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21 August 1997 Edition

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Appeal from Ogoni hunger strikers

By Robert Allen

The Ogoni 20, who are to end their 10 day hunger strike today (Thursday), have issued a message to the world: ``We want all mankind to demand and question the moral, ethical, political and legal grounds for our continuous sufferings - for we are now as good as dead and at best living and walking corpses - and to demand, fight and enforce our freedom. If mankind falters we perish.''

When they announced their hunger strike at least 25 people in Port Harcourt - where the 20 are imprisoned - joined them in solidarity as the call went out for others around the world to do the same, even if only for a day.

In 1995, author and Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed along with eight of his colleagues - their only crime the exposure of Shell Oil's role in the destruction of their homeland, the dismantling of their communities, and the death of more than 2,000 of their brothers and sisters.

The Ogoni 20 are supposedly being held in connection with the murders of four Ogoni chiefs in Giokoo on 21 June 1994. One of the 20 was arrested in May 1994, before the crime. The last arrest was in November 1996. One of those incarcerated, Clement Tusima, died in custody in August 1995 as a result of repeated beatings to his head which fatally damaged his brain, and two others have been released, reportedly after their employers exerted pressure on the Nigerian authorities.

Each of of the 20 has a story of the inhuman tortures they are suffering at the hands of the Nigerian military. Stories of needles thrust into their penis during their interrogations; of being hanged by the wrists to the roof tops and flogged with electric cables. The men are kept in severely overcrowded cells, each with dozens of prisoners. All must sleep on the floor. Torture, denial of medical care, starvation and poor sanitary conditions are all listed as complaints. All are in poor health.

Robert Azibaola, lawyer for the Ogoni 20 and President of the Niger-Delta Human and Environmental Rescue Organization (ND-HERO), has managed to get into Port Harcourt gaol. ``Nyieda Nasikpo had just been released from the dark room the other day. The dark room is a prison within prison, serving as punishment within punishment. In this room, communications within the prisons and other inmates is totally severed and the detainee is locked perpetually with 24 hours total darkness in a 3 x 3 feet cell at the pleasure of the authorized person,'' said Azibaola, whose own trial on charges of obstructing justice simply for trying to allow journalists to photograph the 20 began last week.

Last Friday, halfway through the hunger strike, one of the Ogoni 20 collapsed.

Bougainville resists mining exploitation

In the South Pacific the islanders of Bougainville have created for themselves an autonomous, sustainable, low-impact society based on mutual aid, co-operation and bioregionalism but they have paid a heavy price for this eco-utopia.

Since 1966, when Conzinc Rio Tinto (CRA) - the Australian subsidiary of the British mining corporate Rio Tinto Zinc (RTZ) - forced the indigenous population off their land to begin excavation of what would become the largest copper mine in the world, the Bougainville islanders have resisted the development which has destroyed their lives and in three decades left more than 10,000 dead.

Their resistance began the day CRA/RTZ tried to move in. The islanders stood on the beaches and refused to allow the miners to come ashore, fearing rightly that their traditional way of life would be destroyed by the mine. Their protests about the damage the operation of the mine would do to their health, their livelihoods and their environment were ignored.

Realising that change would be impossible without radical action, in November 1988 a small group of committed islanders broke into the mine, stole explosives from the company stores, and blew RTZ's ``jewel in the crown'' to Kingdom-come. The Papua New Guinea (PNG) government, with the backing of its old colonial masters Australia, responded with riot police and then the army in an attempt to reopen the mine. The islanders responded in kind, declaring independence and forming the Bougainville Revolutionary Army to protect themselves.

The PNG government gave its so-called Defence Force carte blanche to destroy Bougainville villages and to subject its people to the worst human rights abuses - summary executions, indiscriminate killings, rape and torture. Those unable to defend themselves have been herded into ``care-centres'' where many have died from malnutrition and preventable diseases. A blockade was imposed by the PNG government to force the islanders to submit but it has had the opposite effect.

Despite these inhuman hardships the Bougainville islanders have begun to rebuild their society. They grow their food needs and have done without money by relying on mutual-aid and co-operation. And they have fought back against the PNG military. Using antiquated and home-made guns (made from wood and recycled piping from the mine) and sling-shots plus distilled coconut oil to power the few vehicles in their possession they have resisted the corporate power of RTZ and the military might of PNG and its Australian allies.

``Bougainville is a tropical island, a breeding ground for countless diseases,'' Martin Miriori of the Bougainville Interim Peace Office said last year as the PNG geared itself for a full-scale military onslaught on the island. ``To deny the people medical supplies is to condemn thousands of civilians to death. The blockade is a form of germ warfare. It is highly illegal and inhumane.''

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