"Ouvea is everything you'd expect in a South Pacific island. Twenty kilometers of unbroken white sands border lagoon on west side of island and extend far out from shore to give water a turquoise hue. The wide western lagoon, protected by a string of coral islands and a barrier reef, is only of its kind in Loyalties. On ocean side are rocky cliffs, pounded by surf, but fine beaches may be found even here. At one point on this narrow atoll only 450 meters separates two coasts. Traditional circular houses with pointed thatched roofs are still common in villages."
Those words appeared in 1985 edition of my South Pacific Handbook after a visit in 1983. Just over 20 years later I returned to Ouvea to discover that little had changed in this large French colony east of Australia.
Most Ouveans still live in traditional thatched case (houses) and beach is as dazzling as ever. On my first evening there, as I watched red fireball set slowly across lagoon, I felt a strong affinity with my previous visit.
Yet something terrible had happened in my absence. On May 5, 1988, 300 French elite troops stormed a cave near Gossanah in northern Ouvea to rescue 16 gendarmes captured two weeks earlier by Melanesian freedom fighters.
Nineteen Kanaks (the collective name used by indigenous peoples of New Caledonia) died in assault, including several who suffered extrajudicial execution at hands of French police after being wounded and taken prisoner.
None of hostages had been harmed. Thus began one of final chapters of what is now known as evenements (events) of 1980s. Three years earlier independence leader Eloi Machoro had been murdered in cold blood by police snipers as he stood outside a rural farmhouse near La Foa, on New Caledonia's main island, Grand Terre.
By 1987 France had 14,000 troops stationed in its mineral-rich Melanesian colony, one for every five Kanaks. The independence movement was to be crushed one way or another.
When I tried to visit cave at Gossanah on my recent trip, I was told that area was taboo to allow spirits time to rest.
Instead I was permitted to visit grave of Djoubelly Wea in Gossanah and allowed to take pictures of his home. My host on Ouvea told me story. Evidently, hostages had been taken by young Kanak activists from other parts of island, and captive gendarmes were brought to Gossanah only because cave was considered remote.
Residents of area weren't involved. Yet when French police arrived in search of their comrades, they rounded up people of Gossanah and assembled them on a football field in front of village church.
There they were tortured for information, and Wea's father was among those who died of shock. Later 33 Ouveans were sent to prison in France, Djoubelly Wea among them.
These events chastened Kanaks and French alike, and heads of main political parties, Kanak leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou and representative of French settlers Jacques Lafleur, were called to Paris by Prime Minister Michel Rocard to negotiate and eventually sign a peace treaty known as Matignon Accords.
A referendum on independence was promised in 1998, and massive economic aid was to be channeled into Kanak regions. An amnesty was granted to all those arrested during troubles, and no investigation into Ouvea massacre or murders of several dozen other Kanaks by French settlers or troops would be required.
Fast forward to May 1989, as top Kanak leaders Jean-Marie Tjibaou and Yeiwene Yeiwene arrive on Ouvea for a commemorative ceremony exactly one year after massacre.