Precious few heroes emerged during the chaos of the 2000 crisis in Fiji.
A bunch of armed, mutinous, Special Forces soldiers, incited by shadowy alleged plotters, surrounded by opportunists and grievously manipulated villagers, fronted by a charismatic, rather wild-eyed, garrulous character named George Speight, himself a kai Loma (of mixed Fijian-European descent), charged into Fiji’s Parliament on May 19, 2000. They declared a “people’s coup” against the Labour Party Coalition Government led by Fiji’s first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry. The coup was supposedly to protect Indigenous Fijian rights from an alleged land and political grab by the Indo-Fijians.
In downtown Suva, mayhem erupted, with widespread looting and arson as mobs rampaged around the town, often targeting Indo-Fijian businesses, helping themselves to anything they could steal in the chaos.
The police and military were powerless to prevent Fiji’s third, and most violent, coup.
For the next 56 days, Speight and his gang held Chaudhry and 30 other politicians, including several Indigenous Fijians, hostage in the Parliament complex.
Navigating this fraught and exceptionally dangerous mess was the Director General of the Fiji Red Cross, John Scott.
As he and his staff carried out the organisation’s strictly neutral mission to provide aid and comfort to all in distress, pictures of Scott wearing his Red Cross tabard and walking into and out of Parliament surrounded by armed thugs, were published worldwide. The hostages called him “an angel” and he joked about feeling around underneath his tabard for his wings. Books and articles published after the crisis all paid ample testimony to Scott’s courage and work.
Just when the situation seemed to have stabilised, on 2 November, 2000, soldiers from the then disbanded Counter Revolutionary Warfare unit, Fiji’s SAS, some of whom had supported the Speight-fronted putsch and were in detention at the military headquarters in Northern Suva awaiting trial, escaped. Getting weapons, they rampaged around the camp with the intention of killing military commander, Commodore Vorque (Frank) Bainimarama, who they blamed for the failure of the 2000 coup.
The fortuitous return to barracks by the Third Fiji Military Regiment — generally regarded as the most professional in the Fiji military — assisted loyalists as they put down the mutiny.
Bainimarama was hurried away from the shooting in a narrow escape. When the shooting ceased, the surviving rebels captured and the camp secured, the bodies of several rebels were delivered to the Colonial War Memorial Hospital and Suva’s morgue. They bore clear signs of having been beaten to death after capture.
John Scott saw some of those bodies, later giving rise to rumors he knew more about the killings than he let on. When some of the coup perpetrators finally got to court, Scott declined to be a prosecution witness, saying that doing so would compromise his organisation’s neutrality.
This gives the barest overview of the context in which John Scott became known outside Fiji. After the 2000 crisis he once more slipped away from world attention as the country groped to recover from and understand its latest self-inflicted wounds.
That is until early on July 1, 2001, when John Scott and his long term partner, New Zealander Greg Scrivener, were murdered at their Suva home.
On Fiji TV News that night, Police Commissioner Isikia Savua growled that Scott and his partner’s lifestyle had played a part in the murder. They had it coming, he clearly implied. I was appalled to listen to Savua darkly opine on the motives of the then still unapprehended murderer. Furthermore, Savua’s role, or lack of it, in the mayhem the previous year raised many still unanswered questions about where his loyalties might really lie.
The Fiji media, often eager to report every grisly detail of crime in that very violent society, all but salivated over the story. Much overseas reportage was also seriously deficient, seizing on rumors and police innuendo about porn videos, drugs, implied pedophilia, and wild parties.
In London, John Scott’s younger brother, Owen was taking phone calls from Fiji and New Zealand, trying to comfort John Scott’s young adult son, Piers. Both were struggling, and largely failing, to make their own sense of what had apparently occurred. They travelled to Fiji to bury John, to finalise his affairs, and to seek some answers.
It was later found that the man who confessed to the murders, a young gay Fijian man named Apete Kaisau, was insane when he committed the deed. It was thus impossible to deliver a guilty verdict. Loose ends — like the fact that Kaisau knew both Scott and Scrivener well — were tied up. With the murderer found to be guilty but insane, questions raised by the prosecution about increasing homophobia encouraged by Fiji’s growing Pentecostal churches could also be sidestepped. End of story.
How convenient for almost everybody associated with the case. Except Owen and Piers Scott, Greg Scrivener’s family, their friends, Red Cross supporters, and those seeking justice for this awful crime.
