Picking up the pieces in Ruatoki

Ruatoki has a long history of resistance to authority. But when she visits Kim Knight discovers they feel more violated than rebellious.

Ruatoki is the end of the line. Tar seal gives way to gravel, then the river. The valley narrows and the hills close in. No cellphone reception in front; bone thin dogs and kids on horseback behind.

Every home here has been issued with a photocopied pamphlet: Dealing with Police. Know your rights. "If police are hassling you and they haven't arrested you and aren't asking your name, date of birth and address, just walk away and say nothing."

Next time, say the people of Ruatoki, they'll know what to do.

On October 15, armed police locked down this eastern Bay of Plenty valley. They searched every vehicle going in and out and photographed occupants holding pieces of A4 paper with blue felt-penned numbers.

It was 6am when Kathleen Taipeti looked out her window and saw three officers wearing balaclavas. One was pointing a gun, one held an axe, "and the other held something that looked like a baseball bat".

A helicopter circled overhead. Within hours, the media was reporting terrorist training camps and speculating on the explosion of napalm bombs.

But in the end at Ruatoki, just four dwellings (including one workplace), and three "non-dwellings" were raided. Of those taken away for questioning by police (and locals believe that was up to five people), only two were charged. In a community of up to 600 residents, that's a lot of ordinary people left picking up the pieces.

"We were very fearful," says Patrick McGarvey, 31. "A lot of people were wondering who was next. I know that sounds like something you only see on TV, but that's how we felt.

"There were houses in Auckland and Wellington that were raided, but they didn't have their communities shut off. We were treated like the whole community were criminals."

McGarvey is chairman of Te Roopu Tawharau a title that encompasses words like umbrella, protection and shelter. It was set up after the raids to co-ordinate fundraising, welfare, counselling, legal assistance and wider communication.

If the police thought Ruatoki was organised before October 15, they should see it now. "We only have to look behind us, to see what's in front of us," says McGarvey.

To come from Ruatoki is to be Tuhoe. It is the tribe who, for longer than any other iwi, stayed out of the reach of colonial control and British cultural influence. There are flags and signs at the borders: liberators, not terrorists. The police set up roadblocks on what is known as the "confiscation line", the area the ancestors of the people who still live here were forced behind when surveyors cut up the land.

In the late 1800s, Tikirau Ata's kuia spent a year in Mt Eden jail for protesting that action. "Stolen" says the faded white paint on the only road into the valley.

On the morning of October 15, Ata ate porridge for breakfast and drank green tea. He drove to the old Anglican mission on the hill that overlooks the town ready to start work at Hauroa Tuhoe, the agency that organises community housing, youth and health initiatives. Tame Iti's desk is just three seats from his.

"All of a sudden the phone rang and they said, `Hey, we've got a road block here."'

Ata thought there might have been an accident. The helicopter, he says, was not close enough to the bush line to indicate a drugs search.

"Half an hour later, I saw a whole swarm of cars coming in." Ata didn't realise he was alone in the rambling old house.

Men came into his office and said, "get out of there... we need you to come out of the building".

"All of a sudden, there were rifles, all pointing. My colleagues had been seized outside and one of them was pinned up against the fence."

Seven people were kept outside the building for three to four hours while police searched inside and underneath. Computer hard drives were removed. Brown paper bag lunches were delivered to police. There was no food for the locals. "I got a bit brassed off," says Ata. "One of my colleagues said, `I don't think they're joking. They might shoot you."'

In another life, Ata was a member of the motorcycle gang, the Filthy Few. He became a building contractor, and has worked with the police as a negotiator during armed offender stand-offs. Three weeks before the raids, he took a call from Iti the Tuhoe activist arrested during the raids: "Bro, I need you to come home, I'm going to retire and it would be great if you could come back."

Ata's wife told him, "Your people need you."

And now? "Some of us used to sit back and just let the day go by... This has created more young leaders. That's something that's come out of this."

The Sunday Star-Times went to Ruatoki in the wake of a visit by Peter Williams QC, barrister Heeni Phillips and private investigator (and former detective inspector) Mike Crawford. The team interviewed around 30 people, investigating the possibility of suing police for their actions on October 15. A letter, outlining complaints, has gone to police commissioner Howard Broad. Friday a week ago, assistant commissioner Rob Pope acknowledged the letter saying, "the complaints you have raised are viewed seriously by police and will involve a level of inquiry before a substantive response can be forwarded". On Friday, a police spokesman said investigations were in early stages and "we do not yet have a timeframe around when we will formally respond to them".

Says Phillips: "The people of New Zealand just don't realise the enormity of what has happened there and the effects on the people, their whole attitude and the effects on the children and their view of the police."

In the living room of the house across the road from Te Rewarewa marae, Kathleen Taipeti's eight-year-old son asked, "Are they going to shoot you, mum?"

