Young men in Bougainville

Almost all men in Bougainville were combatants in some way. For many, being a combatant gave them a sense of belonging. They were valued and respected, they had a purpose. Since the end of the crisis, many now feel excluded, isolated and unrepresented. Whilst most veterans currently live in communities, strong divisions remain, and many don’t know how to move forward. 

The listening project

A referendum on Bougainville’s political status is fast approaching – with a target date of October 2019. So, it’s vital that the voices of Bougainville’s veterans, and members of the communities in which they live, are heard.

That’s why in 2018, the Autonomous Bougainville Government’s Department of Peace Agreement Implementation (ABG-DPAI) requested our support to collaborate on a listening research project focusing on veterans related challenges in Central Bougainville. The project is part of a boarder consultative process initiated by ABG-DPAI which aims to build a comprehensive and inclusive understanding of the perspectives of leadership and non-leadership veterans and Bougainville’s communities. We provided technical support to the project by training a team of 12 researchers from Central Bougainville in the use of a listening methodology, enabling them to carry out listening conversations with 115 veterans and community members in the region. The project gave veterans and community members an opportunity to share their opinions relating to issues such as disarmament, rehabilitation, and their desires for the future. It ensured they have a say and, importantly, the research findings will directly influence and inform the Autonomous Bougainville Government’s approach to veteran reconciliation and rehabilitation.

The report and dialogue event

The project culminated in the publication of The Voices of Central Bougainville’s Unheard Veterans report presenting the views, messages and themes that emerged from the listening conversations. The report was launched in Arawa during a two-day dialogue event organised  by ABG-DPAI and Conciliation Resources to further the conversation on the challenges and opportunities identified through the research.

The event was an opportunity to inform relevant stakeholders about the findings of the research, acknowledge the perspectives of those who have contributed to the project and facilitate dialogue on key themes. It was attended by senior veteran leaders, ABG representatives, project researchers and participants, and civil society organisations working with veterans on peacebuilding issues.

This broad representation created space for a constructive dialogue on the findings of the report and suggested ways forward. It allowed participants to reflect on the diverse perspectives elevated from communities in Central Bougainville and unpack key themes such as the need for trust building, transformed relationships, support for veterans and communities to engage in reconciliations and support for widow associations.

Re-building communities

Throughout the conversations held with veterans and community members, a reoccurring theme was the need to tackle the divisions within society created by a decade of conflict. Reconciliation is vital – both between communities and veterans, and between different veteran factions. When speaking about a veteran one community member said:

He has not done anything, and lives and prays with us, but there is a barrier and a lack of trust, like a sore festering.

While another female participant said:

This is the step that we can take: if we have veterans within our families, we must talk to them to open their hearts, to really forgive and forget.

He has not done anything, and lives and prays with us, but there is a barrier and a lack of trust, like a sore festering.
Bougainville community member
Speaking about relations with a veteran

For many veterans, their former armed groups are still an important part of their identity – and communities in-turn often still regard veterans as former combatants. Trust needs to be re-built within these communities, and a shared sense of identity and purpose created. The people the researchers spoke to, felt that there were practical steps that could be taken to achieve this – such as creating collaborative artworks and memorials, as well as taking part in traditional reconciliation processes.

Customary reconciliation in Bougainville

In Bougainville, customary reconciliation processes are about investing time and energy, into understanding the other person. Often, the perpetrator is asked to raise an animal or grow crops, which provides time for them to reflect and slowly transform relationships with other people in their village or family. This process builds a foundation to heal divisions once the reconciliation process is complete and allows time for wounds to heal.

But for many people the research team spoke to, the lack of time was a major concern. Communities and veterans felt that these reconciliation processes needed to take place before the fast-approaching referendum. One participant commented:

When the blood is still crying out, it is not good to vote for referendum. [We] want a referendum but people are not together.

Both veterans, and other members of the community, also felt that a lack of psychosocial care and rehabilitation services, prevented veterans from being able to engage in reconciliation processes. They felt that they needed to address their own personal crisis-related trauma before they could begin to reconcile with others. A male veteran from Kieta explained:

We have scars because of the war. We fought. We need counselling because we are traumatised. We must put an end to our problems and reconcile.

It’s clear from speaking with both veterans and other community members, that there is a real desire to overcome the legacies of the past conflict in Bougainville and to transform relationships, including transforming current community perceptions of veterans. This listening project has provided the space for people to say how they are feeling and what they are thinking, and begin exploring ways forward.

The conversations provide a starting point to address issues facing veterans throughout Bougainville, as they continue to negotiate their changing roles in society.

As well as reconciliation processes, this listening project also captured the views of veterans and communities on issues such as the referendum, access to services, mining, and decision-making processes. For the fuller picture, read the complete report from the listening project in Bougainville.