Making reliable sense of almost anything to do with Fiji is decidedly difficult because Fijian affairs are often as murky as a bowl of yangona (kava), and the place often seems to run on rumours: from the genuinely fantastic, through variously implausible, to the occasionally accurate.
Eventually, Owen Scott wrote Deep Beyond the Reef, a memoir of his family’s life in Fiji over four generations — the Scotts are a very high profile kai Vulagi (European-Fijian) family whose forebears were Methodist missionaries — and an account of the life and death of John Scott. Deep Beyond the Reef is the basis for Annie Goldson’s documentary, An Island Calling.
In An Island Calling, Owen Scott acts as both narrator and stable point of reference. The context for the murders — familial, historical and political — places the complex stories of Owen Scott and his late brother into a coherent narrative. Significantly, the documentary also makes an important contribution to Vulagi (outsider, Westerner) understanding of a major but neglected feature of contemporary Fijian life: the continuing role and influence of so-called fundamentalist or Pentecostal sects and their pastors.
Taking the King’s Road from Nausori into Suva, one passes large warehouses which are obviously supermarkets, next to which stand churches of the same — or even larger — size, which are used by several Pentecostal sects. On Sundays, when at least two services take place, the churches are packed to overflowing. Down at the National Stadium near the University of the South Pacific, Sunday crowds gather to fill the place and be bellowed at by a steadily more hysterical Fijian preacher. When Benny Hinn, whose tele-evangelism Fiji TV routinely broadcasts (along with offerings from Australia’s Hillsong), visited Fiji in January 2006, the National Stadium was packed for three nights.
The long established Fiji Methodist Church is still the largest mainstream Christian denomination in Fiji. The Methodists, however, are struggling to keep their market share against predations from the newer, more entertaining, imports. Almost all churches in Fiji prey on their adherents, expecting, demanding, and receiving major collections and additional donations, to the point where church “obligations”, coupled with expected vanua (village) obligations, are a significant contributor to the country’s growing poverty.
The influence of homophobic, Pentecostal churches and pastors on already disturbed minds such as Apete Kaisau’s — who, in his more rational moments, explained his actions by reference to his pastor’s teachings — can produce lethal outcomes. His Bible, seized as part of the prosecution’s evidence, was annotated with underlining and scribblings about God’s terrible wrath to be visited upon licentious sodomites.
Throughout An Island Calling, we meet members of Suva’s small openly gay community. Often persecuted, they point to the layered hypocrisies that burden Fijian society. They have very clear ideas about why John Scott and his partner were murdered and about what polluted the official investigations and public reactions. Police Commissioner Isikia Savua’s insinuations about Scott and Scrivener’s "lifestyle" broadcast on the news after the murders feature in the film. They were typical, An Island Calling suggests, of a burgeoning homophobia in the country.
Maybe, as Owen Scott suggests, his brother and Greg Scrivener made an ultimately fatal decision to return to Fiji and live their lives as an openly gay couple with an open relationship while John led the Red Cross, on the mistaken assumption that Fiji had not significantly changed since he grew up there.
Or perhaps the influence of Pentecostal preaching is over-emphasised and John Scott and his partner would have been murdered anyway, such was the state of their killer’s delusions. Kaisau was apparently part of John Scott and Greg Scrivener’s gay circle until spurned by Scrivener, a casting out which preyed on his mind while in New Zealand until a few weeks prior to the murders.
The most powerful scenes in An Island Calling are when Owen visits Kaisau’s village. Colo-i-Suva is located north west of Suva; one drives past it on the hilly route into town from Suva’s airport. A rain forested retreat, it’s a cooler respite from the sometimes stifling humidity around the city and Suva harbour. Kaisau’s family and church welcome Owen into their midst, offering some sort of explanation for their son’s terrible act. After the long postponed trial, Owen and his family tentatively, warily, and finally sadly embrace the Kaisau family.
Once you’ve deeply experienced Fiji it gets into you, under your skin, and you’re never the same — even though you know a murky nastiness lurks just beneath the surface. An Island Calling doesn’t offer any equivocal answers about the deaths of John Scott and Greg Scrivener. It does, however, deepen our understanding of the fraught and still traumatised society in which they lived.
An Island Calling is screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival, which opens tomorrow night. Watch a clip here
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