The war left a trail of destruction.
Villages burnt to the ground. Torture. Extra-judicial killings. Rape. Interment camps. The fracturing of families. The loss of loved ones. Missing relatives. Mass graves.
The most systematic and representative study conducted on experiences of violence during the war found: ‘Over a third of women and half of men had witnessed someone being killed in the conflict, and nearly half of all women interviewed, and two thirds of men had witnessed someone being seriously injured’.
Some of the more specific details are disturbing.
‘The men and women had personally experienced a range of traumatic experiences, for example 8.3% of men had themselves been sexually violated, 40.4% had been forcibly circumcised and 16.2% had been beaten or tortured’.
The formal end of hostilities came about in 2001 with the signing of the Bougainville Peace Agreement.
Local reconciliation and demilitarisation proved notable high points in the peace making process.
There are low points, less spoken about.
Trauma is widespread, with little in the way of support services.
Justice and accountability, particularly for the most powerful entities has proven elusive. This is in no small part due to the considerable efforts that have been marshalled by state-corporate actors to deny justice and truth to victims.
Families bereft of answers mourn loved ones, some of whose remains have never been found.
Meanwhile the political and economic structures that preceded the conflict slowly remerge.
Only now the Bougainville government suffers from endemic corruption; the companies seeking to extract the island’s resources are shadier; and the interlocutors in the Papua New Guinea government have an unenviably long history of serious malfeasance.
Against this challenging backdrop, people search for answers and closure.
Tears & Roses - Further Context
During 2001 the Bougainville Peace Agreement was signed by the different armed groups party to the conflict. It formally brought to an end the military violence and initiated a process of local reconciliation that is ongoing today. It also put in place new structures that won support from so called ‘moderate’ factions of the BRA, but which fell short of the demands issued by the ‘radical’ BRA, whose figurehead, Francis Ona, was increasingly marginalised from the political process. These structures included the devolution of power from the Papua New Guinea government to the Autonomous Bougainville Government, and a stipulated referendum over the question of independence, which took place in late 2019.
Yet transition to peace, and rebuilding communities after prolonged violence has proven a fraught and complex process. Initiatives supported by state and international actors, have primarily focused on reducing local tensions, supporting reconciliation between ex-combatants, and rebuilding the capitalist economy, through encouraging large-scale investment in resource extraction projects. Less attention has been given to the personal trauma endured by those who experienced or witnessed violence, to enacting forms of justice acceptable to survivors, or indeed taking steps to memorialise the conflict and the loss suffered. This has left a significant amount of people suffering the effects of post-traumatic stress, with perilously few supports. Similarly, there has been a lack of attention to the communal forms of trauma the colonial project provoked and how it converged into a period of militarised violence.
Against this backdrop, communities have found their own way to remember the past, share their loss, and manage the symptoms of trauma. In series five, we will hear from those who have suffered loss and experienced life-changing forms of violence. These are poignant testimonies written in the language of love and devotion; they are also a profound call for a greater recognition of those missing, to remember history, and memorialise struggle.
To this day the full impact of the war has not been fully recorded. Taking into account deaths resulting from the blockade and fighting – including a significant civilian toll – it has been suggested up to 20,000 people lost their lives (approx. 10% of the population). A further 67,300 were displaced. In addition to this, the conflict was marked by gross human rights abuses that would fit within the international legal framework of crimes against humanity – they include, the use of torture, rape as a weapon of war, extra-judicial killings, the destruction of civilian areas, and the denial of medical aid. Tactics which disproportionately impacted on women and children.
Attempts to address a significant share of the abuses authored by the government security forces have failed. Writing in 2001, former Papua New Guinea National and Supreme Court judge Brian Brunton observes: ‘[While PNG] has a detailed Bill of Rights and very flexible powers under the Constitution to enforce those rights … [nevertheless] a large number of claims alleging repeated serious human rights abuses by government forces in Bougainville … lodged before the National Court … more than ten years later … have not been adjudicated. That fact speaks for itself’.
A civil action launched against Rio Tinto by landowners, which drew attention to the company’s complicity in government crimes, was quashed on jurisdictional grounds in the United States, after Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States governments all issued their opposition to the claim. It was believed any precedent set in America would be bad for international business.
While state and corporate actors have escaped responsibility for their involvement in the war, Bougainvillean combatants have taken more proactive steps to address the past. At a local level, former paramilitary and BRA fighters have atoned for past actions through customary means. Although, it is argued, more work remains to be done on this front.
Of course, justice, redress, and transition, are not concepts that are easy to define. For some it is about memorialising loss, recording hidden histories, and holding those responsible to account. For others it is about realising practically and in an unhindered way the freedom to participate in a way of life which the colonial and mining experience attempted to diminish and demean, using the corresponding ethic this necessitates to repair the individual and social traumas endured over the last century.
