Solomon Islands - ethnic conflict in close quarters

His name, he says, is John and he looks almost typecast for the guerrilla- commander part he claims.

He is dreadlocked, dressed in fatigues, and carrying a battered .22 rifle painted with the words "No Peace." He also has a special weapon hanging in a frayed basket around his neck.

"When I was in the front lines, I believed in what is in the basket, and it protects me," John explains. "I believe in the motherland that created it."

The secret weapon, it turns out, is wild ginger wrapped in leaves. Along with a shell amulet, John says it has protected him through an 18-month ethnic battle that has been taking place on one of World War II's most infamous battlefields.

The largest of the Solomon Islands, Guadalcanal was where the tide of the war turned in the Pacific in 1943. Thousands of US and Japanese troops died in the battle for its shores, recently portrayed in the Oscar-nominated film "The Thin Red Line."

For decades the island lived peacefully with the memory of war, using the wreckage from one of the worst US naval losses as a draw for tourists and scuba divers. But the Solomon Islands are again tentatively trying to find peace, after facing what Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa'alu calls their greatest challenge since their 1978 independence from Britain.

In the last 18 months, more than 40 people have been killed and some 30,000 people forced to flee a group of self-styled freedom fighters like John, armed with their own brand of spirituality, bows and arrows, and homemade weapons that fire found ammunition left from World War II.

An uneasy truce is in place and peace talks are scheduled for next month. But Guadalcanal remains in a tense standoff. The guerrillas have created an ethnic dragnet that has made most of the island a no-go zone.

"The Solomon Islands used to be a very peaceful country," says Imo Taasi, editor of the Solomon Star newspaper. "Now people are living in fear, especially in Honiara."

Honiara, the capital, is still the seat of government and most of the business elite. But its population has swelled as a result of what is referred to as "the tension" here.

As far as ethnic battles go, the one between Guadalcanal Islanders and migrants from the neighboring island of Malaita is a minuscule affair. The Solomon Islands is made up of dozens of islands, but its land mass is about the size of Maryland, with a population smaller than Baltimore's.

But according to Brij Lal, director of the Center for Contemporary Pacific Studies at Australian National University in Canberra, it is a conflict that is part of a growing pattern. "What we see in the Solomons is a manifestation of something we see across the Pacific - a sense of resentment caused by the so-called success of an immigrant group."

At the heart of the dispute is the rise of Malaitans to a position where they have prospered more than any other ethnic group and come to dominate the government as well as the workforce.

"The problem has festered for decades," says one regional diplomat. "The Guadalcanal people think they [Malaitans] prospered at their expense."

While they are not migrants from another country, Malaitans are seen as such in many places in the Solomons, where they are considered culturally more aggressive than other ethnic groups.

Years of mounting acrimony led to the creation of the Guadalcanal Revolutionary Army in 1998 and its later transformation into the IFM or Isatabu Freedom Movement (pronounced Eesa-tamboo; Isatabu is thought to be an ancient name for Guadalcanal). A year ago, the violence escalated when the guerrillas raided a palm oil plantation outside Honiara, where many Malaitans were employed. Malaitans were forced out of their villages en masse.

Peace accord

Thanks to the intervention of the British Commonwealth, a peace accord was struck. Former Fijian strongman Sitiveni Rabuka, who himself led two ethnically inspired coups in his own country, has made repeated visits as the body's envoy to try to keep the peace. But the situation flared up again earlier this year. Disgruntled Malaitans raided a police armory on their island and formed the militant Malaita Eagle Force to press their cause.

Now, what was a two-way battle between the Malaitan-led national government and the Isatabu Freedom Movement has become a three-way fight, with growing implications in the lead-up to an anticipated election next year.

Last week in Honiara, the opposition was claiming that Mr. Ulufa'alu, a Malaitan, had formed a paramilitary force to fight off the militant Malaitan Eagle Force. Ulufa'alu's government denied the accusations, calling them politically motivated.

There are also signs of tensions between Ulufa'alu and the foreign governments he has turned to for help, primarily Australia and New Zealand.

Foreign diplomats are critical of the government's seemingly lackadaisical approach in trying to bring an end to the conflict. It has taken little responsibility for finding peace, they argue, and relied too heavily on the Commonwealth delegation led by Rabuka.

Government calls for aid

The government in turn says it is fed up with not being given the help it needs. Ulufa'alu, who took office in 1997 on a platform of economic reform, has repeatedly asked for a multinational police force of a dozen Fijians to be increased.

For their part, members of the Isatabu Freedom Movement claim to now be only protecting themselves from the Malaitan Eagles. Despite the message painted on the stock of his rifle, John claims he and his band are ready to lay down their arms now that the IFM controls most of Guadalcanal. "Our people are free now," he says. "We want peace. We really want peace."

But it's unclear whether militant Malaitans are ready for peace yet or if the government can meet their conditions for it.

Members of the Malaitan Eagle Force were venturing out of Honiara last week and facing off against police and Guadalcanal militants on a ridge west of the capital. And if next month's peace talks don't work, there are fears the situation could escalate further.

With the cost too high for the government's coffers, Malaitans are unlikely to get the financial compensation they are seeking for the land they lost on Guadalcanal. "The general attitude now is that since that is not forthcoming, let us cause as much damage as possible to Guadalcanal," says Andrew Nori, a Honiara lawyer who acts as a spokesman for militant Malaitans. "We're sitting on a tinderbox and things could erupt any moment."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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