Soldiers Without Guns documentary charts a journey towards peace

Imagine going into a hostile warzone, without weapons.

That's exactly what confronted New Zealand Defence Force personnel, 21 years ago.

In 1989, Bougainville erupted into what's considered the worst civil war in the Pacific's history, killing thousands of people.

The documentary Soldiers without Guns looks at the unsung heroes of Operation Bel-isi, who, as the title suggests, were sent into a jungle conflict without guns.

The war erupted over the pollution and seizure of land by British-Australian company Rio Tinto, who had built one of the largest copper mines ever seen - Panguna.

Filmmaker Will Watson says the documentary is an emotional rollercoaster, and shows the fight put up by indigenous landowners.

"The film is really a journey into the darkness of war, and then into the light of people, a country, dedicated, risking everything to try and stop it".

Royal New Zealand Navy chief combat system specialist Aaron Pau was part of the first deployment in 1997.

He says people were nervous, and hesitant, as tensions were still high, but we made a commitment to serve our country.

"Sometimes you feel a bit naked when you're not armed and you're going into a gunfight with a guitar - who's going to win?"

The documentary has firsthand accounts of women who fought back rebels, and worked tirelessly to help locals left starving and without healthcare.

Watson's Soldiers Without Guns also pays tribute to Māori culture, which was used by New Zealand negotiators as a way to connect the warring sides, following 14 failed peace talks across the ditch.

"We said how we can help you? They wanted a meeting place to talk. So we brought them to New Zealand and put them on a marae. They had to do a powhiri and promise to come in peace, which they did."

"The moment they did a hongi and actually shared breath with each other, they burst into tears and that was the big icebreaker. Once they had broken down into tears and shared those tears, the whole peace process completely opened up to them."

Pau agrees, saying "we are able to connect with other cultures and countries within the pacific on a different level that others cannot."

Watson believes our decision to empower the women landowners was also a massive step in the right direction, as they were able to get the peace negotiations off the ground.

The project has been a labour of love for Watson, who has spent the past decade putting his vision together, independently, which he admits has been no easy feat.

"I would burst into tears and break down with the frustration of not getting it finished. Banging my head against the wall."

Heavyweights of New Zealand music have also got behind the documentary, with Tiki Taane among those lending a helping hand.

Soldiers Without Guns premieres at The Civic in Auckland on April 5, with plans in place to roll it out nationwide.

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