Communication challenges on atolls

Weekender

By ISAIAH IGISH

“Alfa-Delta – Tango 2”
“Alfa-Delta – Tango 2”
“Alfa-Delta – Tango 2”.
Five minutes gone.

The call over the VHF (very high frequency) radio goes unanswered.
The morning sunrays hit directly at the radio booth. With sweat running down his face, Clement Haramou the radioman (Tango 2) tries calling again.
Another 20 minutes go by – another failed attempt. No response from the receiver – Alfa-Delta.
On the radio, a chattering keeps going between Alfa-Delta and Nuguria (Fead Islands). Still no one’s acknowledging the call from Tango 2.
The problem – Alfa-Delta can’t pickup Tango 2’s broadcast.
Haramou was desperately trying to get in touch with the Atolls District Office (Alfa-Delta) in Buka, North Bougainville.
Without a proper full radio kit, communication out on the atolls of Bougainville is a huge struggle.
The radio men struggle in this challenging situation to ensure communication is maintained between the atoll islands and the headquarters in Buka.
Three men on Carteret Island are beating all odds with their rundown equipment in maintaining communication.
This is the tale of their struggle.
Clement Haramou, John Sailik and Steven Taki are the silent heroes transmitting radio signals from the Carterets to the outside world.
They join forces with their comrades from the Atolls of Bougainville – Nissan, Mortlock, Nuguria (Fead) and Tassman Islands – keeping Buka updated on the latest developments on their respective islands.
Carteret Island is located 57 nautical miles and 30 degrees North-East off Buka Island.
Travel by dinghy to the atoll islands is made easier with the introduction of the Global Positioning System (GPS), including Android and iOS navigational applications (apps). The boats travel the open sea for hours in sometimes risky conditions. Before the introduction of the GPS, skippers used a mere compass to navigate the open sea to reach their destination.
The Bougainville Atoll islands accessible by banana boats are Carterets, Nissan and Nuguria (Fead). Mortlock and Tassman are the furthest out and is only accessible by ship.
Carterets is one of the islands in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville that is hardly hit with the effects of climate change and global warming. Rising sea level has eaten up much of the islands landmass.
Known as the Tulun Islands, the Carteret atoll consists of six islands – Iagain, Iesila, Iolasa, Huene, Han and Piul. The islands sit around the Tulun Lagoon – a huge oval shape coral reef.
Huene is the island split in half due to rising sea level. Sea has already eaten about 50-100 metres of land mass from the other five islands as well.
On Iagain, Haramou plays a vital role in keeping all stakeholders informed on latest information -whether it’s the weather, a ‘post-man’ or any forms of emergencies.
Haramou has been working as a radioman for four-years. He succeeded another islander who retired from the role throughold-age.
In his mid-50s, Haramou is the contact person for Iangain island to the outside world.
His daily tasks, like every other radio man on the atolls, includes frequently updating the provincial disaster office in Buka on weather patterns and/or reports.
“Every morning I have to give an update on the weather pattern to the disaster office in Buka,” says Haramou.
“I also inform the office on the number of boats travelling out of Iagain to Buka. I inform them on the number of passengers on board, the load, the amount of petrol they are travelling with, so in cases of an emergency, the disaster office is on standby.
“The other vital role I play is to be on alert whenever there is a missing boat at sea. I either inform Buka that a boat is lost at sea or I get a message that a boat is lost and I will be on alert for rescue missions.”
Another most vital role Haramou plays is to transmit messages between families living on Carterets to those living outside of the island or vice-versa.
That was where I desperately needed his services.
I was on Iagain, Carterets for three weeks to witness first-hand the effects climate change had on the island.
It was thanks to my buddy Absalom Masono, a Carteret Islander, who made the trip possible. Absalom, a health extension officer (rural doctor), is also an experienced open-sea boat skipper. He has been navigating the Atolls-Buka route for over a decade.
During my second week on Carterets, I needed to make contact with Absalom who was back in Buka. The last boat that left with a message I scribbled to him on a piece of paper, never returned due to strong South-Easterly winds experienced in the month of June as usual.
The only option was using the VHF radio.
The focal point for transmission was the atolls district (Alfa-Delta) administration in Buka.
However, the radio wasn’t functioning at 100 per cent as I’m being told by Haramou.
“They (Alfa-Delta) cannot hear us. But we can hear them,” says Haramou, who goes by the call-sign Tango 2.
I was later informed that the radio didn’t have enough power to boost its broadcast signal.
The radio is powered by a 1000-watt solar panel and is hooked to a 24-volt truck battery (not the required solar battery).
