CIVIL WAR THREATENS SOLOMON ISLANDS

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By Michael Field

HONIARA, Solomon Islands (June 20, 1999 - Honolulu Advertiser)---Guadalcanal, site of some of World War II’s most horrific battles, is again slipping into the tragedy of violence. The main island of the Solomon Islands is in danger of becoming engulfed in an ethnic civil war.

Thousands of refugees are being created, old men and children are dying and the already dirt poor Solomon Islands is slipping toward bankruptcy. The government has imposed a state of emergency, giving the central government draconian powers, while Australia and New Zealand have warned their nationals to stay away.

Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa‘alu says his country is facing its "darkest hour in its history."

The tension is between the indigenous Guadalcanal islanders and their rivals from Malaita, 60 miles away across Iron Bottom Sound.

A rugged, lush, jungle-clad island, Guadalcanal is home to Honiara, the dusty, decaying capital of the now independent Solomons. As the nation has grown, so has the need for land for state purposes and places to put a growing civil service.

Rich Land, Poor People

Although Guadalcanal is potentially rich – it has gold, palm oil, tuna fishing and, until the latest troubles, tourism – its people have among the lowest incomes in the Pacific and poor life expectancy.

Wealth, such as it is, is based on traditional land ownership, which the indigenous Guadalcanal people fear they are losing to people from the neighboring island of Malaita, who have come to dominate the civil service.

The conflict has its roots before World War II, when Honiara did not exist. The British colony on Guadalcanal was administered from Tulagi in the Florida Islands.

Then came the Japanese and what in pidgin is called "the long death."

The Japanese, in a flanking move designed to isolate Australia and New Zealand, made it to Guadalcanal and began building an airfield. Before it could become operational, U.S. Marines landed on Guadalcanal and managed to seize the airfield.

The Japanese, in turn, besieged the Americans by sending naval units down New Georgia Sound, nicknamed "The Slot." In a series of dramatic naval engagements, more than 50 vessels from five navies, battleships to minesweepers, went to the bottom of Iron Bottom Sound. Sixty years later leaking oil from the ships is killing reefs.

Eventually the Americans expelled the Japanese. But their initial landing point had become a big base, and when the Allies left the British returned and decided it would do as the capital, and Honiara was born.

Warriors of the Solomons

Although most of the 400,000 Solomon Islanders are Melanesians -- with touches of Polynesian -- they are a fiercely divided people with 70 distinctive languages. In old days neighbors seldom got along, but for most of this century, under Christianity’s banner, the tribal wars disappeared.

But around Honiara the indigenous Guadalcanal islanders have been watching their land disappear into state ownership and, consequently, into the control of people from Malaita Island.

Men from Malaita are the warriors of the Solomons; they are an often aggressive, talented and strongly disliked people. While their language is different, to the outsider it is hard to distinguish a Malaitan from someone from Guadalcanal.

In colonial days the British were fearful of Malaitans, and as Ulufa‘alu puts it, they were turned into coolies. Their men were sent all over the country to work but were never provided with housing – forcing them to squat wherever they could.

Many Joined Police Force

Without land to farm and virtually migrants within their own country, Malaitans gravitated toward business and government, eventually taking top jobs in those sectors, significantly in the police and para-military Police Field Force.

A university-trained economist, trade unionist and Malaitan, Ulufa‘alu was elected prime minister in a bitter election in August 1997, overthrowing the country’s strong man, Solomon Mamaloni. From neither Malaita nor Guadalcanal, Mamaloni is now the opposition leader and is accused by many of fomenting the growing trouble for political purposes.

Land Rights Issue Revived

The question of indigenous Guadalcanal land rights has existed since independence in 1978, but successive governments have largely ignored it. Another former prime minister and current Guadalcanal provincial premier, Ezekiel Alebua, last year revived the issue.

He demanded a tax of $10 from every non-Guadalcanal islander and compensation for the 25 Guadalcanal people killed by Malaitans since independence.

He said the people never asked to have the Solomon’s capital on Guadalcanal.

"Buildings are mushrooming everywhere on Guadalcanal," he said. "This is giving concern to my people."

Although he denies it now, his actions late last year were instrumental in the growth of a shadowy guerrilla group that emerged last December. Their political philosophy is about as well defined as its name; sometimes it is called the Guadalcanal Liberation Army or Guadalcanal Revolutionary Army.

Soon after its formation, the group raided a police armory and began training in the jungle. A shootout occurred with the police, killing one militant and wounding a police officer.

A week ago the Solomon’s situation markedly worsened. Several Malaitans were killed, an extremely dangerous event in a "pay-back" culture. Malaitans in Honiara erected barricades around the town and armed gangs roamed the streets looking for Guadalcanal people.

Beyond the town the militants sought out Malaitans – and last weekend it all climaxed in a village called Binu.

"Oh Please, Don’t Shoot!"

In a refugee camp now, Violin Dafua, told the story of the men who came.

"Chop, Chop," she said in graphic pidgin, hacking down with her arm, telling how a father fell across his two year old son to protect him from the armed men.

But the knife, she said, went through his body, reaching the child’s head.

"They chopped the father and got the son, the child."

Another Malaitan man was fishing when the militants moved toward him.

"He said, 'Oh please, don’t shoot,' and then they shot him in both arms and legs and when he went down they hacked him with the knives," she said through an interpreter.

Weeping women were clutching their children in terror, she said.

"There was no reason to kill him, he was fishing."

She tells her story in a matter-of-fact fashion, children clinging to her, other mothers listening, adding details.

Another man, Lionel Tota, said he was living in a remote part of the country when approached by militants.

"They had a gun, a point two two," he said. "I was not frightened, and I told them if you shoot me you will have to face the judgment of God."

He fled for the capital soon after, joining around 10,000 refugees.

Plantation Village Silent

Binu was an oil palm plantation village, but it is now empty. People have packed up and moved into the camps and are dealing with the standard refugee nightmare: registration with the police, a document telling them they are refugees and then dehumanizing queues at the Red Cross for another piece of paper giving passage on a ship across the Sound to Malaita.

Aboard the ship Romas the top deck is heavily rusted, but it is hardly noticeable in the heavy mass of people crowded aboard.

"It’s not normally like this," one man said, "Mostly people don’t have to take everything they own."

The Malaitan departure was in contrast to that of the white community fleeing Guadalcanal’s violence; they left on Qantas airliners for Australia.

To the west of Honiara beautiful villages stand empty, dozens of them. Everybody has gone; oddly these same villages were filmed recently for the Oscar-nominated movie "The Thin Red Line." They were seen there as havens of peace. Today they are ghost towns.

Michael Field Agence France-Presse New Zealand/South Pacific Tel: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035 E-Mail: afp.nz@clear.net.nz

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