By Eunar Noreen Karatu
The families of missing persons often speak of the challenge of living with not knowing what has happened, what the future holds, or where to turn for help.
Misconceptions also exist about who goes missing and why they’re missing. Families report feeling misunderstood by the community and service providers. They experience a loss that is traumatic and sometimes unresolved.
In this article, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), together with the families of the missing in Siwai, South Bougainville, unveil a monument to commemorate those who went missing during the Bougainville Crisis.
This crisis, also known as the Bougainville Civil War, erupted in 1988 in the North Solomon’s Province of Papua New Guinea (PNG). In 1988, a group of Bougainvillian landowners protested the presence of the Australian-owned Bougainville Copper Mine (BCL), which at that time operated one of the world’s largest mines from the Panguna region of Bougainville island. The war has been described as the largest conflict in Oceania since the end of World War II, with approximately 15,000 to 20,000 Bougainvillians killed. Thousands more are still missing, with no answers for their grieving families.
On the bright, sunny morning of March 4 this year, truckloads of these families arrived at the unveiling of the monument site, some taking shortcuts from their villages while others woke up early to make the long walk to attend the ceremony.
I could feel a lot of sadness and grief from the families without even having to ask. Many of the women and children that came to the ceremony were grieving for their husbands, brothers, and uncles.
I walked over to a young man, who introduced himself as Justin. I asked him if he was attending the unveiling ceremony of the monument and he nodded his head. I asked him if he wanted to share a few thoughts on how he felt about the event. He agreed with a casual smile and said in tok pidgin, “em orait”, meaning it’s okay.
I quickly set up my camera. I smiled and positioned the camera to face Justin, and on the count of three, he started to tell his story.
“I am Justin Kumpp from Siwai District, Raku village in Bougainville. I am a victim of the Bougainville crisis that created a lot of mess for the people of Bougainville,” he slowly said. “I have five family members that went missing during the crisis. My father, my mother, my sister, my grandfather, and my uncle. I was very young, around the age of nine, when the Bougainville crisis evolved. I grew up a very traumatised child. I faced a lot of problems growing up. I couldn’t get proper education because my parents were taken away at a very young age.”
In a trembling voice, with a few tears Justin said, “If my parents were alive, I would have gotten the education that children today are privileged to have. I have not forgotten my parents.”
“Therefore, when I heard about this event and saw the monument upon arrival, I was happy. I am still healing in the process, but I am hoping in future, coming to pay tribute at this monument will give me the peace that I am longing for.”
I wrapped up my interview with Justin and walked over to an elderly mother who seemed very keen to talk to me. I didn’t have to ask at all, she wanted to speak.
Margaret Sohun, from Konga in the Kopi Constituency of the Siwai District, was also a guest speaker at the event.
“The very reason why I am here for the unveiling of the monument is because of my brother,” she said. Joe was taken away in 1992 during the crisis and he never returned.
“There was a raid in my village, my brother was shot in the arm and escaped to the bushes. When he realized the villages were raided too, he came out and surrendered. He told the forces attacking us to take him and leave the villagers alone. Sometime later, we heard he was killed. His remains to date, we have not located or had any idea of the body’s whereabouts,” Margaret explained in tears.
“Joe was the third born in our family, right after me. I was Joe’s favorite sister. We had a very happy childhood growing up together until that day he was taken away. In times of need, my brother was very helpful to our family. He was an accountant by profession, so he would assist us financially as his family.
“It has been a really great loss for our family.”
Margaret continued to share that now, with the monument bearing the names of the missing persons, it would make it easier for families to visit and pay their respects to their lost loved ones.
“We will also feel closer to them because the monument is there, with their names clearly engraved,” she said. “All our pain in our hearts will finish now, with this monument standing here.”
“I want to say thank you to ICRC, responsible authorities, and the local community who played a part in the preparations and construction of the monument and making it possible for us to have a place to share our grievances.”
Catherine Anugu, from Oso village in the Siwai District, a teacher by profession and mother of nine also attended the monument’s unveiling. She was very emotional during my interview and told me her heart was broken.
“My heart is terribly broken for my husband because I didn’t see him when he was killed. Myself and my nine children have been left with great suffering after the loss of my husband,” she said.
“Despite our loss, I found the courage to raise my children and give them a proper education. My children have all grown up and are now able to take good care of me. I am happy and dealing with the loss of my husband but today, when I came and saw everyone gathered in front of the monument, it reminded me of my missing husband, and I cried out loud.”
Catherine said she had found peace through the monument.
ICRC Head of Office in Bougainville, Mukhamed Khavtsukov, said the ICRC has been working closely with local communities seeking to support the families of missing persons who are still searching for answers.
“The hostilities apart from the physical damage they have…the psychological trauma is sometimes a lasting effect which can be a lot more devastating than the physical loss,” he said.
“The ICRC tries to work closely with the families and try to provide them with support so that eventually they would find comfort and closure while pursuing answers [about] their loved ones who went missing.”
He said the ICRC maintains a close dialogue with communities’ central authorities in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville (AROB), working at district levels and community levels, and with the families directly to try to better understand their needs before the ICRC carries out support.