The solar panel provided the power but did little to muscle the radio. It had a weak battery. As a result, the radio’s output was at around 30 per cent. On the receiving end, the human voice turned to zombies chattering with deep echo voices.
The power wasn’t sufficient enough the boost the radio’s transmission, because the battery lived past its service life.
Every message from the Atoll islands to the outside world is transmitted via the atolls district office (Alfa-Delta). Officers at the district then relay the messages to friends and families living in Buka or other provinces in PNG.
If your day isn’t going great, think about the hundreds of messages that the officers need to facilitate from the Atolls –Carterets, Mortlock, Nissan, Nuguria (Fead) and Tassman Islands on a daily basis.
Since Carterets Island and the other Bougainville atolls are isolated in the open Solomon Sea, islanders don’t have the privileges of using a mobile phone for communication.
The Bougainville Atolls, which forms a district in the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) – are scattered islands north east of Buka and mainland Bougainville.
The major struggles experienced by these islanders are transportation and telecommunications services.
With no mobile coverage, the only form of communication to the outside world is via the VHF radio. This traditional form of telecommunication makes the radio operators the most significant personnel on the islands.
When the world has moved on to more advanced platforms of telecommunication using mobile phones, satellite phones or data calls using more sophisticated and advanced applications such as Whatsapp, Viber, Facebook Messenger or Skype to name a few, one would really come to appreciate the existence of a VHF radio in such a disadvantaged location.
Carterets Island is putting AROB and Papua New Guinea on the forefront at international summits for the fight against climate change. The other islands in the Pacific that are facing the same fate are Palau and Tuvalu.
I would answer with a swift YES! if you ask me without uncertainty if the island is sinking. Rising sea level has caused catastrophic disaster to the livelihood of the people.
Sea walls will not stop the island from disappearing completely from the face of this earth come the next century, if we do nothing about it today.
The islanders use the traditional method of communication by passing on word orally to any fisherman who is sailing to another island.
It would take roughly over 40 minutes to island-hop from island to island. The islanders use outrigger canoe sails or dinghy to travel to another island.
Another form of communication used is written notes or letters. Again it is passed through seafarers. This obviously takes time.
The most effective method of communication around the islands and to the outside world is via the VHF radio.
Of the six islands, the radio booths at Iagain and Han are the only two operational. The same cannot be said for the radio booths at Iesila, Iolesa and Piul which are defunct by now. The main reason – lack of service (needing spare parts).
Seventy-six-year-old John Sailik hails from Han. Along with Steven Taki, these two paramount chiefs operate the radio booth at the biggest island on Carterets.
Sailik is a retired teacher. He keeps true to his passion in serving the community by taking on board the role after retirement. He has a long history with the radio life, being the individual who established and operated the radio booth on Han in 1966.
Sailik took up teacher training at the then Catholic Mission established Rigu Teacher Training Centre (Central Bougainville, Arob) in the late 1950s.
In 1960 he was posted to Asitavi Primary School (now St Mary’s Asitavi Secondary School) in Wakunai, Central Bougainville. As a young bloke out of college, the priest at Asitavi engaged Sailik to operate the Catholic mission radio at the station.
In 1966 he was posted to Carterets to establish the Carterets Primary School at Han with two other teachers. He subsequently established the first radio connection out of Carterets Islands.
During the 10-year infamous Bougainville conflict until ‘cease-fire’ in 1997, Sailik took control of the radio communications on the island. He retired from teaching in 2004 and took over as caretaker of the radio with the help of Taki.
The challenge both men face daily in transmitting communication is no different from the other radio operators.
Currently in use, the Han radio booth has three solar panels (3,000 watts), three truck batteries (72 volts) and a Barrett 2050 high frequency transceiver radio (1.6MHz to 30MHz, 125 W PEP) that has a knotty mouthpiece.
The mouthpiece’s faulty terminal needs to be squeezed, tangled, stretched to find the right connection before any communication can begin.
In 2014, PNG Telikom staff in Buka installed a V-Sat disc at the community government office on the island. The accessories included three solar panels and three batteries. The v-sat functioned for about two years and ceased because of lack of maintenance.
