‘People say that the sand was once an island with people and gardens and animals,’ says Francis, gesturing towards a sandbar out in the ocean before us, ‘but a giant octopus came along and – with his many arms and great waves of water – turned the island upside down. So now that sand that you see on top was once the bottom of the island, and the top of the island has been drowned. If you go out at night in a boat you will hear the sound of roosters crowing and people talking. But you have to go at night, quietly, to hear them.’
Francis and all the other people of Bougainville know what life is like in a world turned upside down. They have lived through the South Pacific’s bloodiest conflict since World War Two – it lasted nine years until a ceasefire was declared in early 1998 between the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) and the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) with its local Resistance Army supporters. In what the outside world frequently calls a ‘forgotten war’, but which Bougainvilleans simply call ‘the crisis’, around 20,000 people – an eighth of the population – died due to the fighting or to the blockade imposed on the island by the Papua New Guinea Government.
A world turns upside down
Francis is matter-of-fact about how he personally was catapulted into the conflict: ‘The BRA came and everyone had to sign up. I was a young boy, wanted to be tough.’ Francis is clearly proud that his clan name, ‘Omi’, means ‘bad’.
His family, like so many others, was split by the conflict. His brother fought for the other side – PNG – and was killed.
His eyes cloud with tears when he describes the day when he tried to run the blockade to Bougainville from the Solomons. The PNGDF patrol boat saw them: ‘Three friends of mine were shot. There was all their blood around me in the sea. And I just grabbed this piece of wood and was quiet and still so I would not get shot. I drifted, and drifted all night…’
‘I was psychologically affected by the War,’ he later admits, ‘even now.’ After drifting away from life as a BRA boy, he became a youth worker and now does workshops on the dangers of home-brewed alcohol and violence against women. ‘People are surprised that I made it to this today but it was hard work and took many years,’ he says before adding, with grave astonishment: ‘I even saw a psychologist!’
The factors that turned Bougainville upside down are complicated and rooted in a history of foreign interference (see the Octopus of War). But clearly the development of the Panguna copper mine, which began in 1972, congealed Bougainvillean desire for autonomy. In what was to become the archetypal indigenous anti-mining land-rights struggle and the loudest wake-up call for the industry in the world, locals protested for 16 years. But they could not stop a hole six kilometres wide and four kilometres deep being bored into the central mountains of Bougainville island. Finally, the conflict became violent on 22 November 1988 when a disgruntled mineworker raided Bougainville Copper Ltd’s armoury and stole explosives which he used to destroy company installations. This fiery man, Francis Ona, was soon proclaimed President of Bougainville by secessionists and he led the newly formed BRA. Today Ona has rejected the peace process and thus has split with the majority of the BRA. Ona’s few hundred rebels control the mine and the area around it. Even flying over this part of the island exposes helicopters to gunfire.
In addition to the old grenades and guns left by the Japanese and Americans during the Second World War which were pieced together and replicated, the BRA was able to steal and capture a lot of equipment from the Resistance and PNGDF. The PNGDF in turn was supported by Australia, whose hands are submerged in this murky flow of arms. The Defence Co-operation Program between PNG and Australia includes supply of light and heavy weapons, all of which have been used in Bougainville in the blockade and fighting – it was Australian-supplied Iroquois helicopters that dumped civilians killed by the PNGDF into the sea following the ‘St Valentine’s Day Massacre’ in 1990.
The Program also includes military training and advisers. Ironically, the commander of the BRA, Sam Kaona, undertook an Australian Officer Training Course in explosives at Portsea near Melbourne.
Around 20,000 people – an eighth of the population – died due to the fighting or to the blockade imposed on the island by the Papua New Guinea Government
Papua New Guinea’s destructive love affair with overseas military assistance grew to sickening proportions in March 1997 when the Government signed a contract reported to be worth $31 million with Sandline International to retake central Bougainville by force using hired mercenaries. Amidst mass protests by PNG civilians and a military rebellion, the mercenaries were sent home. Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan stood down and Bill Skate came to power.
Willie Aga, a BRA man, says: ‘I was not afraid when we heard the mercenaries were coming because I knew they would die. And we also knew we could get some much better weapons off the mercenaries than we can off the PNGDF.’
Despite this attachment to weapons and violence by the BRA and PNG Government, when Skate came to power in mid-1997 each side seemed more optimistic that a non-violent solution was possible. A few people in Buka who still wear the prized yellow ‘Election 97’ T-shirts describe their jubilation as they oversaw the island’s participation in national elections for the first time in a decade.
