10 Dec 2013

Solomons' government and Guadalcanal Weather Coast villagers to reconcile

5:49 pm on 10 December 2013

The Solomon Islands prime minister is leading a government team holding/ has held a reconciliation ceremony with villagers on Guadalcanal's Weather Coast today.

The ceremony at the village of Peochokuri is to try and make amends for an attack on the area by the police patrol boat more than a decade ago during the ethnic tensions.

The vessel was being used by the so called Joint Operation, involving Solomon Islands para-military police and the militant group the Malaita Eagle Force, which was hunting for the Guadalcanal rebel leader, Harold Keke.

Our correspondent, Dorothy Wickham, explained to Don Wiseman what happened.

DOROTHY WICKHAM: Basically, at the time, the reports that came out of the Weather Coast were that the police patrol boats had been taken over by the Joint Operations. They went around there (the Weather Coast) and were shooting up the villagers from the boats. I think it was a high-powered machine gun that was mounted on the patrol boat at the time, that was eventually removed when all this was over.

DON WISEMAN: Did people die as a result of that shooting or is that not known?

DOROTHY WICKHAM: That's not known, that's not clear. But from the commission hearings and the findings there hasn't been any conclusive evidence or reports saying anybody lost their lives. I think because it's such an isolated place, when the patrol boat turned up there, they had already heard the engines and fled the area. But there was a lot of damage. I personally went to the Weather Coast more than five times after RAMSI came in. And there was still evidence of bullets on the coconut trees by the beach where these patrol boats had shot up.

DON WISEMAN: Quite a crazy idea, wasn't it? Was it sanctioned by the government?

DOROTHY WICKHAM: I don't think it was sanctioned by the government at the time. I think it was something between the two groups - the military arm of the police, which were called the Seal force at the time - and the MEF (Malaita Eagle Force) when they had joined forces after the coup, they must have come up with that idea because of the fact that Harold Keke was based on that side and they weren't able to access the place by foot. I think that's when, like you said, this crazy idea took place. Also, it's caused a lot of problems for the government because these patrol boats were funded by the Australian government.

DON WISEMAN: There were a lot of other incidents, of course, on the Weather Coast and clearly a lot of very unhappy people. I understand that villagers there have been looking for some sort of reconciliation for years.

DOROTHY WICKHAM: And it's good to hear that the prime minister himself is going. I think there needs to be some seriousness from the political level to take it down to the village level to see that the politicians and leaders are actually genuine about this. As you know, we have few of these former people in this current government therefore it is important that this government shows that it's genuine in its efforts to solve issues that have been left unsolved, especially on the Weather Coast. As you know, the people of the Weather Coast were the worst off as a result of the crisis. They were not only targeted by the Malaitas, but they were also targeted by Harold Keke's people. So the most affected victims are the ones on the Weather Coast. When they didn't co-operate with Harold Keke, when they didn't agree with his views and his actions, they were terrorised, killed. And then there was also the left side of the issue that they had to face. So that is a region that has been really traumatised by the crisis and that trauma will not go away during this generation. I've visited the Weather Coast a few times and I tell you the trauma, that the children, the teenagers and the old people went through during the height of the crisis. And there are still problems on the Weather Coast because of it. There's been big divisions amongst the people themselves. So it is an area that the government must take seriously and address. There needs to be a lot of counselling, too, on the Weather Coast.