MISSING PALAUANS FOUND

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By Malou L. Sayson

KOROR, Palau (January 22, 1999 - Palau Horizon/Marianas Variety)---A group of 22 Paluans on board a boat to Peleliu on May 23, 1941 never made it home.

After long years of painfully remembering these lost relatives and close friends originating in the states of Angaur and Peleliu, the thought of finding them has gone almost to oblivion. But the heart still yearns for their return.

Until October 1976, there were hints that the group was believed to have been shipwrecked somewhere in Mermit Island, northeast of the coast of Wewak in Papua New Guinea.

Noga Garrison, an art consultant and curator in New York, discovered the shipwrecked Palauans in 1976 during her travel to Papua New Guinea. She was at the Sepik River in Wewak where she met a local guide who helped her find artifacts and suggested that she visit a copra plantation on the island of Maron, then within the territory controlled by the Royal Australian Navy.

In June, she boarded a ship operated by the Seventh Day Adventist missionaries on its annual tour of the islands to carry passengers and deliver supplies and goods.

That particular trip led to the discovery of a group of Palauans who were thought to have met their fateful death at the high seas, have been bombed by the Japanese soldiers (during World War II), or have been shipwrecked and stranded somewhere on an unknown island.

The adventurous Garrison, who has extensively traveled the islands of Oceania, found her way in the remote northeastern islands of Papua New Guinea. At one point in her voyage with the Seventh Day Adventist missionaries, she was amazed to find a group of people with marked resemblance to folks she had met from Palau, in the Caroline Islands.

Garrison’s deep interest in different tribes and cultures stirred her to make an extra effort of digging into some intricate details such as the pidgin used by these islanders which she found quite similar to the language used by the Palauans.

Her curiosity finally led her to what soon could be considered as a significant historical discovery. Her first verbal encounter (in 1976) was with the oldest man in the group, who was later identified by Isao Singeo, current Peleliu chief, as Ngimesengei, the chief of Peleliu who went with a group of men and women to Angaur in 1941.

Ngimesengei told Garrison that they were from Palau and that they were caught by a storm which drove them far out into the sea and got shipwrecked on an unknown island.

Upon her return to Guam, Garrison reported her discovery to a Palauan legislator. She later moved to London and New York, thinking all the while that the government of Palau has made significant moves to locate the missing group.

Since 1976, nothing had been done.

She later learned that a party of 22 people, including pregnant women, had been missing since the 1940s.

This prompted Garrison to contact the Seventh Day Adventist Missionaries, the Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Institution, the Metropolitan Museum, the United Nations, particularly the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO),and Cultural Survivors (an organization with a hundred anthropologists in Papua New Guinea).

She also obtained from the Royal Australia Navy charts of the area in which the remote island lies - all in the effort to discover the identity of the remote island for possible rescue of the shipwrecked Palauans.

The long lull since the 1976 first sighting of the missing Palauans has almost delivered the whole rescue mission to naught, owing to that fact that most of them by now are over 100 years old.

For Palau, the group of 22 would make a dent in their population, the biggest group so far to be lost at one time and significant enough to equal or even surpass the population of one state in the country.

A historical discovery? Yes, in the opinion that the group could have established their own village, developed linkages with the other island villagers and formed a distinct tribe by intermarrying with other islanders.

There is also a perturbing thought that they could have been enslaved or maltreated in a strange island where they were shipwrecked.

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