Dateline Pacific | Radio New Zealand
Almost twenty years since the end of the decade-long civil war on Bougainville, the fate of hundreds of people who went missing during the conflict remains unknown.
Their families marched through towns in the now-autonomous Papua New Guinea region this weekend, saying more needs to be done to work out what happened to them and find their remains.
Jamie Tahana reports.
In the late 1980s, long-standing tensions over an Australia-run copper mine descended into a decade-long civil war for independence from Papua New Guinea. It was after PNG imposed a blockade on Bougainville in 1990 that Celine Pururau’s brother, Paschal, left to take up arms and join the conflict, compelled by what she says was a motivation to save Bougainville from being wrecked by mining and environmental destruction. She never saw him again.
CELINE PURURAU: We tried to stop him but he did not listen to us, he said that he had to sacrifice to save Bougainville, so he left and fought at Buka island and we don’t know whereabouts he is – he disappeared there. But they tell us the story that they buried him in a mass grave.
Ms Pururau’s situation is not unique. The International Committee for the Red Cross says many families in the region still have no idea what happened to some relatives during the war. The official end of the conflict was in 1997, when a ceasefire was signed after protracted efforts to negotiate a peace between the two sides. Estimates put the death toll from the conflict at about 15,000, but the ICRC’s Bougainville delegate, Tobias Koehler, says that nearly twenty years later, there’s still no idea just how many are missing.
TOBIAS KOEHLER: Simply there’s no data on this and there’s also, in terms of missing persons, no clear knowledge. But every time we come to a new district or we come to a new village and we talk about these issues people do come forward and mention this, so it’ll be at least more than 100, but it’ll probably be less than a couple of thousand.
Mr Koehler says many of the families of the disappeared have suffered psychologically as a result of the uncertainty.
TOBIAS KOEHLER: Basically their family members have no knowledge of their fate and their whereabouts, what has actually happened to them. If they are dead, if they have been killed or died of a disease. If they are buried at a certain place or their bodies are lost at sea. There are a lot of families who are completely left in the dark about the fate of their loved ones.
That uncertainty spurred Peter Garuai to form the Bougainville Families of Missing Persons Association. Mr Garuai says his 20-year-old brother, Benedict, joined the fight in 1993 and was killed later that year. He says his family has never heard what happened to Benedict.
PETER GARUAI: He was killed during the combat here in Arawa. The defence force killed him, but we’ve never known where he was buried. It was a dirty little war, here in Bougainville. I formed this association because of the pain that lingered in my mind that my brother, he has to come back. So this association tries to bring back normalcy to the lives of the missing people’s families.
The now Autonomous Bougainville Government, formed under the peace agreement signed at the end of the conflict, adopted a policy on missing persons late last year, but little has come from it so far. That’s prompted many of the relatives of the disappeared to march through the towns of Buka and Arawa this weekend in an effort to highlight their ongoing battle for answers, and to call for more to be done to ensure that remains are returned to home villages.
Peter Garuai says the government needs to take note of the families’ cries in order to build a foundation for a referendum on possible independence for Bougainville, which is likely to be held in 2019. Bougainville’s president, John Momis, says he accepts that the ABG does need to do more to work out the whereabouts of the missing, but funding has been an issue.
JOHN MOMIS: The ABG first of all has to engage people who are in the know and also find funds to fund it because it won’t be done for nothing. I’m not saying it hasn’t been the top priority, we have had problems with the National Government giving us our legitimate financial budgetary allocations, and all these things have taken up our time.
John Momis says he hopes to work with the Red Cross and donor countries to make the missing persons policy more effective.
Bougainville government called on to find missing people
The chair of the Bougainville Families of the Missing Person’s Association says the region’s government needs to do more to find hundreds of people who disappeared during the civil war.
Nearly 20 years since the conflict in the autonomous Papua New Guinea region ended, the number of people who went missing remains unknown, but the Red Cross believes it could be in the hundreds.
This weekend, the association led a march through the towns of Buka and Arawa calling for more to be done to find out what happened, and to repatriate the remains to their home villages.
Its chair, Peter Garuai, whose brother Benedict went missing in 1993, says the government needs to do something ahead of a referendum on possible independence.
“Within the cultural context of Bougainville, the missing people will not be at peace until they return the bones back. And it is also very important for government to take into consideration the cries of the missing persons’ families, because if we don’t put them in their resting places, the government will have no foundation to form a proper government.”
The Autonomous Bougainville Government adopted a policy on missing persons late last year, but little has come from it so far.