By GYNNIE KERO
Everyone has their own beautiful little stories to tell of the great Papa, late Sir Michael Somare.
Got a few of my own, in my line of work as a journalist.
This is one of them.
It was one of those December afternoons in 2017.
I was assigned to cover Sir Michael Somare’s farewell at the Jackson International Airport.
Little did I know that few of my colleagues were traveling on that government-chartered flight to Wewak as part of the farewell programme.
The official programme was yet to commence. A quick glance around the charter terminal and I saw Sir Michael and Lady Veronica sitting comfortably at the far end.
I stood at the corner and waited for others to chat and leave before I could greet them.
Sir Michael realising who the slim familiar figure was he gave his usual smile.
“Bai yu go lusim mi lo ples? (Are you going to go leave me in Wewak?),” he inquired.
I responded: “Sir, nogat. I don’t have a ticket so I’ll leave you here (Jackson airport).”
Sir Michael looks over to my good big friend, Rodney Kamus and the Air Niugini staff and indicate that I be given a boarding pass to travel home with him that afternoon.
Just like that. I was on that chartered flight with my notebook and camera.
It was around midday of that Thursday when the aircraft touched down at the Boram tarmac.
The Fokker 70 aircraft was given a wash down on its way to the apron, and the waiting crowd.
A crescendo of cheering and singing filled the air as hundreds waited to welcome him at the Boram Airport in Wewak.
For the people of East Sepik, this was the man to whom they had given their unabated approval to lead them and be their mouthpiece in politics for nearly a decade. His name is down in history as the first Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea at the attainment of Independence on Sept 16, 1975.
He is also down in history as the longest serving member of parliament so far, having started his political career in 1968 when Australia was still in charge of the affairs of the nation of PNG.
People openly wept, saddened by the fact that this would be the last time that this great man from Karau in Murik Lakes would step down onto Sepik soil as their MP.
Yesterday, his people did a ‘krai march’ around Wewak, East Sepik’s provincial capital. They are preparing to welcome him again to be laid at his final resting place at the Kreer Heights.
Thank you Lady Veronica, Betha, Sana, Arthur, Dulciana and Michael Jnr for sharing your Papa with all of us.
Soldier fondly remembers Sir Michael’s influence, charisma
IT was a bright and sunny morning of June, 1995.
After sailing for almost four days and three nights, the “Ark”, MV Lae Express, finally sailed into the harbour.
Onboard were battle-hardened, weary, stressed out, tired and fatigued but determined men, who depended on the bond and brotherhood they had fostered when graduating into the military from various backgrounds and walks of life.
Young Lieutenant Wilfred M Toro Jnr had never experienced such bonding, the unique brotherly bond developed based on trust and the saying “I got your back, buddy”.
As the “Ark” sailed in to berth at the docks, Wewak Harbour, a whisper was passed to all on board that a special welcome reception was being organised and a special guest would be welcoming back the party.
Most on board were fathers, husbands, boyfriends and bachelors who had all missed their loved ones, young baby-faced boys who matured into real fighting men.
They couldn’t wait to reunite. To hug and carry their children.
As the soldiers fell in line and got ready to march on that stretch of road from the port to the then Prince Charles Oval, Lieutenant Toro Jnr felt a twinge in his heart.
His eyes swelled with tears.
Word was passed from Rear Commander, Lt Col Willie Janguan that then Governor, Sir Michael Somare would welcome the Second Royal Pacific Island Regiment contingent returning to Wewak from Bougainville.
The Gawi Troopers would be welcomed home by our Papa!
Now retired from active service for almost 13 years, he can vividly recall what happened on that day.
Hailing from Manus and Central, Lt Toro was 22 when he joined the team from Wewak’s Moem Barracks for the Bougainville operation.
“We were finally home after our tour of duty. For me, East Sepik was home. I grew up at Moem Barracks as a teenager while dad served in the army between 1977 and 1980 before moving to Port Moresby.”
In 1988, he returned to East Sepik to attend Passam National High School, leaving again in 1989 only to return in 1992 as a military officer after graduating from the Officer Cadet School at Waiouru, New Zealand as a Second Lieutenant.