The 29-year-old told police she helped Iti run a marae-based youth group and a "hapu wananga".

At her house, they removed seven rifles from a gun cabinet, two boxes of bullets, one camouflage jacket, a diver training manual, a basic scuba certificate and a green balaclava.

"My dad, he owns the rifles and they're all used to go to the bush.

"Just about every household in Ruatoki owns a balaclava to keep our ears warm during our very cold winter months. Sometimes I wear mine when I haven't brushed my hair."

At the roadblock, she says she ducked in shame. "So no one could see me being taken away like a criminal. As I was being driven I cried and wanted my mum and dad to be with me."

Taipeti says she's heard of an eight-year-old boy being thrown to the ground with a gun pointed at his head and later being told to go to the toilet where he was. "One woman was fully strip-searched."

Her children sleep with her now. "I keep teaching them the same thing every night, not that it's working: `Anytime we need help, we go to the police.' And my son says, `but they came into our house with guns'."

Tuhi Ruawai, 47, grew up a stone's throw from his house. He lives in Whakatane, with his partner Centrie Tahere and four children. A day after police swept through Ruatoki, they came to his house with a photograph of his truck, parked in the bush up the valley. It was registered to his 17-year-old son, Tyrone, a Trident High School student who belongs to the local Air Training Corps and wants to join the army.

He says the police "kind of told me I was volunteering to go to the station. I wanted to say no, but I didn't really know what my rights were".

During an interview he estimates lasted only 15 minutes, he was offered a lawyer, "but I didn't know any lawyers, and I didn't really know any of their lawyers. They said they would give me a list if I wanted".

Two guns were taken from the house. Tyrone thinks he last used them in April, to kill possums. He's a tall boy, with a careful voice. Before the raid, he says, he believed police just did their jobs. Now? "I think they went a bit overboard."

Police searched the house before taking Tyrone to the Whakatane station, asking him to wait in the living room with Tahere and his baby brothers.

"I was just in shock," says Tahere. She was allowed to prepare food for her children, "but I got told off for using the breadknife. One of them called out, `What are you doing with that?' I said, `I'm going to cut an apple."'

When she couldn't provide her partner's cellphone number ("Since when has it been a crime to have speed dial?") she says police told her that was suspicious and they would have to search the couple's bedroom.

"I was trying to make jokes, cos, yeah, it was hard... I had the four babies. They're normally really boisterous, but they sat still.

"They started asking, `Are we baddies, mum? Is my daddy a baddie?"'

Two weeks ago, this family were ready to pack up and leave Whakatane. A twitching urban curtain telegraph suspected them of being part of a drugs raid. Tahere heard talk she was a bad mother. They're staying put now, agreeing to front up to media out of a sense of pride and justice.

"Ma te ture te ture ano hei aki," says Ruawai, quoting prophet and resistance leader, Te Kooti. "Pitch the law against the law," he translates.

Last month, when a police officer asked him what that meant, "I reached across and grabbed his pen and said, `Here's my sword mate. I'll beat you with that."'

On the day of the search, Ruawai, who was taken to the Mt Maunganui police station, says he felt "cut off at the knees".

"They said, `We've got your family detained in the house and your son's being taken away for questioning."'

They asked Ruawai senior about his association with Iti. "I said, `He's my cousin."' They asked if he was Tuhoe. "I thought what a stupid bloody question. I looked at him and said, `100% mate."'

Police referred to intercepted conversations between Ruawai and Iti, regarding a container load of AK47 firearms. Ruawai says he was ridiculing Iti. "I shouldn't do that, but I did... of course I was f---ing joking."

Nobody the Star-Times spoke to in Ruatoki believes there were military training camps in Te Urewera. Isaac Nuku, 61, who drove the kohanga reo bus that became the centre of claims police had stormed the vehicle (Nuku confirms one officer searched the bus, after asking its three occupants to disembark), says the community's old people would know if something was going on.

"They would smell it in the air."

Approximately $4000 has been raised to help the people of this town affected by the raids. One woman, who can't be identified because her son was arrested and still has name suppression, has been milking cows from 4am since late October, earning funds to pay for two cattle to be slaughtered to help feed families.

The fallout has spread to the wider Tuhoe community. In Perth, Australia, a couple with the iwi's name on their truck found a note under the windscreen, saying "We don't need your sort over here."

"That's a frightening thing, eh?" says Nuku. "We've got each other to comfort us here, but out of our boundaries, they've got no one."

He's still trying to understand why and what happened.

"Is it because we're Maori and they wanted to use us as guinea pigs to show the people if this crap goes on, this is what'll happen?

"Like that lawyer said, there's no bloody way they'd do that in Remuera."

Sunday Star Times