Remembering Fernando Pereira 1950 - 1985

Page - July 7, 2017
He joined the crew of the Rainbow Warrior to bring his pictures of French nuclear testing to the world. When secret service agents bombed the ship, they killed Fernando Pereira, a man who dedicated his life to peace. A determined photographer, a family man, a Rainbow Warrior – he will always be remembered.

The bombers struck just before midnight on 10 July 1985 as two separate explosions ripped through the hull of the Rainbow Warrior. The second explosion knocked Fernando Pereira unconscious below deck, and as the Warrior swiftly sank, he drowned.

Fernando during the evacuation of Rongelap
Fernando during the evacuation of Rongelap

Fernando was born in the town of Chaves in Portugal. As a young man, he fled Portugal to neighbouring Spain to avoid being forced to join the army and fight in the dictator Salazar’s war in Angola. Spain was no safe haven for political refugees at the time, so he travelled for hundreds of kilometres on foot and by hitchhiking until he reached the Netherlands, where he decided to settle. He met and married a Dutch woman, had a family, and pursued his passion for photography.

By 1985, Fernando was a freelance photographer for Greenpeace, and he signed on for the Rainbow Warrior’s six month Pacific voyage. He was a part of the team evacuating the people of Rongelap Atoll, which had been severely contaminated with radioactive fallout following nuclear testing in the region by the USA. His photographs of the evacuation are profoundly moving and showed his professionalism as a photographer.

Greenpeace crew evacuate residents of Rongelap
One of Fernando's many images of the Rongelap evacuation

Fernando was a popular crew member who had a great zest for life and a deep conviction for the causes he believed in. If he had not been killed, he would have photographed the protests at Moruroa Atoll.

Three months earlier, he had farewelled his two children in the Netherlands. His daughter Marelle remembers him saying “Just take care of your mom, I’ll do my trip and I’ll be home soon”. She was eight years old. After he left, she went walking in the forest with her brother Paul, who “waved to every plane because that could be the one my dad was in”.

Fernando and Marelle
Fernando and Marelle

Their innocent young lives would be shattered by the news to come from New Zealand some months later.

“During the summer we went to camp, we were playing a game with a ball with my friends, then one of our teachers came up to me and asked if I could join her because she had something to tell me. My mom was there and I thought that was pretty strange. I did not know what to think of that, so I walked with her to where my mother was sitting with an uncle of mine, but over there I got a strange feeling, I don’t know how to explain that, but I knew something had to be wrong with my dad. It had to be; otherwise my mom would have come over there and talked to me. By the time that I got to my mom she was in tears”.

“The moment that she said he was missing, all the pieces fell together and I cried together with my mom. We packed our bags that afternoon and she took me home. We waited for the news which eventually was of my dad turning up dead”.

Marelle Pereira, pictured in 2005Marelle Pereira (middle) pictured in 2005, on the 20th anniversary of her father's death


Marelle and Paul's lives were changed forever as they grew up without their much loved dad. The French government paid some compensation to his family, but not all of his killers were brought to justice. Twenty years later Marelle gave her view on this.

“What I would like to see happen now...Justice for us, justice for the family if they could tell the truth that would be a beginning, and Mitterrand promising justice at the highest level, if that is justice, letting so many agents escape jail, then that is not justice, not in our eyes and I hope not in the world's eyes. And, it is never too late for justice”.

Fernando Pereira at Rongelap, 17 May 1985
Fernando Pereira at Rongelap, 17 May 1985

On 10 July 2010, the 25th anniversary of Fernando’s death, a wreath was laid for him. Peter Willcox, the skipper of the Rainbow Warrior on the night of his death, made this tribute to him:

“Fernando did not have to die...We will never forget him. I hope the generations of activists who sail on the new ship will be as determined and as exceptional and as inspired as he was.”

Fernando’s memory remains an inspiration to people who campaign for a green and peaceful future.

In 1995, the Rainbow Warrior II was boarded by French commandos, as it led a further protest against nuclear testing in Moruroa Atoll. When Greenpeace activists were asked for their names, they only gave one: Fernando Pereira.