In Darkness, Still Waiting
- Independence Oval
Paramount Chief Peter Garuai leads a procession of mothers, fathers and children through the streets of Arawa.
They carry a large banner. It reads: ‘In Darkness, Still Waiting’.
A sea of black shirts march behind the banner. On the shirts is the writing ‘International Day of the Disappeared’.
Peter calls out.
‘If you don't know why we are marching, today is to remember the missing persons’.
‘In Bougainville we still mourn our children, mothers and all those who died during the Bougainville Crisis’.
‘Today we remember the missing persons. In memory of the lost ones who have gone and never returned. They are in the dark, in unknown places, hidden in the sea, we are remembering them’.
‘We are protesting to the government as well to pass some legislation to help us find the remains of our children’.
The procession of mourners reaches a stage.
A mother of the missing, Miriam, welcomes the families.
‘I give a very sad welcome to the mothers who have come and the fathers and the children’.
‘We have waited for so long for our government to pay attention to our tears, us mothers of Bougainville’.
“We are still waiting for them. In darkness we are still waiting for them”.
One by one, people share their stories.
- Belisi Park
A night of remembrance begins. For those who died. For those whose remains are missing.
The ceremony occurs on top of a mass grave.
Family members step on stage. They share their stories, and shed tears.
Chief Peter Garuai remembers his brother Benedict. He left the family to join the BRA.
Peter was living inland to escape the PNGDF naval bombardment. Then the news came.
‘Your brother has been killed’.
20 years old. Shot by the PNGDF. His body was never returned.
Peter’s mother fell sick as they sheltered in jungle. Her dying wish was for the return of Benedict’s body to their homeland.
Peter carved a Ukulele in the bush and wrote a song. He performs it for the crowd.
“Somewhere in the sea, or land, seaweed and rose grow. Close to the grave, my brother sleeps. In the sea or lake. Seaweed and roses are blooming, close to the grave, my brother sleeps. ‘Tears and roses’ my cry. ‘Tears and roses are my home’. I think of you, your face”.
- Independence Oval
The mother of Alexander Solomon remembers her son, on a day where all the mothers and fathers of the missing unite in grief.
Alexander was one of many brave people who shipped the injured and the sick to the Solomon Islands for medical treatment.
They did so at grave risk.
The Papua New Guinea military, with support provided by the Australian Defence Force, executed those trying to break a blockade placed around the island.
Alexander’s parents said don’t go. He replied.
‘Dad and mum, how are we going to save the people. Its ok I will go’.
Alexander took the sick to the Solomon Islands. Then he ferried back six passengers, who had received treatment.
Only one person survived the voyage – a journalist Moresi Tua who provided an eyewitness account.
Alexander stood up as the PNGDF military vessels approached.
‘We surrender’, he said.
Alexander’s mother Miriam sadly notes.
“They showed no mercy ... All of them were shot in the head and the side”.
Then she proudly tells the audience – her son ferried many people in need. This included Australian lawyer Rosemarie Gillespie, who produced two reports documenting the human rights abuses being perpetrated on Bougainville.
Kevin Munomori and Pascal Burau
- Independence Oval
Rose remembers her brother Kevin.
He went fighting ‘to save our land’.
‘We were strongly against his decision to go and join the fight’, Rose recalls.
‘I have to go, please don't stop me’, Kevin told his sisters.
‘My beloved brother, he went missing somewhere in the Stonewara area’.
Shot by the PNGDF.
‘We don't know where his body lies’.
‘We want our brother's body’.
Rose is taken away in tears, she is inconsolable.
Rose weeps as the sister of Pascal Burau takes the stage to tell his story.
Before Pascal left to fight for the BRA he gave these words.
‘Sacrifice. Self-sacrifice. Family sacrifice. Clan sacrifice. Tribe sacrifice. Bougainville sacrifice’.
Rose can be heard sobbing in the background.
Pain in words, and pain in sound.
‘Lest we forget. We must continue to remember them’.
- Belisi Park
David’s big brother Gregory Sahoto was killed by the BRA in Kieta.
‘I have seen my brother did not die in the hands of the army. Its Bougainville killing Bougainville’, he recalls.
“This looks dirty in my eyes, and in all our eyes, when Bougainville kills Bougainville”.
‘We the family, we don't know where the body of our brother is’.
‘I would like to ask whoever murdered my brother. We the family are ready to accept your apology’.
‘We the family really want a proper burial for the remains of my brother ... He has to come back and rest at the place that is rightfully his, on the land of my mother’.
One table signposts the violence experienced by many on Bougainville over the duration of the conflict years.
Enduring impact of conflict on mental health and gender-based violence perpetration in Bougainville
Source: Jewkes, R., Jama-Shai, N. and Sikweyiya, Y. (2017) Enduring impact of conflict on mental health and gender-based violence perpetration in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea: A cross-sectional study. PLoS ONE 12(10): e0186062.
