Bougainville to begin search for missing war dead
Bougainville government adopts new policy to locate, exhume and return war dead to families still waiting for closure.
The Bougainville government has adopted a new policy with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross to locate individuals, killed during the ten years of civil war in the Papua New Guinea province.
The new approach could see the exhumation of remains and their return to their families for traditional burial as a way to help bring closure for the victims.
A Bougainville-based delegate of the ICRC, Tobias Koehler, spoke with Koroi Hawkins about the new policy.
TOBIAS KOEHLER: This policy is an enormous step forward by the, by the government here in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, to acknowledge that there is a problem after the crisis, that many people have gone missing and their families and their relatives do not know what has happened to them. If they are dead or not, if they're buried or not, where they are buried etc...
KOROI HAWKINS: And where does this policy come in now? What has to be done? Is, what's the sort of the next step?
TK: The idea is to work together between all the parties who were infiltrated, implicated in the conflict. So not only the actors here in Bougainville but also the Papua New Guinea Defense Force which played a large role in this conflict. And the, the police at the time who entered the crisis. So the idea of them working together towards resolving outstanding cases of missing persons so that those bodies if possible can be located, identified and then returned to their families who are still waiting until today for, for proper burial according to their own local customs.
KH: How is this policy being received? Are you receiving any comments in Bougainville and maybe also across in Papua New Guinea. What have been some of the early responses to this policy being made?
TK: We have been involved in the drafting process of this policy since the early beginning so, and we've talked to a lot of people and overall I would say, there is very very strong support for the government here in Bougainville taking charge of the issue. There is a sense of relief a sense of hope that this might actually bring closure to the families that this might actually lead to a positive effect for those families, who, who cannot grieve the loss of their loved ones because they, they don't have a grave to go to. And their is support for this but their is also a sense of, I wouldn't say hesitation but at least apprehension of how exactly this will play out. There is continued distrust between the communities here in Bougainville and also particular across the ocean to the national government, towards the Papua New Guinea Defense Force. So this lack of trust is certainly something one can make out but it is hoped that through this policy and it, it would reunite the different parties in working together, would help instill a sense of trust in order to solve those missing cases.
KH: So just, just going through the process a little bit what would this entail? You would locate someone, there would be obviously exhumations, they would be brought back. How would you identify people?
TK: There is many steps that have to be in place, before you can start opening a grave because you need to collect a lot of information first hand of who could possibly be in this grave and who is actually missing what are the names of the people, what are the relationships of to the people that are currently still alive. What kind of information can we collect to then compare, remains that are uncovered, to descriptions of people at the time just before they have died. So there's a lot of steps that have to be taken and done before you can actually start, opening a grave.
KH: This would probably rely on people telling you where these graves are and those people might actually be actors in the deaths or people that know about it? Is there a immunity for people in terms of bringing back reconciliation?
TK: There is a, there is an amnesty in place, which is based on the so called Lincoln Agreement, that I think was actually signed in New Zealand, it was the precursor to the actual Peace Agreement which was given force of law, basically by Presidential Decree if I am not mistaken. So the amnesty is in place for all those acts related to the crisis, there is a couple of exceptions to it but that's for the lawyers to figure out. So overall there is an amnesty. And within this process that we're leading and also that the government here in Bougainville is following, it's a process based on humanitarian approach, so this process is not about criminal responsibility or accountability, this process is about the humanitarian impact of it and the return of bones to the families for the sake of, for them having closure. So any information that will one day, hopefully, be collected by persons who have seen what was going on or who might have even been personally implicated. This information will not lead to their prosecution, it will not be admissible in court etc and the policy is very clear in stating this.
KH: And finally the ICRC has applauded this. Why?
TK: We think that this is a tremendous step by the government because it acknowledges suffering by the families of missing persons related to the crisis that is, and we as a body it is, is very close to our mandate of assisting affected populations in conflict. And we are very much in favour of this policy because it clearly acknowledges a humanitarian approach, focusing on the needs of the victims and the families rather than criminal justice and accountability. Which we are not against of course but which we consider to be something that can happen in parallel if need be. We think that accountability and justice should not stand in the way of families finding answers to, to those questions that they have about what happened to their loved ones.
The Bougainville Civil War has been described as the largest conflict in Oceania since the end of the Second World War, during which an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people were killed.
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