Our next round of partner visits was conducted with our central Bougainville partners, so we made the journey back along the road to Arawa, where we spent four days. Our journey down went “smoothly,” which means that we wound our way through the jungle on the (mostly) dirt road, speeding past acres and acres of coconut and banana trees, grass and vine-covered clearings, and an occasional village or school. Every now and then we’d reach asphalt and know we were about to cross a bridge and see a fast-moving river of dark water rushing over smooth, grey oval boulders and stones with a few people washing clothes or wading at the water’s edge. Once or twice, the road moved close enough to the shoreline that we could see a thin, white sandy beach that curved around the ocean, backed by imposing bush-covered mountains. Ali and I wished we could ask the driver to stop and let us walk on the beach and get our feet wet, but we had to make good time, so all we could do was glimpse it through the window.
The driver and our staff would occasionally point out features in the area as we flew by at somewhat terrifying rates of speed. There’s an active volcano on the island, which Francis, our driver, pointed out as we drove past. We couldn’t see the top of the volcano on the drive down because it’s usually covered in clouds – there’s always a lot of moisture in the air – although we were lucky to see it on our return journey because the sky was clear and a brilliant blue. He and our program staff also noted some bright green algae covered ponds, which Wilson, our COP, noted are actually holes left by bomb explosions during WWII. PNG was deeply involved in the conflict of WWII—although I’m not familiar with all of the historical details and will need to do some research, as I understand it, the Japanese invaded PNG and several major battles were fought in these islands. I’ve been told that Japanese Gen. Yamamoto was shot down while he was flying over PNG and that each year, Japanese tourists come to honor him. Since we were driving past such deep holes in the jungle, I asked Wilson if there are also unexploded ordinance still in the hills, and he nodded yes, explaining that sometimes farmers will be clearing land for cultivation or to build a home, and when a tree falls it sets off an explosion from the leftover ordinance – very sad and scary! He also told me that locals will sometimes come across skulls of dead soldiers in the jungle, that they leave them where they find them and notify authorities so that the bodies can be repatriated. Apparently a collection of bodies was sent back to Japan just last year. It seems that the history of the Second World War is not very distant in this place.
Central Bougainville Veterans Association
After arriving in Arawa, we met with another partner, the Central Bougainville Veterans Association (CBVA). Rather than being veterans of the war I just mentioned, these are veterans of the recent conflict in Bougainville, which locals refer to as “the Crisis.” This organization was formally established in 2013 by the Bougainville Division of Veteran Affairs to address the needs and improve the welfare of ex-combatants, widows, orphans as well as women and youth more generally. They are part of a network of three regional veterans associations – North, Central, and South – and the CBVA covers three districts: Kieta, Panguna, and Wakunai. The CBVA is currently implementing a Law and Order community program, sponsored by the Ministry of Law and Justice, where they are working with the local police force to improve community awareness of laws and educate young people on the dangers of substance abuse.
We met with a dedicated group of volunteer ex-combatants who are donating their time and energy to promoting the goals of the CBVA and helping make their communities safer. The CBVA is led by Grace Paul, Regional Project Officer, and their primary mission is to engage their network of ex-combatants in helping to rebuild and sustain the communities that have been so negatively impacted by the years of conflict. In particular, they want to help ex-combatants reintegrate into their communities, they want to help widows and orphans by identifying and meeting their needs, and they want to help communities work together toward a brighter future. Although the organization is young, they are hungry to grow and to benefit the people of Bougainville.
We met with them in a tiny basement office in Arawa, which was clean and bright with brand-new linoleum flooring, two tables, one working laptop, a printer, a whiteboard, and a handful of files. They have already begun renovating an office space in a more central part of Arawa with more room to fit their leadership and outreach team, and they were excited to meet with us and learn how they can improve and grow the organization itself. I was struck by the seriousness with which Grace, Richard, Inoua, Langland, and rest of the CBVA team took the assessment, answering honestly about the challenges they face, particularly a lack of resources. But their passion is strong and clear, their dedication—despite the challenges—impressive. Their current goal is to find funding to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the needs of ex-combatants, widows, and orphans in Bougainville in order to strengthen their programming and improve their advocacy efforts. They are also going to be instrumental in our efforts to raise awareness and support for the Bougainville National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, promoting participation and awareness through veterans’ associations, communities, and youth networks across the country.
