Tongan survivor speaks out about dawn raids to the Royal Commission

By Sela Jane HopgoodRNZ Pacific Journalist

A 66-year-old Tongan man has told the Abuse in Care Royal Commission about the psychological impacts the dawn raids had on him and his family.

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Photo: Screenshot

Tesimoni Fuavao and his father moved to New Zealand in May 1975 through a medical visa, as Fuavao needed to undergo medical treatment. He was 19-years-old. His mother and the youngest of six siblings came soon after on the same medical grounds, while Fuavao’s other siblings stayed back in Tonga with their grandparents.

They lived in a five-bedroom house in Grey Lynn, Auckland with three families from the Tongan community who were New Zealand residents.

Fuavao had his operation and was in hospital for two weeks. “I continued to received outpatient care,” he said.

“Because of the ongoing treatment, my understanding is that our medical visas kept getting extended by the lawyer on the advice of a doctor.”

Fuavao recalls that during this time, the police were carrying out targeted checks on Pacific Islanders.

In mid-October of 1976, Fuavao and his friend went for a walk to a hotel in Newton to play pool.

“While we were playing pool, two Palagi officers came into the hotel and asked me how old I was.

“I told them I was 20-years-old, and the officers didn’t believe me,” he said.

“They then asked for my passport and I told them that I didn’t have it.”

Fuavao said the officers continued to ask questions such as why he was not at school and where he lived, and when he explained that he is on a medical visa, he got the impression from the officers that they did not care.

“All they wanted to know was if I was an overstayer,” Fuavao said.

‘I never invited them in’

Fuavao said that it was two weeks after the police stopped him in Newton, that there was banging on their front door at 4:30am.

Royal Commission into Abuse in Care sitting at Fale o Samoa in Māngere.
Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

“It was still dark outside, and I quickly got up and looked through the window.

“I saw heaps of police officers standing around the house.

“I was scared,” he said.

Fuavao remembers opening the door to find four officers there, asking for his passport. “I said I would go find it, but two officers then pushed me aside and barged into the house.

“I never invited them in,” Fuavao sadly recalls.

“I grabbed some medical paperwork and showed it to the officers. I went to my parents’ bedroom and told my dad what the officers wanted. The officers followed me to their bedroom.

“Dad’s English wasn’t good and he struggled to explain our story in English, so he raised his voice louder and louder to try and get the officers to understand.”

Fuavao’s dad had to call out to Latai who was in the next bedroom to come and explain to the police officers that the Fuavao family were in New Zealand legally.

“Everything happened so quickly. One police officer walked towards my mum to try and handcuff her,” he said.

“The officer pulled my younger brother Masiu away from her arms when he did handcuff her, and they were both crying.

“I asked the officer, why are you doing that? And the officer said that they deserved it because they had overstayed.

“They took my parents to their car and left. We didn’t get to say goodbye to my parents.”

Fuavao and his brother ended up being cared for by the families living at the house during the time and had neighbours feed them.

Their parents were held by the police for a week and sought a lawyer and a Tongan translator to help them with their case.

Psychological impacts from the dawn raids

Fuavao’s parents returned to Tonga about eight months after the raid. However, 10 years since the horrific raid, Fuavao applied for his parents to get permanent residency under New Zealand’s family reunification scheme.

The Dawn Raids petition garnered 7366 signatures.
The Dawn Raids petition garnered 7366 signatures. Photo: RNZ / Daniela Maoate-Cox

“My mum cried about the incident all the time and constantly lived in fear.

“It affected her mentally because in Tonga we respect the police there, so it was a big deal for my mum to get into trouble with the New Zealand police, to be physically touched by them and then arrested,” he said.

Fuavao said he felt ashamed by the raid and about how many people knew especially in the Tongan community because “being arrested was considered very bad”.

“I carried the shame of what happened and people knowing throughout my life.

“I also blamed myself for what happened to my parents.

“My parents felt that shame and they never wanted to talk about the dawn raid much,” he explained.

Fuavao shared that before his dad passed away in 2009, he would constantly talk about the Palagi police officer that arrested him.

“My dad still remembered the badge number and he kept saying, one day maybe the police will come and say sorry or just talk to me.”

For Fuavao personally, he said he became angry throughout his life especially when people were racist towards him.

He said that the raid also affected decisions involving his children.

“My son was invited to join the police force because he met the criteria and they were looking for more Pacific Island police officers.

“I told him about the dawn raid and why I don’t like the police and after that my son changed his career pathway to health science.”

Fuavao said he wished the government’s dawn raid apology was done before his parents passed away.

“I would have liked my mum to hear the apology because she was deeply affected by the dawn raid,” he said.

50-year-old secret

Tesimoni Fuavao’s niece Sonya Pope spoke at the Pacific Investigation public hearing this week about what their family calls the 50-year-old secret.

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“When Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that they will be doing a public apology, my uncle called the family over and said, I’ve got some important news.

“My grandparents have never talked about this before and my grandparents lived with me in my home until they passed away and they’ve never said one word.

“We were like, wow! My grandparents were so strong to keep this a secret for 50 years and took this to their grave.”

Pope shared that growing up they were given specific rules to follow that at the time they thought were due to their culture, but learned this year that it was because of the trauma their grandparents had endured.

“We were always told to shut the curtains when the sun set and to always lock the doors every single day.

“Even to the point where the girls in the family weren’t allowed to answer the door.

“We had a sleeping roster with my grandparents because they weren’t able to sleep alone.

“My grandma always had to have somebody sleep in the room next to her or with her in the same room,” Pope shared.


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