Skate addressed Bougainvilleans saying: ‘I feel compelled by the grace of God that the time has come to say sorry and ask for your forgiveness.’ And on 23 January 1998 all sides signed the ‘Lincoln Agreement on Peace, Security and Development on Bougainville’ – renouncing the use of armed force and violence and setting the date of 30 April as the beginning of a ‘permanent and irrevocable ceasefire’. So far this has held, despite the PNG Parliament’s refusal to allow a referendum on the constitutional status of Bougainville.
Stifled voices are let free
As Bougainville was previously under a state of siege, the story of the crisis has only just been heard. When asked why peace has happened now, Willie Aga cites the most common reply: ‘We were tired of war, tired of killing.’ War-weariness seems to have beaten down most former fighters. Willie adds: ‘The PNGDF couldn’t win because those men in Resistance, they are our brothers. We cannot keep killing our brothers and they do not want to kill us.’
The legacy of this disturbing experience is obvious in the volatile young men who have lived the War as fighters. They become frustrated or are too humiliated to go to school to learn how to read and write alongside people half their age. And, says youth worker Francis, ‘they don’t know how to just talk. It’s difficult just to get them to talk. They consider themselves better because they’ve fought and they won’t negotiate.’ With boredom and homebrew, or jungle juice, in plentiful supply these youths are responsible for most of the ‘law and order problems’ which concern Bougainvilleans. Although they have just come out of a war, the islanders are horrified at the gangster crime they have seen or heard of in Port Moresby, PNG’s capital and one of the most violent cities in the world.
Despite the ‘bad’ name Francis and other former fighters have, they are able to reject violence and be reintegrated into society. To do this they need employment or education but Willie says that aid donors are reluctant to fund projects which employ former killers. Still, he is far from despondent about the chances that people who lived through the War can hold the peace: ‘When we were fighting I saw miracles – survival.’
People were forced out of the towns and villages into a life on the run in the jungle. Around 35,000-40,000 were coerced or fled into crowded government ‘care centres’ which many saw as prisons where people routinely suffered human-rights abuses. Other communities came under the control of the BRA and were forced to move with the fighters in their pursuit and retreat from the PNGDF.
Patricia from Arawa says: ‘It was very hard up there in the bush. The BRA made us move each day with all our things. We had to make shelter under the trees so we could not be seen by the security forces flying overhead. After the crisis was over I went up there in a chopper. What a joke! You can see everything from up there! The BRA made fools of us.’ And some women spent the crisis with their children hiding from both the BRA and the PNGDF, often becoming ill and perishing in harsh conditions, without access to medicines.
But the remarkable resilience that many people showed through the crisis has now been used to transform the island. In just a year Buka has been rebuilt from scratch, Arawa’s local produce market thrives and flights from PNG are full of people coming and going for business or to see family now the blockade is over. The passion to rebuild Bougainville is palpable – such as the man who insisted on digging in the hot sun to lay telephone cables despite malaria, a rapidly melting block of ice bandaged around his head and all attempts at dissuasion by his fellow workers.
At the same time, Bougainvilleans value independence and many worry about whether the large inflow of aid – $64 million over five years from the Australian Government alone – implemented without grassroots control, will lead to a ‘handout mentality’. Many highlight the lack of local employment in aid projects. Mining remains one of the most sensitive topics and it is not even mentioned in any of the peace talks. Most Bougainvilleans use this as the yardstick for what they do not want – foreign economic control in any form, including top-down aid.
But international support is encouraged – a prominent example being the success of the Peace Monitoring Group. This group of organized and unarmed citizens of Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Fiji and Vanuatu patrols Bougainville in a bid to discourage violence or breaks of the ceasefire but also to spread the word about peace and its benefits. The Peace Monitoring Group, like the Peace Brigades (an international organization of human-rights monitors who are dispatched to trouble-spots), show that unarmed foreigners can be more effective peace police than armed ‘peacekeepers’ whose motives are inevitably seen as suspicious by locals.
Octopus of War
Eight tentacles reaching towards Bougainville's crisis
- Louis de Bougainville ‘discovered’ the islands in 1768. When he landed on the northern island the people ran up to him saying ‘Buka? buka?’ meaning ‘What? What?’ and so this island became called Buka and the southern larger island became known as Bougainville.
- Queen Victoria and Chancellor Bismarck drew a line on the map in 1884 which was to determine that Bougainville was administered by the Germans, separately from Bougainville’s ethnically and culturally similar Solomon Islands.
- In 1918 Bougainville, with Papua New Guinea, came under Australian jurisdiction due to a League of Nations mandate; then in 1947 PNG became a United Nations Trust Territory for which Australia was responsible.
