Our Heart Is on Banaba: Stories From “The Forgotten People of the Pacific”

“Our heart is in Banaba, not in Fiji,” says Burentau Tabunawati, 76, pictured on the left with his wife Toanigeri, 69. Image by Janice Cantieri.

“Our heart is in Banaba, not in Fiji,” Burentau Tabunawati explained, sitting cross-legged in his home in the Fiji capital, Suva City. “I am 76 years old, but still, in my mind and in my heart, I am on Ocean Island.”

Tabunawati was born on Banaba, also known as Ocean Island, a coral island once rich in phosphate deposits in the central Pacific. But like many Banabans, he’s spent decades living in Fiji. That’s because Tabunawati, along with the entire population of Banaba Island, was displaced during World War II.

After the war, many Banabans thought they would be able to return to their homeland. Instead, they were relocated to Fiji in 1945. Decades later, the Banabans remain a displaced people, who will commemorate the 70th anniversary of their displacement in December with a week-long celebration on Fiji’s Rabi Island.

Over the coming months I’ll be interviewing Banabans about the history of their displacement and its impact on their sense of community, culture, and identity. I’ll be talking with elders like Tabunawati who remember Banaba, but also to the nearly four generations of Banabans who have grown up in Fiji, more than 1,000 miles from their ancestral homeland.

A Little-Known Story

The Banabans refer to themselves as the “Forgotten People of the Pacific,” and their story combines war, internment, colonization, forced displacement, and global demand for phosphate, used to produce fertilizer and industrial chemicals.

The British annexed Banaba into their then-colony, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, in 1900. (These thirty-three islands, including Banaba, are now the independent Republic of Kiribati.) That year, the the Pacific Phosphate Company, later purchased by the British Phosphate Commission, began mining the island after signing mining leases on Banaba for the next 999 years.

Between 1942 and 1945, Japanese forces occupied the island and divided the Banaban community, sending them to internment camps on Nauru Island; Kosrae, now part of the Federated States of Micronesia; and Tarawa, now in the Republic of Kiribati.

Tetiro Noere, 78, has spent nearly 70 years in Fiji. She still recalls what it was like for the Banabans during the Japanese occupation, and says that many of the Banaban people died from starvation or were tortured and killed by Japanese troops.

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Tetiro Noere, 78, who was taken from Banaba to a Japanese internment camp on Nauru Island during World War II. Before her family could return to Banaba, the British Phosphate Commission relocated them to Rabi Island in Fiji. Image by Janice Cantieri.

During the war, Noere and her family were taken to the internment camp on Nauru Island, where they faced extremely difficult living conditions.

“There was no food. There were no shops, we had to survive by ourselves,” she says. “We were getting our food from the pumpkins and the small amount of plants that grew on the island, but our hair was falling out because of what we ate.”

Noere and her family survived as best they could while the fighting continued. After the war, Noere and her family, like many Banabans, thought they would finally be able to return to their home on Banaba.

But the British Phosphate Commission commenced phosphate mining on Banaba as soon as the war ended. And instead of returning the community to their homeland, the colonial government gathered the Banabans on Tarawa, where they tried to convince the elders to move to Fiji with promises of food and housing.

Despite the promises, the Banaban elders, who made the decisions for the community, were still reluctant to go. Ted Otiong, 79, was just a boy when the commission proposed relocating the community to Fiji, but he remembers that everyone, especially the Banaban elders, were very upset.

“We were put into what was like a refugee camp [on Tarawa]; we all stayed together,” he says. “We were shown beautiful houses in Fiji and told that the coconuts grew large there, but nothing could convince our elders to decide to go to Fiji. The British government told us we had to leave, and that there was no boat back to Banaba, only to Rabi in Fiji.”

 

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Ted Otiong, 79, and his wife Tebwebwe. Image by Janice Cantieri.

A Forced Relocation

On December 15th, 1945, the colonial government relocated the entire community to Rabi Island. The Banabans were left in army tents in the middle of cyclone season.

“There were no wooden houses, no two stories, nothing. Just a tent,” Tabunawati told me during my visit to his home. “This was how the Europeans treated the Banaban people.”

Many Banabans feel the British Phosphate Commission used the displacement of the island’s population during World War II as an opportunity to expand their mining operations.

The Banabans’ new life on Fiji was difficult, Tabunawati and Otiong recall. The climate in Fiji is much different than on Banaba, so the community had to learn to plant new crops and adjust to life in a completely foreign environment.

“After a few years on the island, we found that life here was very hard, because we were not used to planting cassava, eating banana, or different types of food on Rabi,” Otiong explains. “We really wanted to go back.”

There are now multiple generations of Banabans who have been raised in Fiji, and have still not had the opportunity to return to Banaba. Many of them, especially elders like Otiong, still wish to return to their ancestral homeland—not individually, but as a community.

Returning to the island, however, is too expensive for many families. It’s an especially challenging prospect for Banaban elders, who rely on their children and grandchildren to care for them. And the younger generations have families and responsibilities in Fiji, so a return to the island would be difficult.

Even if the community were to return to Banaba, most of the island was left virtually uninhabitable by the almost eight decades of phosphate extraction. The mining ended in 1979, when most of the phosphate deposits were depleted.

“It’s a very small island, and now most of the island has been mined, it’s like going to the moon,” Otiong says.

But that hasn’t kept many Banaban elders from imagining a return to Ocean Island. “Even if there weren’t any houses left on Banaba, we would still want to go back,” Otiong says. “It’s a sad story, but we can’t help it.”

I’ll be sharing more perspectives from other Banabans, young and old, about their experiences in future posts. But first, I’ll be traveling to Tarawa, Kiribati, to explore a different story of relocation: that of a community facing potential displacement as a result of rising seas associated with climate change.

Wildlife

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Janice Cantieri is a journalist and researcher from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who will be documenting the stories of displacement and adaptation between the Pacific Island nations of Kiribati and Fiji. She will follow the stories of the Banaban Islanders, residents of a phosphate island in Kiribati, who were displaced to Rabi Island in Fiji by the British Phosphate Commission in 1945 and have been separated from their ancestral homeland for the past seventy years. She will also follow the stories of i-Kiribati on the Tarawa Atoll, who are currently facing the possibility of migration and displacement to Fiji and elsewhere in the Pacific as the sea level continues to rise and inundate the low-lying islands, which are only 2-3 meters above sea level. She will be telling the stories of the Kiribati people, their culture and heritage, while also documenting the adaptations, challenges, and innovations they have developed in response to the changes they have faced using a combination of written stories, images, and video.