Caught in the Pacific crossfire

By Julie Middleton

French semi-professional rugby player Laurent Vili has no idea where he will be living next Saturday.

With luck, he will be sunning himself with friends and family in his native New Caledonia.

Or he could be in the grim confines of Noumea's prison, Camp Est, facing a long stretch.

Vili, 31, a cousin of Auckland discus thrower Bertrand Vili and his champion shot-putter wife, Valerie, appears in court in the French territory's capital on Monday.

There, he says, "I have to play the most important match of my life."

Vili, whose heritage lies in the Pacific French territory of Wallis and Futuna, is charged with the murder of a Melanesian man in a fracas that saw a community which originally welcomed the migrants 50 years ago using bullets and arson to drive them out - while police stood by.

The charge has taken six years to get to court and has become more than a murder case.

The stocky prop is one of New Caledonia's most well-known murder accused - or an innocent state scapegoat, according to supporters, who have set up a website at http://vililaurent.free.fr/

Says Vili: "The most stupefying thing in all this is the state's abandonment of us, the state which knew what was going on and let it happen.

"They now come to find us to judge us, when it should be us judging them."

Those barracking for Vili include his former club, Montpellier, where he was a star; players have taken to the pitch in shirts reading "Justice pour Lolo". The club has paid many of the legal bills since a night six years ago when Vili, fearing for his life, fired a gun at another man.

New Caledonia's 244,400 people are predominantly indigenous Melanesians (about 41 per cent) and European (34 per cent).

People with roots in Wallis and Futuna, northeast of Fiji, make up 10 to 15 per cent, and Vietnamese, Indonesians and Chinese the rest.

It is a country grappling with its identity in the post-colonial era, and youthful: one in two inhabitants is under 26.

Politics defines every social and political interaction, and can cause friction: most Melanesians favour independence, and many Europeans and people from Wallis and Futuna - the latter invited in to bolster the loyalist cause - are committed to staying French.

After violent unrest in the mid-1980s, the 1998 Noumea Accord enshrined the country's goal of a peaceful "common destiny". Human freedoms were emphasised. Seventy per cent of the population endorsed it, and there will be a referendum on independence in 2014.

But these ideals were to be grievously undermined in December 2001. Months of harassment by the Melanesian residents of St Louis, a village about 10km out of Noumea, against their Wallisian neighbours in adjoining Ave Maria, across the River Thy, flared into violence.

Why? "There is a big cultural difference between Wallisians and Melanesians," says Vili, referring to the entrenched political standpoints and also the greater economic success of Wallisians.

"At one point, we didn't accept each others' differences, and because of the lack of dialogue everything exploded."

Armed men entered Ave Maria, chasing residents, slaughtering animals and torching six homes, one of them belonging to Vili's father - the village's chief - and his mother.

An ultimatum followed: That land is ours - if you don't go, we'll force you out. Ethnic cleansing appeared to have come to the Pacific.

Vili, who had been in France doing a physical education degree, flew home with his New Caledonian partner, sports specialist Sarah d'Almeida.

As women and children fled the village, Vili and other men started a vigil armed with the .27 hunting rifles common in New Caledonia, scarves over their faces. Shots were exchanged and two Wallisians hurt.

Police set themselves up about a kilometre away on the New Caledonian equivalent of State Highway 1. This odd watching brief was described by the French news magazine L'Express as "a show of public impotence". The speculation is that the authorities didn't want to worsen a bad situation - or hoped that chiefs would bring to heel the angry young St Louis men. It was not to be.

Shooting punctuated the day of the ultimatum's expiry - January 7, 2002.

Gendarmes set themselves up between the sides but didn't act. Wallisians say they pleaded for help to defend themselves but were told that no orders to intervene had been received.

At 7.30am the next day, Vili, squatting in a ditch in Ave Maria, spotted a man in a tree, a gun pointing his way. Panicking, he fired at the gunman's thigh.