- Two weeks before PNG was to receive independence in 1975, Bougainvilleans tried to pre-empt rule from Port Moresby by declaring independence. The Australians sent in riot police, a few Bougainvillean leaders were arrested and the islands were left to become part of the North Solomons Province of an independent PNG.
- In 1972 the development of what was to become the world’s largest copper mine, Panguna, started. Women pulled out surveying pegs and lay down in front of trucks in an attempt to stop mining but were forcibly removed.
- The mine provided a great source of income to the cash-strapped PNG Government, accounting for 40 per cent of their national export earnings. The landowners received less than one per cent of the profits while their rivers became horrendously polluted and surrounding trees and plants died.
- Tensions between traditional landowners on the one hand, and the PNG Government and the mining company on the other hand, heightened as a group of landowners got together and campaigned for more compensation and better environmental control. They resorted to violence, naming themselves the Bougainville Revolutionary Army.
- The PNGDF arrived in 1989, burned villages and also tortured, killed and raped civilians and rebels. The BRA expanded operations through the whole island and declared independence on 17 May 1990. The PNGDF announced a blockade of the island the next day.
Despite the common points of agreement that have helped keep the peace in Bougainville, there are several topics the various parties to the process do not agree on and they are enjoying having the right to meet, debate and discuss. One conversation – between two supporters of different visions for Bougainville’s future – seemed to sum up how people felt about peace and its implications. Theresa Jaintong, a forceful organizer and rapid speaker from the District Women’s Council, does not support independence and describes herself as a moderate: ‘I don’t want to take sides. People from all sides come and we will embrace them if they want peace. During the crisis the women would tell both sides to stop fighting. And in the care centres we would tell the PNGDF where not to go. If the BRA or the Security Forces were doing something – an ambush or something – we would say to them “I cry for you now if you do not go out and fight. If you go out and get killed, I will not cry for you.” They listened to that.’
In ways like this the women are influential, she says: ‘They work for peace and were very important in creating this peace. The top – the official Bougainville Transitional Government – doesn’t matter. The women have a different approach. They are among the people. And they can create peace.’
At this stage we are interrupted by Ben Kamada, Chief Planner of the BRA, who is known for a quick temper as much as a quick mind. He had told me before that although he may fire mortars over a roundtable rather than a mountain these days, independence for Bougainville is his target.
‘The women got us killed,’ he says dismissively.
Theresa rolls her eyes and I get the feeling they have discussed this topic before. She attempts to ignore this comment: ‘He talks like this but he is a peacemaker. He allowed women from government-controlled areas and BRA areas to come together. He took care of me although he knew I was moderate.’
Ben will not be shrugged off: ‘I hate the women. I hate PNGDF. They’re all the same. I do not trust them. When we came down because our mothers told us, our chiefs told us, we got killed by the soldiers. The women talk like this because they did not fight; they did not suffer.’
Theresa’s mouth opens in shocked disgust. The argument is on. ‘Oh!’ she exclaims. ‘We had suffering, the women experienced great sadness. But we got together. In the care centres we formed a Council of Chiefs and organized ourselves. We made peace in ourselves and then we went out to make peace…’
Ben is adamant: ‘I am scared. I don’t trust these people and I don’t trust the women.’
‘You live with a woman!’ says Theresa in exasperation as she turns half her back to him and leans closer to me: ‘Don’t listen to all of this. He has been a bridge between warring parties.’
Ben is shaking his head: ‘I might be a bridge, but soon I will break. Too many people on me and I break.’
‘There is not peace,’ he continues, ‘We signed the declarations but there is not trust. I do not trust the PNGDF. I have peace with Resistance because they are Bougainvilleans, black skins like me. Not these redskins (Papuans). I want them to go back.’
‘You can’t ask them to go back. They don’t want to be here,’ insists Theresa. ‘It’s the Government that wants them to be here. That is who you must talk to.’
Ben is not pacified: ‘I do not trust the Government,’ he says and then adds thoughtfully: ‘There have been four ceasefires, maybe there will be a fifth one.’
‘No!’ says Theresa her yellow eyes flashing anger.
Ben crosses his arms: ‘I am not ashamed of it. I have rascals watching and ready to fight. I want to tell the world!’
Theresa covers her ears and, head down, shouts: ‘Stop talking like this. I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to know!’
Ben continues: ‘We have our weapons and they have theirs. We are ready to fight.’ Theresa turns and looks him straight in the eyes as she emphasizes each word: ‘You own the peace. You signed the agreement. You can not fight. You own the peace.’
Ben is silent for a moment. The words hang somewhere in the space between the two political adversaries. And the realization comes – they agree on something after all. Ben’s shoulders push back and he grins proudly: ‘I own the peace.’
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