Ruatoki locals are maintaining that armed police searched kohanga reo buses during Monday's raids, despite claims by police national headquarters and the Government to the contrary.
"I was one of the drivers," an impassioned Isaac Nuku said yesterday. "They did hop on our bus. They did search our bus."
Mr Nuku was one of about 1000 people who took to the streets of Whakatane for a hikoi expressing community outrage at the way children were caught up in the raids.
The march was organised by kohanga reo administrators concerned that children on the buses and in houses searched could be mentally scarred by the "invasion" of police officers in black commando gear and carrying guns.
Mr Nuku said he had been terrified when an officer with a gun boarded his bus from the Ta Whaki kohanga reo and could only imagine how the children felt.
Only a couple of young ones had been on the bus at the time, but Mr Nuku said all he could think about was incidents such as police fatally shooting a man in Christchurch after he threatened them with a hammer. "What are they capable of doing?" he asked.
Police Minister Annette King and Education Minister Steve Maharey have said they were told the armed offenders squad did not enter the bus.
Police national headquarters said last night that no schoolbuses had been searched, and in fact officers facilitated access of such vehicles through roadblocks.
A spokeswoman said police planned to talk to Mr Nuku to address his individual concerns, as more than 100 vehicles had been searched.
But Mr Nuku's wife, Mere, said both the roadblocks and raids of Ruatoki houses had shown total disregard for children's wellbeing.
"We exposed them to mental abuse [with] those people decked out in black. All those children could see were those eyes and those guns."
She told the marchers that Ruatoki's five kohanga reo wanted the Government to provide immediate psychological help to the children, and to guarantee that such action would not happen again.
The crowd moved peacefully through the ground floor of the council building to the Whakatane police station, carrying placards saying, "He taonga te mokopuna [our children are treasures]", "We are not terrorists, we've been terrorised" and "Don't point the gun at me! I'm under 5".
Some also carried Maori and Tuhoe sovereignty flags. Te Wharekura o Ruatoki school students did a haka and sung waiata.
Acting police area commander Greg Standen promised to relay the marchers' concerns to police "rangatira" in Wellington, saying only they could provide answers, and that he hoped the answers would be swift.
He would not comment on the armed operation in Ruatoki, but told journalists that local police were "feeling the squeeze" of being caught between loyalty to the organisation, and wanting to maintain good relationships with local Maori. "We hope the bridges aren't burned," he said.
Maori Party MPs Te Ururoa Flavell and Hone Harawira were among those who joined the hikoi.
Mr Flavell promised to deliver a petition signed by the marchers to the Government, while Mr Harawira said the police action in Ruatoki had been "a bloody disgrace".By Juliet Rowan Email Juliet