Once-sworn enemies in Bougainville’s cruel decade-long civil war are holding a series of reconciliation ceremonies, hoping shared tears and apologies can bury the past ahead of a landmark vote on the region’s independence from Papua New Guinea.
Former separatist fighters and PNG military are meeting face-to-face, trying to come to terms with a conflict that left up to 20,000 people dead in the bloodiest fighting the South Pacific witnessed since World War II.
Until a 1997 truce, George Diva was a fighter with the pro-independence Bougainville Revolutionary Army.
Now a 50-year-old, he still carries deep scars on his chest from a battle that left him unable to work. But he is adamant reconciliation is the only way the next generation can enjoy a brighter future.
“We had enough loss, sorrow and pain,” he told AFP during a reconciliation ceremony this week on the neighbouring island of New Britain, where he fled. “We don’t want to fight any more.”
Tens of thousands like him were displaced as the internecine and complex conflict raged through the 1990s, amid extrajudicial executions, torture, mass killing and the arrival of foreign mercenaries from Britain and beyond.
“I killed one of my own cousins,” Diva said. “I killed more people, but I have made compensation for the lives I took.”
To cap the 20-year peace process, more than 200,000 Bougainvilleans will from November 23 go to the ballot box to choose between independence from Papua New Guinea or more autonomy.
The island territory’s residents — many of whom feel culturally closer to the nearby Solomon Islands than Papua New Guinea’s complex patchwork of tribes and language groups — are expected to back independence.
The process then requires a “negotiated outcome” between the central and regional governments to achieve final status.