Pacific Media Watch

7 May 2018

NEW CALEDONIA: 30 years on from the Ouvéa Island cave massacre

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The coffins of the 19 dead Kanak militants ... some allegedly tortured to death - in the wake of the Ouvea massacre that ended a two-week cave siege in 1988. Image: Remy Moyen/AFP/ archive

SPECIAL REPORT: By Max Uechtritz
OUVEA, New Caledonia (Asia Pacific Report/Linked-in/Pacific Media Watch): On Saturday, 30 years ago in 1988, I smelled death for the first time – literally.

A sickening, almost suffocating, stench assaulted my nostrils in a dank cave where 21 men – 19 Kanak militants and two French military – had been killed the previous day in what lives on infamously as the “Ouvéa Island massacre” in New Caledonia.

Our feet sunk deep into the loose layer of moist loam the gendarmes had shovelled from the jungle outside onto the cave floor to cover the blood and waste of the dead.

On what we trod it was impossible to know. I dry retched.

My ABC cameraman Alain Antoine, sound recordist Stewart Palmer and I were the very first of the first group of journalists to be allowed inside the Gossannah cave complex on Ouvéa where the Kanaks had died in an assault by French Special Forces.

We’d been flown from the capital Nouméa in a French military helicopter. As we’d scrambled onto the Ouvéa tarmac we bumped into a giant Kanak prisoner sporting red shorts, yellow T shirt and manacles being led the other way by French military (pictured below).

A few days earlier on the main island I experienced for the first of many times in my career the shock of having a cocked, loaded gun pointed at me. We’d happened upon the helicopter evacuation of a French officer wounded in an ambush. He later died.

Not worth shooting
A frightened, angry adrenalin-charged soldier raced up to our car screaming and pointing his automatic weapon before being calmed by a superior who chose to believe we were civilian journalists, not rebels and not worth shooting.

They were tense days.

The Ouvéa event is still cloaked in controversy (French President Emmanuel Macron visited Ouvéa on Saturday for the 30th anniversary but, under pressure from families of the dead, refrained from laying a wreath at the graves of the 19 Kanaks).

The action and its context is described by Pacific author David Robie in Pacific Journalism Review (2012, pp. 214-215).

Max Uechtritz is managing director of Kundu Productions Pty Ltd and is republished by Asia Pacific Report with permission. Photos thanks to France TV Outre-Mer and

Go to Asia Pacific Report for the full story

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