Based on survey interviews with 1539 people across Bougainville, it constitutes the most systematic data-set yet gathered on the experience of violence and abuse during the war.
Even then it likely underrepresents levels in areas such as sexual violence, which due to sensitivities are systemically underreported in victim surveys.
During the war itself, human rights organisations and advocates went to extraordinary effort, sometimes at great personal risk, to document and verify human rights abuses.
Amnesty International produced three reports. A teacher from Bougainville, Marilyn Havini, compiled two volumes in 1995 which tabulated cases of abuse. Lawyer, Rosemarie Gillespie, broke the blockade on a number of occasions to compile reports on atrocities committed by the state. Lissa Evans from Community Aid Abroad collated data on deaths resulting from the blockade and warned early on of a humanitarian emergency.
Women from across Bougainville – nurses, teachers, community organisers – spoke out on the human rights situations through speaking tours, conferences, and media interviews.
The humanitarian situation became so critical, Médecins Sans Frontières elected to leave the island in 1993 after their efforts to provide humanitarian assistance was systematically frustrated by the PNG government.
“Médecins Sans Frontières remains deeply concerned by the plight of the civilian population of Bougainville. Nevertheless, the absence of humanitarian access for its medical teams leave us with no choice but to decline to renew a Memorandum of Understanding which has in fact never been fully respected since its signing one year ago”.
Behind each statistic and case documented in these reports and communiques are people. Victims themselves. Their families, their friends. Many have ongoing needs associated with the trauma suffered. All have a right to justice.
It has largely been denied.
There has been no truth process targeting the most powerful parties to the conflict, nor has any of these parties ever been held to account.
It is a sobering fact that not a single complaint relating to human rights abuses was reported to have been adjudicated on by the Papua New Guinea Courts.
In contrast BCL won an out of court settlement from its insurer in the amount of A$102.5 million for losses suffered during the crisis period.
Denial of Justice
Following the campaign of industrial sabotage in 1988/89, BCL pursued its right to compensation by taking their insurers to court in Australia. The company won an A$102.5 million out-of-court settlement.
Bougainvilleans who suffered loss and harm as a result of BCL’s actions attempted to exercise their right to a fair court hearing by initiating a civil suit in the US. In response, the Australian, British, and US governments lent their support to the parent company Rio Tinto, and attempted to have the case aborted on jurisdictional grounds. This state-corporate coalition succeeded in their aim.
The action had been initiated in the US because of the Papua New Guinea court system’s inability to adjudicate claims relating to the conflict, alongside the prohibitive legal landscape, where the cost of representations is outside the means of most citizens.
Over the past fifteen years documents have been obtained which illuminate the actions and rationale behind the state-corporate campaign to deny Bougainvilleans justice in the US.
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and trade claimed the litigation ‘would be an unsettling and destabilising event in circumstances where the need for stability and certainty on the island is paramount’.
They Australian authorities opined: ‘If the peace process were to be disrupted by this court case the welfare of the people on the island would suffer’.
The US argued in more extreme terms: ‘In our judgment, continued adjudication of the claims identified by Judge Morrow in her August 30  letter would risk a potentially serious adverse impact on the peace process, and hence on the conduct of our foreign relations’.
The US State Department claimed such an action could invalidate the Bougainville Peace Agreement.
“According to local custom, the concept of ‘reconciliation’ is at the heart of the peace process. We understand that acts of reconciliation have already occurred as a foundation to the August 30 agreement, and that adjudication in a foreign court of the issues alleged in this case could invalidate these steps and sweep away the basis of the peace agreement”.
Of course Rio Tinto and its subsidiary BCL, were never party to any local reconciliation – that a successful class action might throw the peace accord into doubt was at best ignorant, and at worse entirely disingenuous.
Internal documentation acquired from the British government through Freedom of Information, provides a window into the hidden motives underpinning this state-corporate campaign against the Bougainvillean litigants.
It was acknowledged: ‘By submitting an amicus curiae brief HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] would be acting to seek a result that will undeniably remove a possible remedy for victims of alleged human rights abuse (albeit one we consider to be contrary to principles of international law). It could also be interpreted as cutting across our stated ambition to challenge impunity and to help deliver justice to victims of the most serious of international crimes’.
However, the interests of victims were outweighed by the need to protect multinational corporations from being liable for large compensation payments: ‘Extraterritorial jurisdiction is a problem for business, particularly in the US courts which have power to make very high damages awards. [redacted] Supporting Rio Tinto in this case (and more generally the interests of UK business as a whole) is consistent with the FCO’s [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] commitments under our Charter for Business’.
This document suggests that expressed fears over the litigation disrupting the peace process may have been a more palatable public front for a less publicly palatable set of objectives that had little to do with the interests of Bougainville.
11. Correspondence from William H Taft, Legal Advisor, State Department to the Honourable Robert D. McCallum, Jr., Assistant Attorney General, Civil Division, United States Department of Justice, 31 October 2001.