building on trust
By Iain Logan
The Papua New
Guinea island province of Bougainville has been plagued by
nine years of secessionist fighting. A massive Red Cross relief
operation has brought more than just material assistance to
the beleaguered islanders. It has paved the way for a new
dynamic based on trust, confidence and hope.
Three thousand feet up and from the relative security of
a helicopter, the view over the Pacific island of Bougainville
is deceptive. It seems to have everything you would expect
of a quintessential island paradise: long deserted beaches,
towering jungle-clad mountains, a steaming volcano, tur-quoise
waters in stunning coves guarded by coral reefs, and dolphins
and sea turtles cruising the deep blue waters offshore.
Five minutes later, after making the final steep and cautious
ap-proach into a tiny clearing in the overgrown ruins of
the town of Arawa — only eight years ago a model of
town planning and prosperity — you are confronted
by a very different reality.
It is March 1997 and the town is almost deserted apart
from an armoured car lurking under a rain tree and a dozen
heavily armed troopers of the 1st Battalion Royal Pacific
Island Regiment scattered around the landing zone. The five-tonne
Red Cross truck looks strangely out of place among all the
accessories of conflict. A feeling of weariness and barely
concealed despair hangs over the town. In this atmosphere,
the International Federation is about to commence the most
ambitious humanitarian relief programme since the conflict
Six months later. Over 30,000 family packs of relief goods
have been distributed, reaching over 180,000 people in both
rebel- and government-controlled areas. Weeks have been
spent in careful talking, listening and negotiating. Today,
at the same landing zone in Arawa the scene has changed
beyond belief. The market is booming, the streets are crowded,
bands are playing at an inter-provincial sports match. Everybody
looks relaxed and hopeful. The same scene is repeated around
Despite setbacks, outbreaks of insecurity and controversial
elections, the joint Papua New Guinea Red Cross and Federation
operation has played a significant and widely acknowledged
role in contributing to the new face of the island.
How? Not merely by bringing to
a deprived population desperately needed clothing, utensils
and tools. Nor just by supplying medicines long absent from
the tiny bare-floored clinics in the Bougainville Revolutionary
Army (BRA) bush camps and villages or the overcrowded care
centres. The success of the operation lies in the building
up of trust, understanding and confidence. Hope was revived
by bringing together families and neighbours long separated
by violence, conflict and fear both to work and to share
the aid supplied in a fair and non-partisan way.
The core of this effort was the cooperation and coordination
among all components of the Movement, which demonstrated
that an environment of trust can overcome suspicion and
fear, that no matter how difficult the terrain, the politics
and the old animosities, with good will and intentions huge
progress can be made.
One hurdle after another
There was much ground to cover. The BRA was initially
wary of the operation and the possibility that the Red Cross
might be manipulated by the Papua New Guinea (PNG) government.
The PNG Defence Force on the island was suspicious of our
motives, our supplies and cargo, as well as of our desire
to move freely in all areas. The government, both on the
mainland and on the island, was supportive but uncertain.
The island’s population was fearful of the risks of
coming out of their hiding places to meet us, and the people
in the care centres were afraid of reprisals if they were
seen to benefit more than their fellows in the bush.
A slow, sensitive and low-key effort addressed each and
every one of these concerns. The small, close-knit Red Cross
team on the island consisting of two expatriate Federation
delegates, a PNG Red Cross field officer and two Bougainvillian
volunteers, proved to the islanders that cooperation works.
Close contact was maintained with the BRA leadership to
ensure their needs and concerns were met. Long meetings
with PNG Defence Force officers and men of all ranks were
held to explain the need and the value of free movement
and access. Gatherings at villages, care centres and in
clearings deep in the bush helped build trust and dispel
people’s fears of coming to the distributions.
With the support of the ICRC regional delegation in Manila,
courses on international humanitarian law and the rules
of warfare were held to raise awareness among troops rotating
onto the island. This helped significantly to improve freedom
of movement in later weeks. During visits to the island
senior representatives of the PNG Red Cross addressed the
question of independence and impartiality that banished
many concerns on both sides.
But finally, credit is due to the people of Bougainville,
who volunteered their time and offered their meagre resources
to play a part in making the operation their own and share
the risks that the Red Cross was taking. Men and women from
both sides willingly followed the Red Cross into areas which
until days before were forbidden to them to make sure the
distributions went ahead. Fishermen offered their boats; rickety
trucks and vans were brought in from the BRA camps. Thousands
of boxes were unloaded into the sea, carried through the surf
to the beaches and hauled through long overgrown trails deep
into the bush and high up the mountains. The Defence Force
and government officials worked to ensure a safe and non-threatening
environment. BRA commanders shouldered boxes and joined the
line of villagers transporting packs into the hills.
In August, Thomas, a Red Cross volunteer living in a government
care centre completed a distribution deep in the BRA area.
Afterwards he said “I have found my people again, friends
I went to school and worked with and that I thought were dead,
family I have missed for nine years. You the Red Cross have
given this back to us.”
Bridges take time to build and need solid foundations. The
bridge of trust is the most difficult and time consuming.
On Bougainville in 1997 such a bridge was built by the Red
Cross and the people of Bougainville.
Iain Logan is Federation head of delegation in Papua New Guinea.
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