Real Life

‘I lost my friend on the Rainbow Warrior’

Kiwi activist Bunny McDiarmind was one of the crew on the Rainbow Warrior. She remembers the special ship 30 years after its sinking.
Rainbow Warrior Bunny McDiarmind

Closing her eyes, Bunny McDiarmind drifts back in time, and within moments, she is reliving the tragic bombing of the Rainbow Warrior 30 years ago. It was the vessel she once spent five months onboard as a deckhand, preparing it to sail around the Pacific islands to protest nuclear testing in the region.

“She was a beautiful ship – she represented hope,” Bunny (58) recalls. “I can still see the grain of wood on her deck and smell the tar on her boards. I felt a connection with her and I believed we were embarking on something special.”

But the legacy of the Rainbow Warrior is, as we all know, a sad one. Bunny’s friend and fellow crew member Fernando Pereira fell casualty to the bombing of the Greenpeace ship that sunk in the bay of Auckland on July 10, 1985. The news sent shockwaves around the world, uniting New Zealanders and inspiring this country’s continuing nuclear-free position.

Bunny, who had worked on peacekeeping ships before the Warrior, was one of 12 crew members on board the ill-fated vessel.

“It’s a piece of New Zealand’s history as much as it’s a big part of my own personal history,” says Bunny. “I like to remember the positive changes we made.”

Originally from Christchurch, Bunny was 25 years old when she joined the Rainbow Warrior on its maiden voyage from Florida. After completing a degree in sociology and English, Bunny had spent seven years travelling.

She met her engineer husband Heank Haazen in New Orleans and, firmly believing in the cause, they both joined the crew of the ship which was to sail to the Pacific’s nuclear protest site, before cruising onwards to Bunny’s homeland.

Bunny helped to evacuate hundreds of Marshall Islanders from irradiated homes on the atoll.

The 12 members on board were like a family, Bunny says, bonding during the three months they spent in Florida rebuilding the Rainbow Warrior before her journey.

“We sailed through the Panama Canal, out to Hawaii. We stopped at the Marshall Islands, to pick up 350 people who had been affected by the radioactive fallout from testing by the US,” Bunny tells. Three months later, the ship arrived in New Zealand on a stopover, before it was due to continue on to the nuclear testing area of Mururoa atoll in French Polynesia.

“I could smell New Zealand before I could see it. I was so excited to be finally coming home,” Bunny remembers.

Their mission was a peaceful one, so Bunny and the crew could not have anticipated the act of terrorism they were about to encounter. After celebrating the birthday of a crew member, Bunny and Heank left the ship to stay with Bunny’s parents in Auckland. In the early hours of the morning, she got a call to say that two bombs had blasted through the ship and Fernando was missing.

When French secret agents bombed the ship, Portugal-born photographer Fernando Pereira lost his life.

“We raced to the port and saw the remains of the Warrior. It was a very sad sight.”

The crew was devastated to lose Fernando. A father of two from Portugal, he had begun evacuating the ship after the first blast, but detoured to grab his camera gear. He was knocked unconscious after the second blast and drowned.

“The Warrior meant a lot to people, but in the end it was just a ship. Losing a life – losing Fernando – was the real tragedy.”

The French government called for the ship to be destroyed.

Following an investigation, French Secret Service agents Dominique Prieur and Alain Mafart were arrested. Both were charged with murder, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and were sentenced to 10 years in prison on a French military base. They were released before serving two years. Having initially denied any responsibility, the French government ultimately admitted that the agents had been acting on their orders.

Six weeks after the bombing, Bunny found work on another Greenpeace ship and the protests continued. In 1996, the French halted nuclear testing in the Pacific. Today, Bunny and Heank

are still happily married and have a daughter named Ruby (27). Bunny is still in contact with the surviving members of the crew and has kept her close connection to Greenpeace. For the last 10 years, she has been its executive director in New Zealand.

The spirit of the Rainbow Warrior lives on to this day.

“The Warrior celebrated acts of courage, something that is ingrained in our country’s  history,” Bunny says. “We were the first to give women the right to vote, and we didn’t do that by being quiet. It’s amazing how a small group of people can change the world.”

The story lives on

To mark the 30-year anniversary of the Rainbow Warrior’s sinking, Jennifer Ward-Lealand is directing a new play called Fallout: The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior. Jennifer hopes the play, written by Bronwyn Elsmore, will both entertain and educate New Zealanders on the tragic events of July 1985.

“The play brings to life the days leading up to the bombing as well as the capture of some of the French agents,” Jennifer says. “What’s exciting is that the play will allow a new generation of Kiwis to experience and learn about this seminal moment in our country’s history.”

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