I was touched by the spirit and dedication of this group of people and am looking forward to the partnership that will no doubt benefit us both.
Tunaniya Open Learning Center
After assessing the CBVA, we visited the Tunaniya Open Learning Center, located about a forty-five minute drive south of Arawa in Kieta District. Tunaniya (“too-nah-nee-ya”) was founded by Josephine Kauona Sirivi in 2003 to provide education and support to young ex-combatants and others who had missed out on formal education during “the Crisis” because education had been suspended due to blockades, safety issues, and school shutdowns throughout that time in Bougainville.
After Tunaniya began conducting its literacy work, its mission expanded to addressing family and sexual violence. Since being founded, it has served as a safe house for victims of violence, offered counseling services for victims of SGBV and trauma, and conducted mediation to help ex-combatants and victims of violence re-enter their communities and re-join their families. In support of reducing violence and helping communities heal, Tunaniya also conducts awareness activities and advocacy on human rights, gender equity, family- and gender- based violence, and other social issues affecting Bougainville communities.
The drive to Tunaniya hugged the Bougainville coastline, and we were treated to spectacular views throughout the drive that looked like they could have jumped off the pages of a travel magazine. White sandy beaches overhung with coconut trees, men in canoes fishing in lagoons, women and men selling fresh fruit spread out on top of banana leaves or colorful cloths from underneath the trees by the road. But we also drove past clear marks of the earlier conflict, such as the abandoned Arawa airport, now a weedy open field with a few crumbling cement buildings and some asphalt poking through the dense vegetation.
As we arrived at Tunaniya, the driver nearly missed the turn because the road is unmarked, and he had to turn around and come back. Pulling up the short road that leads to the buildings, we realized that the organization, which is housed in a compound or collection of buildings, is situation right on one of those amazing beaches. After the assessment was over, I was laughing with Josephine – a charismatic woman with a magnetic personality who also goes by “Josie” – that as I complimented the beautiful setting in which she lives and works, she seemed totally unfazed. She laughed and remarked that when you live there you get used to it, and it is only when visitors come that you are reminded of its stunning beauty.
The Tunaniya center is very rustic, with only intermittent electricity because they need a new generator, and no Internet or communications – Josie says they have to drive to Arawa to make phone calls and send messages. They have a number of buildings, including a few cottages, an open air kitchen, an open air meeting space/education area, a toilet/bath facility, and a partially built office with a meeting room. Tunaniya is under constant construction, not only because they need more buildings but also as part of their rehabilitation process: one of their programs teaches such lifeskills as carpentry to young men so that they are able to learn a trade from which they can hopefully earn a living. The young men come to the center to learn the trade and receive counseling to help them deal with the traumas of war. Once the young men have gained enough skill, Josie connects them to a family in need, as many families are living in tents or temporary, makeshift housing. The young man is placed with a family, and he lives with them while he works to build them a house. As the man works, he has the connection and relationship with a family, and they learn to appreciate him for his skills (often, young men are dismissed as having little to contribute because they lack skills and education and are often dealing with emotional scars from the conflict, so they self-medicate with homebrew or other harmful methods). Once the house is completed, the young man has not only proven his skill, but he has established a lifelong connection with a family in a community who will welcome him and vouch for him. It is an important step in his ongoing journey of recovery and community reintegration.
Tunaniya also serves as a safe house and counseling center for women who have experienced family and sexual violence. The center not only connects them with health and legal services (systems which, admittedly, need much strengthening here in Bougainville), but also provides shelter, protection, and counseling for the woman and her children. Josie also has far-reaching community connections, and when the time is right, she helps the woman re-integrate into her community, working with her husband and family to address the root issues of violence and to work with clan leaders and community elders to prevent future violence and hold husbands (and extended families) accountable.
Further, the center offers literacy training and lifeskills training (cooking, sewing, carpentry and joinery) to men and women throughout central Bougainville to promote livelihoods development. Once again, it is impressive how much they’ve been able to accomplish in the face of a lack of resources. But the determination to succeed and to help their communities has been an impressive trait among these women leaders and among the volunteers who have been supporting these organizations.