He didn't see the man fall and wasn't sure that he had hit him. Around the same time, Jean-Marie Goyeta, a 26-year-old Melanesian father of three, was hit in the stomach by a bullet of the same type Vili and many others were using.

Vili, whose rifle was lost in the confusion and never retrieved, returned to France. After a month in hospital, Goyeta succumbed to an infection. Inexplicably, he was buried without autopsy.

St Louis remained on edge, with sporadic protests and public unrest. There had been three deaths on both sides over the months of fighting, and no one had been arrested.

Then things started moving.

In May 2003, Goyeta's body was exhumed by authorities for the extraction of bullet fragments.

In August 2003, as the last Wallisian families from Ave Maria were escorted by police to state housing elsewhere, torching everything they couldn't take, Vili was arrested at home in Montpellier and told he was suspected of murder.

The French justice system in force in New Caledonia is inquisitorial rather than adversarial, and a judge was appointed to examine the case.

But during the year this took, Vili was locked up in prison, ostensibly for his own safety, and in isolation to prevent reprisals. There, he "hit rock bottom".

Then, needing a shoulder operation that couldn't be done in Noumea, Vili was released and sent to prison in Fresnes, near Paris. After surgery he was allowed to return to Montpellier on bail, but confined to France.

Insiders say Vili's physical and emotional health during the five-year wait has see-sawed. He plays for the rugby club in Nimes, near Montpellier, but has no fulltime work.

Still, Vili sounded upbeat in conversation with the Weekend Herald. He arrived back in Noumea on Thursday, and is staying with his parents.

He is making no effort to hide his presence as he says he feels at peace, and expects no public unrest now tempers have cooled.

The Vili camp says its adversaries are not Jean-Marie Goyeta's family or the St Louis community. The state, they say, wants to use Vili as a scapegoat to obscure their failings. It's a view shared by political party the Union Caledonienne (slogan: two colours, one people), and even the National Front's Bernard Herpin.

Speculation is rife. Some allege that race and politics are so precariously balanced in New Caledonia that the quickest way to bury the affair is to put someone away. Others whisper that a gendarme concealed between the sides shot Goyeta.

Vili's lawyer, Gilles Gauer, will tell the court that there is no proof Vili killed Goyeta, and that he shot in self-defence.

"What Laurent has said since the beginning," says Sarah D'Almeida, who will be called as a witness, "is that the man he aimed at was in a tree, wearing a gunbelt. All the witnesses [some of them Melanesian] say that Jean-Marie was standing on the ground and wasn't wearing a gunbelt. That's why Laurent is convinced of his innocence: the man he aimed at wasn't Jean-Marie Goyeta."

The approach of the prosecution appears to remain that Vili shot Goyeta deliberately, although it appears to have no gun and little hard evidence. As daily paper Les Nouvelles Caledoniennes put it, "the elements of proof seem fragile". Prosecutors do, however, have recordings from tapping Vili's phone.

Lawyer Gauer doubts the trial can be fair with the jury drawn from a majority Melanesian population.

He worries that the case will incite St Louis' angry young men to public disorder again, but d'Almeida, who shares a racially-mixed group of friends with Vili, sees things more broadly.

She sent an email appeal as soon as the trial was set: "You are all warmly invited to be present to swell the ranks of those who support a common destiny in New Caledonia, those who are against racism, arbitrary behaviour and an I-don't-care attitude."

"Whatever your ethnicity, whatever your political beliefs, if you aspire to peace and justice in our country, be there to support Laurent and his people against violence, slander and gratuitous malice."

The case is hard to call. In mid-2007, a Melanesian, aged 17 when he killed a Futuna man in the same fighting, was jailed for nine years for manslaughter.

Although nervous, Sarah says she and Laurent are relieved their days in court have come. "If we let this pass in silence," she says, "the story will repeat sooner or later and we will never build the common destiny we all dream of."

"The majority of Caledonians just want to live quietly."

- NZ Herald

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