FIJI: An Untold Story of Terror

Thursday, April 15, 2010
Fiji Times
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Their weary faces mask the unfathomable torment they've had to endure since violence _ that has proven fatal for some _ erupted nine months ago.
Agnes Sil, Angela Apa and Mary Kini are from Kup, a sub-district in Kerowagi District in the highlands of Simbu Province of Papua New Guinea.
They are the founding members of Kup Women for Peace (KWP) an organisation that has been dedicated for almost 10 years to building an environment conducive for development and prosperity. They are women, who by tradition are sworn enemies because their tribes have long been at war with each other.
That history of hate and tribal warfare was abandoned in 1999 when the women _ motivated by the pain in seeing their children at risk of being caught in the cycle of violence _ ignored the tradition to foster peace.
Tradition bars people of warring tribes from speaking to each other and even from being in the same room. Those found in breach risk being killed. It is only permitted after the custom of brukim suga (reconciliation) has been performed.
Yet despite this, and with the overwhelming support of women folk, KWP succeeded in brokering peace between the warring gun-totting tribes. And, for almost a decade the communities lived in relative peace. It was the kind of sanctuary never witnessed before by Kup's estimated 18,000 population.
That all changed nine months ago when the peace was shattered after a villager was killed. The death has been linked to a row over the valuable resource of sand gravel. Since then, majority of the development work carried out in Kup have been destroyed, said the the women. They are haunted by the images of the suffering that has unfolded.
Enemies carry high-powered guns and this has rendered the community helpless. Several more have died from gunshot wounds. A young boy who tried to swim across a river to warn his family of approaching 'enemies' drowned in his efforts, they said. Schools have been closed, development work has halted and foreign workers have withdrawn to safety. Even their hospital has closed. Neighbouring hospitals are hours away and even if one does make it there, they are penalised with extra charges. "(The officials) say we have given you the hospital but through your careless fighting the hospital has the cost of the hospital fee is raised up, two times the normal fee," said Agnes. Some have died at home as a result of the closure. Mrs Sil and Mrs Apa relatives were among the unfortunate ones.
Mrs Sil received the bad news on Friday. Like Mrs Apa, she believes her sister-in-law would have survived had it not been for the hospital's closure. Then there's the young women who have been demoralised in the warfare. Many, who have undergone KWP's awareness programmes on human rights, have been forced silent.
Rape is another atrocity that plagues their communities. The three women emphasised that while their oppressors are men, there are many men in Kup who are among the suffering. This is significant in contrast to a decade ago when the majority of the men would have been involved, they said. It is not the story today. Many fathers and sons disagree with the fighting and want to stop it but their hands are tied.
"They are very, very sorry and they wish that they could step in and do something but they are helpless because of the guns," explained Mrs Apa.
"In our awareness, we said guns are not good for us; guns make us become the servant of the guns."
The women were flown in last week by Fiji Women's Crisis Centre who have offered them a refuge to recuperate as well as help them in their effort to seek justice.
Seated on one side of the table, the trio described the great risks they had taken to travel here. Their warring tribes have endorsed their efforts to seek a halt to the fighting. The women, whose tribal settlements are isolated from each other, trekked separately for almost half a day through the highland's punishing thicket and across several rivers in order to reach the highway. From there, it takes almost two hours by car to get to town.
They arrived in Fiji in search of a solution that would not only give them justice, but also lasting peace. Mrs Kini said they represent at least a quarter of Kup's population. "Both warring tribes are aware of what we are trying to do," she said. "Despite their (involvement), they both have agreed that they will seek justice; they have started realising that it was someone else that had driven them to fight."
Initially, a team of about 16 police officers were dispatched to Kup but no arrests were made. By the time the situation worsened, the officers had withdrawn because they were outnumbered by the masses. Many families have fled to neighbouring sub-districts, forced to share homes until they can return. "In some homes, there are nine families living there so it is a very unhealthy situation," said Mrs Apa. Those who remain in Kup are in constant danger of being injured or killed.
The women are hopeful though after learning that independent peace mediators arrived in Kup this week. They said petitioning the government to intervene was one of their plans but they wanted to take stock first before taking action. They have also yet to share their situation with the media in PNG.
"We feel that it has to be made known first to whoever is there that caused the damage and the destruction, and then secondly to state that this tribal fight was not agreed to by the people," said Mrs Kini.
Said Mrs Sil: "We are kind of taking the first steps; finding out the ways or information to help us. We don't have any experience in how to do this. It's our first time to find a solution to stop all this." They are talking about ensuring those who started the trouble to pay for the destruction.
Mrs Kini said in the three decades of tribal wars she's experienced, none of the instigators were taken to court or punished. "They just walk away free even though we were left with destruction and people had lost their lives," she said. "It's about time that we take a stand to help our people to put an end to this; so that the instigators know and pay for the wrong they have done."
This is the wish of their respective communities and it is with this mandate that they pursue justice, they said.