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Remembering Those Missing Due to the Conflict in Bougainville – and the Right to Know Their Fate

16 Dec 2020
By Bordger Bakere and Eunar Noreen Karatu
Buka - Bougainville. Source: Rita Willaert

Around the world, the International Committee of the Red Cross assists people who have family members missing due to conflict. In Bougainville, some families are still seeking answers decades later.

“The last time I saw my brother was in 1990, when he went to drop off my sister and her son at Makaki point in Kieta town. Before leaving, he asked for chicken for dinner and we ate all together that night. The next morning, he left without saying goodbye. Since then, we have not seen or heard from him. My heart breaks every time I recall that moment, not knowing that would be the last time I would see him.”

These are the painful sentiments of Isabella Buruau, as she reflects on the last memory of her brother, Pascol Buruau, who was 23 years old when he went missing during the Bougainville Crisis in September 1990, two years after the crisis onset. The Bougainville Crisis erupted in September 1988 and continued until a ceasefire was announced in 1997. The conflict ended with the signing of the Bougainville Peace Agreement (BPA) in 2001. No official figures were released as to how many people were killed or went missing. Government records estimate around 15,000 to 20,000 casualties, among them civilian casualties, Papua New Guinea soldiers, and several hundreds of missing persons.

According to his family, Pascol used to help to bring food for people taking shelter at the care centre during the ceasefire. “Pascol was born after me in Bougainville. He was always smiling and a very obedient child to our parents. Every time he returned home for holidays from university in Port Moresby, he would bring toys for his nephews to make them happy. The family is now left with these memories and a slight hope that may be one day Pascol might come back to them alive.” Cecilia shares this pain with her sister Isabella, “Ever since he disappeared, we suffer from not knowing what happened to my brother and if he will ever return home.”

Since 1988, hundreds of families in Bougainville are still yearning to know the fate of their missing loved ones, according to Dominik Urban, Head of Mission of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Papua New Guinea. Every year, the ICRC supports and accompanies families in Bougainville to organise traditional ceremonies to remember their loved ones as a coping mechanism to the deal with uncertainty. On 1 November 2020, families of those who went missing in Topinang, Pavaire, and Amiong communities in Kieta, Central Bougainville gathered to commemorate their relatives who are still unaccounted for today, more than twenty years after the end of the crisis.

On this occasion, families brought a tree that they believed the missing family member liked, accompanied by portraits of missing loved ones. A ceremony saw the trees blessed by the community priest before families took them home to plant in memory of their loved ones. The ceremony is a platform for families of missing persons to come out and celebrate the life of their loved ones and look at a new way forward without them.

“It happened many years ago, but the memories are still fresh,” said Joycelyn Mimira, a family member of another missing person from the Amiong community. “The life of the missing person has a meaning. These are people that have been with us before and remain with us in spirit. We should never forget them.”

Families of missing persons undergo the same traumatic experience as all others affected by the conflict, but they face additional psychological, social, and economic challenges associated with the disappearance of the family member. Not knowing the fate and whereabouts of their relatives denies families of missing persons a sense of closure, where they do not even have a place, such as a grave, where they may remember their loved one. Some families faced economic difficulties to cover basic needs linked to the disappearance of the household breadwinners. Other families were not able to inherit the land which was then seized by people from outside the family group. The most vulnerable group was the elderly, who were left without surviving children to work the land and provide for them.

The ICRC’s permanent presence in Bougainville dates to 2012, when it established the Arawa office with the primary view to help clarify the fate and whereabouts of those who went missing during the Bougainville Crisis. Over the years, the ICRC reached out to all those in Bougainville and Papua New Guinea to contribute to bringing solace to the families of the missing persons.

Dominik Urban described the fact that there are still people missing due to the conflict as a tragedy. “It is important that authorities ensure that their fate is clarified and that families receive their long overdue answers. The ICRC reiterates its commitment to support the national and Bougainville authorities in this effort,” he said. In its role as neutral intermediary and technical adviser on missing persons, the ICRC seeks to promote and facilitate a dialogue between national authorities around humanitarian issues related to the aftermath of the Bougainville crisis.

Other ICRC activities in Bougainville include visits to places of detention to assess living conditions and treatment of detainees, close cooperation with the local branch of the Papua New Guinea Red Cross Society to deliver first aid training to community members, and material support to local health authorities. Since March this year, the ICRC has adapted its activities to include a COVID-19 response to help prevent the entry and spread of the virus among the detainee population and to inform the public about COVID-19 and ways to protect themselves.

The ICRC has been working to protect and assist people affected by violence and tribal fighting in Papua New Guinea since 2012.   

Bordger Bakere joined the ICRC in 2011 and started the missing file in 2014. Certain people thought addressing the missing persons from the Bougainville Crisis was too sensitive, but the families of the missing thought otherwise, so Bordger assisted the ICRC in Arawa to organise the commemoration of the missing as Part of the International Day of the Disappeared (IDOD).

Eunar Noreen Karatu is a journalist by profession. Before joining the ICRC, she worked with the mainstream media in PNG from 2015-2016 then joined the Cheshire Disability Services PNG from early 2017-2018 as Public Relations focal point. She is currently based in Port Moresby as ICRCs Communication Officer covering mainly the Public Communication file and giving support to the PNG Red Cross Society Communication Officer.

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