Despite all the challenges they face with their equipment and accessories, Sailik and Taki continue to perform their duty with passion.
“The mouthpiece does not stop us from doing our work,” Sailik tells me at the radio booth at Han.
He kept squeezing the radio’s mouthpiece terminal in an attempt to find the right wire to connect.
“The others on the (Atolls radio) channel know. When they hear the radio coming on with no person talking, they know it’s us (Tango 1) trying our best with the connection to broadcast.”
And true to that within a minute, Alfa-Delta acknowledged Sailik’s attempt to connect with: “Tango 1, me save em you. Turangu stretim gut waia na singaut kam (Tango 1, I know it’s you. My dear, fix the connection and transmit).”
In 2016, the radio booth at Han intercepted one crucial call that resulted in the repatriation exercise of four Bougainvilleans rescued at an island in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM).
Six men from Selau in North Bougainville were travelling by boat from Buka to Tinputs when their engine encountered some mechanical fault. They drifted north west for four weeks before being rescued by fishermen at Kapingamarangi in FSM.
On the morning of the second day at sea, the men saw an island (which is believed to be Carterets) floating like a driftwood in the ocean. Two-men jumped overboard attempting to swim to that island. They never made it.
The disaster office in Buka coordinated a search and rescue mission but all attempts failed in rescuing the men.
One afternoon, Sailik was switching channels on the radio to frequencies from Vanuatu and Solomon Islands. He then had a chat with an old friend in Rendova Island on the New Georgia Archipelago, Western Province, in the Solomon Islands.
By now, the six men had been lost for a month.
“I was switching channels when I came across Lloyd. He goes by the call-sign Hotel-4-Whiskey,” Sailik said.
“I haven’t met him in person, but we talk over the radio.
“We had a chat and he told me about four PNG men being rescued at Kapingamarangi in FSM. He knew about our search for the missing boat from Selau so he advised me to check.
“I asked for the frequency and he supplied the information.
“I entered the frequency and called Kapingamarangi (call-sign ‘24 Kapinga’). I asked about the men from PNG and the radio operator confirmed that four men were rescued and were provided medical attention.
“I made contact some days after they had been rescued. Kapingamarangi is an atoll at FSM. A three-day trip by ship to reach the capital – Palikir. So they also had issues communicating with the capital to relay the message to PNG about the survivors.
“I talked to one of the boys who was strong enough to speak. He was so emotional knowing I was talking to him in tokples from home.”
Kapingamarangi is the most southerly atoll of FSM and lies north-west from Bougainville and New Ireland.
The men had drifted 387 nautical miles north west for a month before being rescued.
Sailik then informed the disaster office in Buka who made arrangements with Port Moresby (Disaster and Immigration Departments) in repatriating the survivors back to Papua New Guinea.
This was a highlight of Sailik and Taki’s radiomen career. They have also been engaged in some rescue missions locally.
These are achievements which boost them to walk with heads held high knowing they have contributed to the piece of the pie in ensuring survivors are reunited with their families.
Despite these accomplishments, these radiomen still face daily challenges operating without proper equipment. But with the grind being at heart, these radiomen do it for their community.
On Han, the radio booth needs a cabinet, stationeries and a logbook to report weather and other daily occurrence to name a few.
Some of these radio men from the atolls have not received their allowances since 2016. Despite this setback, they still serve their people with gratitude.
The VHF radios on Iesila, Iolesa and Piul need service and spare parts.
Clement Haramou uses an old radio which has been salvaged from a wrecked fishing boat. With burning passion for this work, he operates with what he has on hand.
On days when he cannot get direct contact with Alfa-Delta in Buka, Tango 2 piggybacks on other radio operators to relay his messages.
As was the case for my message, Haramou used his colleague from Nuguria (Fead) as focal point to communicate with Alfa-Delta.
Haramou (Tango 2) could hear Alfa-Delta. Alfa-Delta couldn’t hear Tango 2. Nuguria (Fead) was transmitting with Alfa-Delta and can hear Tango 2 as well.
Through triangulation or third party communication, piggybacking (three-way communication) is a norm while communicating via radio in the Bougainville Atolls.
Whenever the radio equipment is repaired or new set of radio is acquired, these radio men will still struggle daily with the remnants they have.
With dire passion for maintaining communication in keeping families and communities informed, they’ve never shown signs of backing down.
They are true silent heroes.
Keep those communications running, gentlemen!

  • Isaiah Igish is a freelance journalist.

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