Quest for truth, justice and reconciliation in Bougainville
He has suffering and fury in his bloodshot eyes, which are brimming with tears as he talks about his life in Bougainville, the eastern autonomous region in Papua New Guinea, which emerged 15 years ago from a devastating civil war, known as “the Crisis”.
Peter, in his 60s, from Keriaka village on Bougainville Island’s distant west coast, is standing in Buka, the northern capital, surrounded by market-going crowds. He is unleashing a tirade against corruption and lack of development in his remote rural area. The can of South Pacific Lager in his hand ejects an arc of spray as he gestures wildly to make a point. Curious onlookers are now intently watching our very public interview.
“We are paying taxes and in return we have nothing … and the content of the peace agreement is not being implemented as it should. How can we move toward the future while these issues of the past are not being addressed?” he says. Visible in his face is the trauma that still grips him after he fought and suffered during the decade-long conflict.
In 1989, civil war erupted after an armed uprising by local landowners shut down the Panguna copper mine, majority-owned by mining giant Rio Tinto and the Papua New Guinea government. The massive mine, located in the mountains of Central Bougainville, was operated from 1972 by Australian subsidiary Bougainville Copper Ltd, but within 16 years it was the centre of indigenous protests about loss of customary land, environmental destruction and local stakeholders’ negligible share of its revenue, which peaked about 1.7 billion kina ($700 million).
Papua New Guinea blockaded Bougainville in 1990 and the conflict raged on for another eight years, as the armed forces and revolutionary groups fought to gain control of the region.
Estimates of the death toll range from 15,000 to 20,000 people, or 10 per cent of the population. But there has been no inquiry into wartime atrocities and no accurate information is available of how many people died or suffered abuses.
Peace and reconciliation efforts since the 2001 peace agreement, supported by international donors including Australia, which plans to spend about $50 million on aid here in 2015-2016, have been rolled out in a data vacuum.
Now, a referendum in Bougainville on independence from Papua New Guinea looms within the next four years. It is a key pillar of the peace agreement, together with disarmament and the granting of autonomous government. But people across the islands have real concerns that unaddressed wartime abuses could undermine unity. Emotions and expectations of political change run high.
“When we talk about the Crisis-related problems, our ideas are all mangled together and we are just talking on the surface, not really uprooting what is beneath, what really happened,” Barbara Tanne of the Bougainville Women’s Federation tells me. “Unless we sort out everything, we come with the truth telling, we cannot progress to the next level.”
Later, escaping the relentless humidity under a tree at the Catholic diocese offices, I meet Alex Amon, president of Suir Youth Federation in North Bougainville, who agrees with Tanne. “I am 100 per cent going for that,” he says. “I am supporting a truth commission to be established before the period of the referendum, because we cannot walk across the land of milk and honey when there are differences.”
Secessionist sentiment, evident in Bougainville since the 1970s, was reflected in Bougainville president John Momis’ assertion in a speech last year that the peace agreement “provides us with an exclusive right to self-determination”.
Transitional justice mechanisms, such as truth commissions or criminal trials, are considered important for postwar reconciliation. Victims of human rights abuses have a legal right to know the truth of events and see perpetrators brought to justice. In its absence, experts warn, there is a high risk of trauma and mistrust festering and resurfacing in further violence or unrest.
Helen Hakena, one of many women who persuaded combatants to lay down arms before the 1998 ceasefire, now strives tirelessly through the Leitana Nehan Women’s Development Agency, which she founded, for peace and development.
“There are victims,” she tells me. “They know the perpetrators but the perpetrators are walking freely right in the communities … It is really an injustice when you, the perpetrator, are moving on with your life as though nothing has happened but I cannot move on.”
She anticipates consequences if atrocities aren’t addressed. “It is happening now … The elderly people are passing on their negative experiences to their sons, who have not experienced that [the Crisis] and they will continue to hate the perpetrator’s family. Some of these kids will not know why they hate these people and there will be repercussions years later.”
The Bougainville government’s acting director of peace, Stephanie Elizah, acknowledges that previous discussions about transitional justice have never been acted on. There is particular sensitivity around the topic, particularly with former combatants, for whom the partial amnesty period from 1988 to 1995 is contentious.
In 2014, the government launched a policy to provide assistance to families still searching for loved ones who disappeared during the conflict, but it does not support justice or compensation measures.
Investigating human rights abuses soon after a fragile peace was declared would have entailed some risk, given that several armed groups did not sign the peace accord, nor surrender their weapons. However, Elizah admits the government’s current approach to peace and reconciliation, which will be reviewed this year, has fallen short of addressing deep-rooted grievances. “Those who have been involved in some form of injustice to the next human being – some of them have been allowed to just go and be forgotten.”
The situation is now backfiring, with “a resurgence of human rights abuses … also new forms of payback, torture and sorcery killings”, reports the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Nearly one in five men in Bougainville had engaged in sorcery-related violence. One in two men, and one in four women, had been witnesses, according to a Bougainville study released by the UN Development Program last year. One in three men and women said there is lack of peace in their communities.
South of Buka, the central town of Arawa, located 26 kilometres from Panguna, saw intense fighting. Walking towards the heaving central fresh produce market, the sound of a helicopter cuts the air. Passers-by gaze silently skyward as it soars into the mountains in the direction of the mine. No longer do helicopters induce fear of being strafed by gunfire.
But last October, the rural community of Domakungwida, not far from Arawa, was stunned by brutal shootings. One male villager, accused of witchcraft, was murdered. Then a relative of the victim picked up a gun and shot the person believed to have led the killing. Arson and further violent retribution followed.
Local resident Rosemary Dekaung told me that witchcraft accusations related to events during the Crisis are
not uncommon. “People have been accused of killing others during the Crisis and that has carried on in the form of recent killings.”
She is adamant that customary truth telling and reconciliation processes, employed following clan wars for generations and led with remarkable success by local leaders recently in Domakungwida, should be rolled out consistently to address the Crisis.
When I ask Rosemary Moses at the Bougainville Women’s Federation in Arawa if this is actually happening, she replies that “unfortunately this is where we have let ourselves down. We have let other people drive the [reconciliation] programs that are for our people.” She says that the lure of donor money, rather than local ownership, has overshadowed hundreds of reconciliations. Internal revenue accounts for only 10 per cent of the Bougainville government’s yearly budget of about 300 million kina, making it heavily reliant on international donors and the PNG government to fund peace and development programs.
The Catholic bishop of Bougainville, Bernard Unabali, suggests customary and modern truth-telling mechanisms may be needed, but the former must come first. He reserves judgement on the truth and reconciliation commission launched in 2009 in the neighbouring Solomon Islands, which had its own civil conflict from 1998-2003. He says time is needed to see if it has made a difference to lasting peace. Nevertheless, he does not dismiss the idea of taking those guilty of mass abuses to court. Nor does Moses, who believes it would help restore a sense of justice in Bougainville. “The voice of the common people is so low…” Moses says. “At the moment there is a lot of fear in terms of what they can say, especially when it comes to atrocities.”
At the bottom of the mountain road that leads up to the Panguna mine, where it all started 27 years ago, youths in camouflage fatigues swing on the boom gate as we drive through Morgan Junction. The valley is scattered with rusting mine infrastructure and gutted buildings. Amid the ruins a young man proudly displays a garden of flowers he has grown and schoolgirls throw a ball around a deserted car park. And I wonder about the world they will inherit in another decade.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 16, 2016 as "Truth and justice". Subscribe here.