Today is the 27th anniversary of the 1985 bombing of the Rainbow Warrior by French secret service agents here in Auckland harbour. That is a long time ago now, but every year at this time I am reminded in crystal clear detail of the day and the times, and of Fernando.
I’m reminded of what happened to New Zealand and to Greenpeace and of how important what happened then is still today.
I was on the Warrior as we sailed into Auckland on July 7th. It was a bitterly cold winter day but we were welcomed by lots of boats out on the water. Many of which were from the Peace Squadron, a group of people that took to the water and protested every time a nuclear powered or armed ship sailed into our waters.
This time they were welcoming one of their own.
I remember very well sailing down the coast during the dark hours before dawn. I was on the 12:00 to 04:00 watch and I could smell New Zealand before I could see it. I was coming home after being away for seven years and I was also coming home as part of Greenpeace which was a much smaller organisation then it is now - but just as determined.
Some of what happened in 1985 to the Warrior has made the organisation what it is today and I am not talking about the money people donated to get us back on the water.
The Rainbow Warrior was on an anti-nuclear campaign in the region which had included assisting the 360 members of the Rongelap community to relocate away from their home island in the Marshall Islands in the North Pacific to escape contamination from a round of US nuclear testing some years earlier. We had visited Kiribati and Vanuatu - two countries that were fighting to prevent Japan from dumping its radioactive waste from its nuclear power plants into the Marianna Trench - a very deep part of the North Pacific ocean. That's what countries with nuclear power plants did back then with their nuclear waste, they put it into 40 gallon drums set it in concrete, took it out to sea and kicked it over the side. Problem solved, out of sight out of mind.
We were in NZ for two weeks to resupply and then planned to head east to Moruroa in French Polynesia, where the French were doing their nuclear testing. Our plan was to stop the tests together with a flotilla of boats from NZ. Sailing to Mororoa from NZ was no small task in the middle of winter against the prevailing winds. It's about a month of uncomfortable sailing for many boats and that’s just getting there. Many people were taking time off work, leaving their families and planning on being away for months on end. But that was the strength of feeling about the nuclear threat in NZ and the whole region.
It would eventually result in a Nuclear Free South Pacific and a Nuclear Free NZ - and what happened to the Rainbow Warrior in NZ on that cold night 27 years ago played a very significant role in getting us there.
The French Government had sanctioned a secret service team who came by boat with the explosives and by plane intent on making sure that the Rainbow Warrior never left NZ. In the middle of the night divers put two bombs underwater on the side of the ship and without warning, whilst people slept, they exploded. The blasts sank the boat in four minutes and killed Fernando Pereira our photographer.
It’s quite a story - of how two of the oddly incompetent French spies were then caught, and the plot by the French Government exposed. How small time NZ and its persistent police force managed to apprehend two French secret service agents and raise the Warrior sunk at its berth in the middle of a busy harbour.
It outraged NZ and it shocked the world. It preoccupied the evening news, the morning news bulletins, and the front pages for months. It took over our lives and it taught us some valuable lessons along the way.
It was a terrible shock to all of us on board and all of us in Greenpeace. Our French office was also forced to close due to threats of violence against it but the biggest loss was Fernando. A boat can be replaced, although the Warrior had come to be a lot more than just a hull, some wooden decks and sailing rig. It was a terrible shock for NZ as well, realising how an ally, a friendly country, could do such a thing.
It brought Greenpeace and NZ's history together because it didn't just happen to Greenpeace, it happened to the nation too. In the days and weeks after the bombing, the Greenpeace office was filled with donations from people, not just of money but sleeping bags, clothes, food, dental appointments, houses for the crew to stay in - you name it. Newmans, the car rental company that had hired the van that the French agents had travelled in and ultimately were caught in, gave Greenpeace the use of two rental cars for many months.
It was clear that the French Government did not understand why Greenpeace was successful if it thought that violence was the way to silence us.
After the bombing we discovered that we had had one of the French spies working in our Auckland office as a volunteer for months prior to the Warrior's arrival gathering information and passing it on. It would have been easy for Greenpeace to have become a closed and paranoid organisation, no longer accepting volunteers and fearful of transparency. But we didn’t. And we didn’t lose sight of our commitment to non-violence and because of that, the French mission failed and indeed only served to make us stronger.
Ultimately it made us ever more committed to non violence as a potent force for positive change. It reconfirmed the wrongness of nuclear testing and nuclear arms as a means to global security. It woke us up to the unexpected dangers of poking the beast. It showed us that we had hit home and that we had to persist.
It did take decades of dogged persistence to end to nuclear testing and it took many of us across many countries and organisations working together.
We learned a lesson that is very relevant today as we take on the international oil giants hell bent on risking everything to drill for oil in the Arctic and in the deep waters of New Zealand.
Remembering and telling our history is important, not only because makes us cry and laugh but also because it helps us remember and it inspires us to keep going.