assault, during a meeting in Clermont-Ferrand, Jacques Chirac shamelessly congratulated himself on the tragic dénouement, which he hoped would be the ultimate argument in his favour in the campaign. “We took action in New Caledonia when it appeared that dialogue and negotiation would have no effect other than jeopardizing the lives of the hostages,” he pointed out. “That is why I assumed full responsibility for this successful operation.” The Left and anti-colonialist camp were divided between amazement, compounded with grief and anger. L’Humanité’s boss, Roland Leroy, dubbed it a “colonialist operation” on Antenne 2 (a public TV channel): “The government’s gunboat diplomacy does little for France’s reputation,” he added.
“It is my wish that the government pursue the appeasement and dialogue the situation requires,” François Mitterrand declared after being re-elected president, as the families buried their dead in Ouvéa. The Caledonian question was to be entrusted to Michel Rocard, the prime minister, whose conviction it was that “de-colonization could be achieved within the Republic”.
At a time when the territory was on the verge of civil war, and a mission for dialogue, conducted by Christian Blanc, a préfet, had reached its end, discussions started between Jean-Marie Tjibaou and Jacques Lafleur (the white settlers’ RPCR leader) in the prime minister’s Matignon offices in Paris. Ouvéa’s toll of nineteen dead carried much weight in the negotiations that led to the Matignon Accords on June 26, which the two leaders concluded by a symbolic handshake.
One year later, Jean-Marie Tjibaou and Yeweiné Téweiné were murdered in Ouvéa by an independence fighter as they were taking part in a ceremony in memory of the nineteen Kanak killed on May 5, 1988. The new tragedy deeply affected the island’s population, and only aggravated the silent suffering into which it had already retreated.
A frail civil peace
As for the memory of all these dead — some sort of civil peace has been erected over the last twenty years, whose fragile balance is underwritten by the Nouméa Accord concluded ten years after the Matignon Accords. The Accord acknowledges the damage suffered by the Kanak people as a result of colonization, paves the way for the territory’s “full sovereignty”, and calls for the holding of a referendum whereby the territory can determine its own future from 2014 onwards.
In the twenty years since the Ouvéa tragedy, much headway has been made. The pro-independence FNLKS party takes part in the management and government of New Caledonia. But a repressive tendency is reasserting itself in the face of the social unrest that accompanies the economic development of a country where natural resources abound. Economic inequality between the North and South of Grande Terre (the largest island) persists, though its reduction was one of the aims listed in the Nouméa Accord. “A balance has been struck as concerns Kanak participation in the institutions,” Rock Wamytan, a former president of the FLNKS, explains. “But as concerns local government, vocational training, or jobs, the Kanak are still marginalized.”
This pro-independence leader is against concluding a third Accord, as some militants recommend; yet he believes that the status quo is unacceptable. “New Caledonia is still on the UN list of ‘non-self-governing territories’, " he insists. "We know that we cannot gain independence without a political struggle. But in any case, the only viable prospect is the referendum of self-determination.”