Back to Magazine

Bougainville: 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 started.


Spectacular turnaround

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 the island.

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.


Many hands...

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
Iain Logan is Federation head of delegation in Papua New Guinea.

Top | Contact Us | Credits | Webmaster

2003 | Copyright