Facing ghosts of the past in Bougainville

Over the next few months, the spotlight in our immediate region will turn to Bougainville and its referendum on independence from Papua New Guinea, due to be held in June next year.

Yet behind the scenes, the long-term project of peace-building and post-war reconstruction in the country’s autonomous region continues to demand the resources of government ministries, non-government organisations, and communities.

Infrastructure and services are slowly improving, but there is an unspoken presence of pain and grievance in many homes and villages associated with atrocities committed during the civil conflict, known as the “Crisis”, from 1989-1998, for which there has been no truth telling process or transitional justice.

It’s a sensitive subject, but many people across the islands with whom I’ve spoken during the past two years foresee consequences, not necessarily during the referendum, but in the years to come. Helen Hakena of the local Leitana Nehan Women’s Development Agency told me. The consequences live on, she said: "It is really an injustice when you, the perpetrator, are moving on with your life as though nothing has happened, but I [the victim] cannot. The elderly people are passing on their negative experiences to their sons, who will continue to hate the perpetrator’s family. There will be repercussions years later."

Bringing justice to victims is an immense challenge given that there has been no investigation into the scale and details of atrocities.

The Bougainville civil war raged for a decade after indigenous landowners, incensed by environmental devastation and inequities associated with the Rio Tinto majority-owned Panguna copper mine, waged an armed campaign to shut the mine down.

Up to 20,000 people, or 10 percent of the population at the time, lost their lives. Accounts of the conflict include reports of massacres, extra-judicial killings, torture, mass rapes, and disappearances. A recent mental health study identifies the long term impacts of these atrocities on Bougainville society, such as high rates of untreated trauma, domestic violence and substance abuse, and damage to cultural values, rel