Courage Under Fire

Imagine yourself with a partner and two children living the quiet life in a tropical paradise when the local village-council announces that, you must be jabbed with a needle of their choosing, in order to remain part of the community. If you refuse, you are to be put in customary isolation in your own home, with restricted communication and only the food supplied to you.

If that actually happened you would probably call it a “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” story, right?

I don’t want that to sound too comical though, as that has been life for Mahelino Patelesio since July 2021 when he and his family became covid-captives on a Pacific atoll in the New Zealand Dependency of Tokelau, situated 300 kilometers from Samoa.
A covid-captive for refusing to accept a mandate, which was also required to leave the atoll.
Some foreign nationals have given in to that choice and accepted a jab to escape the Tokelau Government’s deportation processes.

Mahelino Patelesio has stood his ground since, protesting his captivity, and trying to negotiate with the tribal elders of Nukunono Atoll, who have used the delegated authority of the Tokelau Government to make village rules about covid jabs, and customary tunoa for any dissidents.

He’s a brave man, dodging the invisible bullets that have come in the form of loaded words and written orders.

Mahelino Patelesio

Call it what you like – I call it courage under fire and history will remember the name of Mahelino Patelesio of Nukunonu Atoll.

The customary tunoa is for criminals who have committed crimes, it is not “house isolation” in the sense of infectious disease. There are no prisons in Tokelau, and tunoa is an essential part of law and order.

This is not a request though, where the family are asked to house “isolate” they were instructed in writing they were under “house arrest”.
The wording of the letters clearly states “house arrest” NOT house isolation.

For these covid criminals there is no routine welfare-check system in place and living under tunoa relies on others honouring their part in the culture’s “inati” sharing system.

Mahelino and his family were without internet for the first 4 months until Mahelino demanded a change to the rigid communication restrictions.

Communcation with the outside world has been erratic and at times it has been easier for the family to rely on friends than try to deal with the telco company.

Internet restrictions returned quite suddenly along with allegations that the family had endangered NZ/Tokelau relations by talking about their tunoa on social media.

Manipulation of communications is a realistic assumption when Mahelino’s first contact with the outside world after his internet was restored again, happened to be a RNZ (Radio New Zealand) reporter calling for comment … and those interviews can be found through this link to a previous post.

Mahelino has made repeated requests to be allowed to excercise his customary right to gather their own food but he has not been granted this permission by the tribal elders.

They have a boat in the backyard a few metres from the water and do not have to see anyone to launch their boat, to fish, or  gather food and resources from the outer deserted atolls.

Food provided through the inati (sharing) system is gratefuly received but supplementary to, “What we would normally gather ourselves.” they say.

The generosity of others has been crucial while family members are not permitted to shop for themselves.

The house the family is confined to, backs on to a lagoon. They were not permitted to swim for the first 4 months and while they are allowed to swim now, they are not allowed to fish, from their own back yard.

Ana, Mahelino’s wife lost 12 kgs in the time of house arrest: on several occasions the family have had to fast in order to make their gifted food supply last.

At times deprived of communications for long periods (weeks) they have had no way to communicate their need for food when no one has come to check on them.
The first (albiet unofficial) welfare check came after a year in isolation, when concerns were raised on neighbouring, Fakaofo Atoll and an off duty police constable visiting Nukunonu Atoll called to see the family. Other families on Atafu Atoll are subject to a separate tunoa by their elders.

While Mahelino puts on a brave face we’ve asked him to talk about how hard it has been:
“No official efforts were established to cater for our restricted movements. At times it seemed like they were daring us to breach [The Taupalenga Elder’s] council restrictions by getting our own shopping. In the initial months after our daughter was also on HA [House Arrest] the frustrations began to take their toll. No one in council offices seemed to care for [any] duty-of-care when you place people into house arrest. Unless that was part of the punishment! “

This article is produced with the assistance of the Team Leader: New Zealand and Australian, Tokelau Support Group.

Recent Comments from NZ Foreign Minister, Nanaia Mahuta can be found in this post.

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