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Finding Strength and Closure After Conflict: ICRC Supporting Families of the Missing in Papua New Guinea

09 May 2024
By Samuel Bariasi
Image source: ICRC

Violence and armed conflict produce many lasting consequences within a community. With over 120 conflicts and situations of violence still ongoing around the world right now, the impact of prior conflicts can be forgotten along with the work that remains to be done to help communities and families heal.

Conflicts can wound people both physically and mentally. While some wounds are visible, others are invisible.

Theonila Roka-Matbob was born about a year after the Bougainville Crisis in Papua New Guinea started in 1988. She remembers the last moments with her father in 1993 before he was taken away.

“I was only three, but I remember him carrying me and walking around the house. I will always remember the hymn that he sang. I knew that was the last time spent with me. He threw me onto the lawn just before he was taken away. That was the last time I saw him,” she said with tears.

Theonila’s elder siblings spent the remainder of that day expecting their father to return home, but that never happened, only their mother came home. “Mum witnessed some things that happened to dad when he was taken away, but she never told us about it. She was devastated when she returned home that afternoon,” Theonila said.

Not knowing the fate and whereabouts of a loved one severely affects the psychological well-being of families. They sometimes spend all their lives looking for answers and tend to become socially and emotionally isolated as a result. Children are, particularly, gravely affected, as they often deal with not only a disappearance but also a resulting change in relationships among the family members.

In her testimony given to the ICRC, Theonila described how her family were not given information about her father’s fate and the whereabouts of his remains until 1999.

“There is no proper way to describe the hatred I had and the period of growing up without any form of closure. It was a completely unbearable experience. Mum did not want to raise our hopes, so she kept most of the information to herself because she feared the impact of giving us the wrong story. Every time we asked her about it, she would break down and cry. The uncertainty went on for some time,” Theonila said.

Despite finally knowing the possible site of their father’s burial, it was only after the signing of the Bougainville Peace Agreement in 2001 that the family were finally able to access the location. They still could not be sure of where he was lying, however, because other people were buried in that area as well.

Theonila saw locating her father’s remains as a crucial step toward her family finding closure. She spoke with her siblings about the importance of forgiveness, finding peace, and healing. Her siblings resented her proposal, but she was determined to go ahead with it.

“I began to connect the dots and gather information from people about my father’s death and burial,” she said.

Hearing the explicit details of her father’s death tested Theonila’s resolve, and she almost gave up her efforts to find answers and heal. She ultimately decided to keep some details to herself to help her siblings healing.

“I decided to be positive and kept on telling my siblings about how important it was for us to reconcile, heal, and move on. I told them that there was no turning back, we must go through with the process. We started tracing dad’s steps back.”

Theonila said even though those responsible for her father’s death were not willing to face her family, she insisted on going through with the reconciliation process. “I told them that my family was tired of living in pain. I told them that even if they do not want to forgive us, we want to release them. So, it turned out to be more a process of releasing them for the purpose of freeing ourselves rather than reconciling,” she said.

Twenty-two years later, Theonila’s father’s remains were exhumed. “After going through so much for many years, I found closure at that moment. I am stronger than I was. I have realized that in life, people can hurt you in many ways, but it is important that you allow yourself to heal and find closure.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross supports relatives of the missing persons in selected communities in Bougainville, not only in the commemoration of their loved ones, but also to bring closure. It is also working with the local authorities to address the needs of the families of the missing.

“There are so many people in Bougainville that need to find closure and heal from the pain. The establishment of the Office of the Missing in Bougainville with the guidance of the International Committee of the Red Cross is crucial for this to happen. If there are thousands of missing persons from all sides of the Bougainville Crisis, just imagine the number of affected individuals and families.”

Theonila is married with two children and serves as the Member for Ioro Constituency in the Autonomous Bougainville Government’s House of Representatives.

Samuel Bariasi is a Communications Officer, ICRC, Papua New Guinea.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.