“As we marched on, children, mothers and fathers, young and old, boys and girls lined the street leading into and out of the wharf area to welcome the contingent back.
Tears of joy and sadness flowed freely.”
Once on the green field at the oval, the soldiers waited.
The guest of honour arrived in a vehicle which belonged to the Commanding Officer 2RPIR.
Sir Michael was our commander-in-chief, a title conferred to special knights.
The unit was brought to attention to receive its chief.
“I stood tall and proud, braced to receive my Chief and Papa. Making his way onto the stage, he needed support and I noticed age had caught up with him.”
As he attempted the short stairs to the grand stand, Sir Michael lost his balance and almost fell. He put on a brave smile, looked back at the stairs, smiled.
“Under my helmet, I watched and admired this great icon.
He wasn’t going to let anything or anyone deter him, let alone a near fall situation. He was focused and didn’t want to be distracted.”
It was Sir Michael’s day. Just like the day when he mustered independence for this great nation.
“He stood proudly, looking straight over our heads as we accorded him a general salute. He acknowledged by raising his right hand to his chest.”
In his address, Sir Michael said: “I stand here humbled to welcome you all back to your home East Sepik.”
It meant that we may be from Kerema, Highlands, New Guinea Islands, Papua, Mamose, as long as we live at Moem Barracks, we belong to East Sepik.
“I thought to myself how fitting it was, coming from an icon, legend and father of our nation. He knew what patriotism was. United and one. In one accord.”
Lt Toro lost track of Sir Michael for some time due to work commitments. The Bougainville Operation ended in 1998 and he was transferred to the Goldie Training Depot as instructor.
His final close-up encounter with his Chief was in 2000 when the Olympic Torch was passing through PNG and the Goldie River Training Depot was selected to provide the main security escort team.
Lt Toro was appointed as the escort commander supported by men from the McGregor Barracks.
The event began at Laloki High School at 17-Mile all the way to the Sir John Guise Stadium.
“This part remains a treasured moment for me. I met all the knights of PNG: Sir Paulias Matane, Sir Mekere Morauta and my Chief and Papa, Sir Michael Somare.
“I remember him smiling as he received the Olympic Torch, lifted it into the air and turned around to show he had received the torch and would deliver it, much to the applause and cheers of those around. I walked slowly beside him panting.
Walking beside the Chief was an important occasion and I had to be at my best. I had met my Chief in person close-up, my last and final one.”
When Lt Toro heard that his Chief was sick, he said a quiet prayer, asking God that His will be done.
“Then on Friday morning, I woke up to posts announcing his peaceful passing at midnight. A sense of sadness grew inside me. I sat quietly and recalled this actual events and how nature allowed for our paths to cross.
“Papa, Sir Michael, you have left shoes too big to be filled. No one can or will live up to what you did.
“To Lady Veronica, mama, thank you for been always there from day one right behind the Chief in his entire journey. Your unheard whispers of encouragement, the workings of your untiring hands, your never deterred eyes and thoughts but most importantly, your undivided, supporting and loving heart that kept the Chief checked and balanced all the way through to his last days.
“Seeing you sitting faithfully right beside Papa’s bed on your wheelchair holding his hand speaks volumes for your undivided love and support to the one you promised: “Till death do us part.”
To the children Bertha, Sana, Arthur, Dulciana and Junior, you cannot be Chief and Papa but you can live the legacy by living the life he wished for you in the efforts he put in to gain independence for all of us.
Let us all live the principles he taught us, you his children and us, your country men, to make him proud as he continues to watch over us from yonder.”
He also thanked the people of East Sepik for sharing their clansman, tribesman, grandfather, father, uncle, son and leader with the people of Papua New Guinea for the past 40 years.
“Africa had Nelson Mandela, Russia had Lenin, China had Mao Tse Tung, Fiji had Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and Papua New Guinea had Grand Chief Sir Michael Thomas Somare. RIP Commander, you have done your final duty.”
“ My people of East Sepik made the transition to self-government possible through their complete and generational trust in my leadership.” – Sir Michael