Pacific Media Watch

29 August 2015

BOUGAINVILLE: Protesters call for government action over missing people

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Protesters at the Bougainville rally for the disappeared march in the rain in Arawa. Image: ICRC

Stephanie Juleff
ARAWA (ABC Pacific Beat/Pacific Media Watch): More than 100 people, whose relatives vanished during the Bougainville civil war, have marched through the town of Arawa calling for action.

The Bougainville government adopted a policy on missing persons late last year, but so far it has only resulted in discussion.

Peter Garuai's brother, Benedict, went missing 20 years ago after he was shot and killed when Papua New Guinea soldiers raided Arawa.

"I myself have lost my brother ... he never came back. He was 20 years old when he joined the army but he was killed," he said.

Garuai does not know where his brother's remains are.

The International Committee for the Red Cross helped formulate the missing person's policy, but said there had been little real progress since it was adopted early last year.

Its representative in Bougainville, Tobias Koehler, said people were afraid to talk about their missing relatives, fearing it could fuel more conflict.

Bringing the bones
"The people of Bougainville are very much attached to their land and the issue of bringing the bones back to the place where they belong, that is of tremendous importance," he said.

"People have a tremendous belief in spirits, spirits of the dead.

"Often when the topic is broached, those spirits are not at ease, they are roaming and interfering with the lives of the living until the bones are brought to the place where they belong."

Apart from the psychological impact, Koehler said there were legal implications for people with missing relatives.

For instance, relatives of missing people cannot access their pension.

"Another issue is people may actually have the customary land titles challenged if they cannot show that their relatives have lived here for generations," Koehler said.

"Families are vulnerable to those titles being challenged and land means life here."

The impact of the bloody civil war in Bougainville is still visible. Burnt down buildings remain without being reconstructed.

But Garuai and other protesters remain hopeful the remains of the missing persons will be found.

Families lay loved ones to rest

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