Solomon Islands Ex-Militants Commit to Work for Peace
A group of 28 former commanders of the Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM) took part in a course on peace and community building organized by Winds of Change, the Initiatives of Change group in the Solomon Islands.
The group included four senior commanders, Joseph Sangu, Leone Laku Koio, Charles Vangere and Patrick Qotso, representing the four regions of Guadalcanal Province. It was the first time the group had come together since the Townsville Peace Agreement in 2000. Many of the former combatants were fearful of coming too close to the capital, Honiara, in case they met former enemies. So the course took place in a village about 30km from Honiara which had been used as an IFM base during the troubles.
From 1998 until 2003, when Australia sent in troops to calm the situation, the Solomon Islands suffered a period of violence and lawlessness with many killings and thousands displaced. Much of the fighting took place on the island of Guadalcanal between the Guale IFM forces and people from Malaita. When some Guale militants, including the notorious Harold Keke, refused to sign the Townsville Peace Agreement the IFM began to fragment leading to further clashes between Guale groups. It was these wounds inflicted by Guales on Guales that the couse aimed to heal.
Initially the group were tense, many feeling that it would not work. Fingers were pointed. 'You killed by brother'; 'You burned down my cousin's village!' But tensions gave way to a realization that all were both victims and perpetrators and 'change must start with ourselves'. By the end of the week, the men were commiting themselves to go back to their communities to work for reconciliation.
Many of the men had felt marginalized by the new political order in the Solomon Islands. The course aimed to empower them to take an active part in addressing the problems of their communities through non-violent means. Subjects covered included family life and relationships, community-building, teamwork, leadership and conflict-transformation. Three from Initiatives of Change, Australia, joined the local faculty to facilitate the course. The course received financial support from the Ministry of Reconciliation and the Guadalcanal provincial government. The premier of Guadalcanal Province, Mr Stephen Panga attended the opening ceremony, along with representatives of the Ministry of Reconciliation.
Joseph Sangu, one of the former supreme commanders, and a brother of Harold Keke, said, 'Our eyes are now opened by the wisdom given to us by the facilitators of this workshop. We should never point fingers. We need everyone to be involved in the reconciliation process'. Patrick Qotso added 'we are victims and perpetrators ourselves therefore reconciliation must begin within families, communities, provinces involved and eventually with the nation'.
Leone Laku Koio, who was a top IFM administrator during the troubles said 'We realized that true reconciliation needs those of us who were actively involved in the unrest and the victims... we cannot wait upon our leaders to reconcile with other leaders. The problem was ours and only we ourselves can solve it because we know it.'
Reconciliation is a high priority for the new government of Derek Sikua, and Solomon Islands is one of the few countries in the world to have a full Ministry of Reconciliation. A major reconciliation ceremony had been planned to take place within the next few months with many of the former combatants encouraged to participate. However, as a result of the workshop the men sent a clear message to the government that they would not be participating because they first needed to do the grass-roots reconciliation work in their communities. One by one the men pledged themselves to do this work, all asking for support from the Winds of Change team and from Initiatives of Change. At their request the premier of Guadalcanal Province made a second trip to the village to talk to the former combatants, staying till after midnight to draw up plans and the beginings of a budget for this grass-roots community healing work.