Tongan family releases '50-year-old secret' of unlawful arrest during dawn raids in NZ

A Tongan family in Auckland can finally share their 50-year-old secret, decades after an unlawful arrest in the family for overstaying brought shame down on their name.

Tesimoni Fuavao was 20 years old when four palagi (Pākehā) police officers barged into the family’s Grey Lynn home at 4.30am, entered his parents’ room and handcuffed them, accusing them of overstaying their visa.

They were carted away, leaving him and his 6-year-old brother alone for 30 hours while his parents were in custody.

Fuavao has been battling anger and resentment ever since that era of dawn raids, and he only recently told his parents’ 19 grandchildren what had happened.

When his own son was invited to join the police force, he couldn’t bear it.When his own son was invited to join the police force, he couldn’t bear it.

“If you go and be a policeman you are not my son,” he said at the time. But he wants that anger to stop.

That’s why he came forward to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in State Care, which is this month tackling the Pacific experience of abuse.

For 66-year-old Fuavao, the best way to overcome the past was to confront it. And to avoid backing out on the day, he agreed to film an interview with the commission. He sat in the witness seat at Fale o Samoa (Samoa House) in Māngere, South Auckland, while the video was played. 

As he shares exactly what happened that night in 1976, his voice breaks.

“Everything happened so quickly. One police officer walked towards my mum to try and handcuff her. The officer pulled Masiu away from her arms when he handcuffed her.

“The officer said that they deserved it because they had overstayed. The officer then took my parents to their car, and they left.”

His own parents stopped talking about that experience pretty quickly. And neither he nor his five siblings talked about it either, until Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the Government would formally apologise for the dawn raids.

“I think that what the officers did to my family was very wrong. Why would the police do that to a family in the early hours of the morning? It should never have happened.” 

“Regardless whether my parents were overstaying or not, no-one had the right to separate my mum like that from her 6-year-old son at the time.

“Since then it created in me a lot of hatred towards police. I just don’t like them … just because of that incident.”

Present for the testimony hearing were Fuavao’s nieces Siutaisa Manuopangai and Sonia Pope, who wore special T-shirts for the day.

Printed on black cotton was an article from 1976 about Fuavao and his little brother, whose parents, Setaita Tūpou and Sione Mafi Fuavao, were wrongfully torn from them over a “mix-up”, according to the headline.

“Our grandparents were so strong to keep that a secret for 50 years,” Pope told the commission. “We called it our 50-year-old secret in our family that our grandparents took to their grave.”

On Sunday, 01 August1, the Government will formally apologise for the dawn raids. Ness said it would bring healing to the survivors of that era.

“There's no guarantee that something like the dawn raids won't happen again. But if the truth is told, then we can learn from that and move on from there. Our numbers are increasing – our Pacific youth are the fastest growing population in New Zealand. There's no turning back from here.”

The public hearing continues until Friday, 30 July


Photo RNZ Pacific/Screenshot  Caption: Tesimoni Fuavao