Catherine Wilson | Thomson Reuters Foundation | 16 June 2016
Gutted buildings are left to decay in the tropical heat of Arawa, a town hit by battles during a decade-long civil war that engulfed the Bougainville islands of eastern Papua New Guinea in the 1990s.
The blackened ruins are testament to war, but the peaceful rhythm of daily life has returned to the former Bougainville capital, which is ringed by rainforested hillsides.
In the early morning, trucks piled with sacks of potatoes and taro are unloaded at the central market, and women open stalls selling boiled eggs, rice balls and cassava puddings.
But 15 years after a 2001 peace agreement, which included a disarmament process, the islands are still awash with weapons, putting communities at risk. And it is women leading calls to banish guns from their villages and towns.
“The time of using the gun is over. During the conflict we held guns. Now that the peace process is in place, there is no need for guns,” Lydia Morisa, a woman who lost her brother-in-law in a gun shooting last year, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Morisa, an assertive middle aged woman with a scarf taming her thick hair, is from Domakungwida, a village near Arawa with traditional thatched dwellings, meeting houses and a strong adherence to indigenous customs.
The conflict, known locally as ‘the Crisis’, erupted in late 1988 as local anger grew about the impact of the huge Panguna copper mine managed by Bougainville Copper Ltd, a subsidiary of mining multinational Rio Tinto.
Some Bougainvillean landowners and residents said the mine caused environmental damage, and they resented an influx of foreign workers and profits from the huge open cut mine leaving the island. Their demands for compensation were unmet.
The uprising forced the closure of the mine. Papua New Guinea blockaded Bougainville in 1990 and a civil war raged at a cost of 15,000-20,000 lives, or 10 percent of the population, until a ceasefire in 1998.
AWASH WITH GUNS
Nestled in a valley in the Crown Prince Range of mountains, Panguna is now a landscape of gutted former mine buildings and abandoned rusting machinery, slowly disintegrating into the forest. The noise and dust of the mine’s round-the-clock operation have been replaced by the sound of villagers at work under clear blue skies.
But the air of peace belies the problem of continued violence in some Bougainville communities, fuelled by the availability of guns.
The United Nations-led weapons disposal process was deemed only half successful after its conclusion in 2005.
An estimated 1,600 guns were surrendered by armed groups, such as the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and Bougainville Resistance Force, according to the Australian Defence Force, part of peace monitoring force deployed by Papua New Guinea’s former colonial ruler.
But some factions neither signed the peace agreement nor relinquished their arms. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) reported in 2008 that at least 3,000 Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) used during the conflict were never surrendered.
Weapons were common in Morisa’s village when her brother-in-law was accused of sorcery and gunned down in October last year. In retaliation, a relative shot the person believed to have ordered the killing. The violence escalated as homes were burnt down.
But the local community – its women especially – refused to stand by in the face of such violence. The affected families met to work out a resolution to the conflict, while women retrieved the guns used in the killings and handed them over to clan chiefs for safekeeping.
Then they signed a traditional peace deal. “We came to sign the memorandum of agreement that there would be no more killings and no more guns used for any other purposes, even the killing of pigs. There must not be any sound of guns in the area,” said Rosemary Dekaung, a Domakungwida resident.
The incident came four years after more than 1,000 women and girls, led by the Leitana Nehan Women’s Development Agency (LNWDA), a local non-government organisation, gathered in the capital, Buka, to protest against the threat of arms to daily life in Bougainville’s mostly rural communities.
Helen Hakena, LNWDA’s director, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that guns featured in incidents of domestic violence, land disputes, and violence related to accusations of witchcraft and sorcery, which are common on the islands.
Women often bear the brunt of the abundance of guns on the island, sometimes even losing land that is rightfully theirs.
“This is a matrilineal society and women own the land, but women cannot speak up to claim their land because (frequently) the opposing party are known to have guns. So land ownership goes to the wrong people,” Hakena said.
The capacity of law enforcement agencies to respond to gun crime is limited by a stipulation in the peace agreement that the police are unarmed.
Local women’s organisations say residents are also reluctant to give up their weapons because of uncertainty about the region’s political future. Within the next four years, Bougainville, with huge copper reserves, is due to hold a referendum on independence from Papua New Guinea.
“Some are holding on to their guns because they want to see the final destiny of Bougainville. We want to see that what we fought for has been achieved,” said Josephine Kauona, chair of the Tunaniya Open Learning Centre, a grassroots education project in Arawa.
Many in Bougainville see the island’s long struggle for self-determination as a struggle for justice and particularly freedom from external control over politics and the region’s mineral wealth, added Rosemary Moses of the Bougainville Women’s Federation.
INCLUDING WOMEN AND CLANS
But the current lack of gun control could jeopardize the referendum and its outcome.
“We would like to make our own choices, we do not want people with guns to force us to vote the way they want. We want freedom of expression, freedom of decision,” Hakena said.
Despite their central role in persuading combatants to lay down arms to end “the Crisis”, women have been left out of official consultations about weapons and disarmament, activists say.
“In terms of being written on paper… it is there, but in practice it’s not happening. In our walk towards nationhood, women need to be participating fully and making decisions,” said Moses.
And greater consultations with clan leaders, often the main authority in rural areas where government presence is minimal, is essential if gun crime is to be addressed at the grassroots.
“Each clan must take control,” said Dekaung, referring to the success of the traditional peace accord in Domakungwida “They must take ownership of the weapons and the women and children must have a say. They are all part of the clan.”