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By William Nessen Chronicle Foreign Service

ARAWA, Bougainville, Papua New Guinea (December 29, 2002 – San Francisco Chronicle)---Residents of the emerald island of Bougainville are still striving for reconciliation three years after a decade-long war that killed an estimated 5,000 people and went all but unnoticed by the outside world.

In ceremonies throughout the rugged 4,000-square-mile island named after its French discoverer, villagers gather as victims and their past tormentors share strips of roasted pig, chew bitter betel nut and shake hands.

It is a traditional way of peacemaking that is trying to transcend the bitterness caused by the bloodiest conflict in the Pacific Islands since World War II. The fighting in Papua New Guinea's farthest-flung province ended in a cease-fire in 1998.

"They are beating swords into plowshares," said Noel Sinclair, the head of a United Nations mission that is overseeing the disposal of weapons from thousands of former combatants.

The Bougainville conflict began as a protest against one of the world's largest copper mines before evolving into a guerrilla war of independence from Papua New Guinea and later, a fratricidal civil war between rebels and counterinsurgents.

In August, Papuan and Bougainvillean leaders ended the war by setting the stage for an autonomous government and a referendum on independence within 10 to 15 years. The island's 160,000 inhabitants are now allowed to have their own police force, court system, tax regime and the opportunity to vote down national measures that affect them.

"The agreement is perceived by Bougainvilleans as part of the reconciliation process because of the blood debt owed by the national government," said Anthony Regan, an Australian lawyer who helped draft the peace pact.

The hostilities erupted in 1989 over a dispute about compensation from the Panguna copper mine, the world's second largest, owned by the Anglo-Australian firm Rio Tinto. There was mounting sabotage against the mine by local landowners, who had long tried to get payments for losses attributed to pollution from the mine's operations, which provided Papua New Guinea with more than one-third of its foreign exchange earnings.

"They saw wealth being generated and didn't see Bougainvilleans getting enough of it," recalled Joseph Kabui, who as provincial premier called in police to maintain order and later became a top rebel leader.

The feud revived long-simmering demands for independence. In 1989, some disgruntled islanders formed the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, a group of loosely knit local clans led by a former land surveyor named Francis Ona.

In the chaotic power vacuum that followed, Bougainville Revolutionary Army forces arrested, beat and sometimes killed those who had worked for the national government.

"Things came up that had nothing to do with independence: leadership rivalries within a clan, land disputes and paybacks for old grievances," said James Tanis, a university student.

Some villagers created local militias to protect their area.

"People supported independence, but BRA acted like criminals," said Raymond Hakena, 40, a well-known singer who helped create a counterinsurgent group called Resistance.

"With extended families, if you do something to one member, you make enemies of a lot of people," added Kabui, who now heads the two-year-old Bougainville People's Congress, the local government that is assisting Papua New Guinea's interim provincial administration.

With Papua New Guinea imposing an air and naval blockade of the island early on during the war and the Bougainville Revolutionary Army determined to uproot any foreign presence, Bougainville's economy collapsed. All public and commercial facilities were destroyed. There was no fuel or electricity, and towns were abandoned for the bush.

In 1990, Ona declared independence and proclaimed himself president of what he called Meekamuii. Papua New Guinea responded by tightening the blockade.

Currently, there is no potable water on Bougainville other than rainfall. The availability of electricity depends on how much fuel officials siphon off from power plants for their own use and whether there are enough funds to run the plant. Few residents have telephones; low-lying bridges have not been rebuilt, and unpaved roads are impassable after heavy rains.

Despite the end of hostilities, the dire situation is not expected to improve anytime soon.

Bougainville's government is bankrupt and operates on credit and financing from international nongovernmental organizations. Most recently, the governor and his staff were locked out of their offices for not paying rent.

Some economists blame Papua New Guinea's government, which is perennially at the edge of economic insolvency and has delivered less than a third of its promised $10 million annual grant to Bougainville.

Islanders, weary of poor living conditions and confrontation, are strongly pressuring clans to settle their grievances.

"To enjoy life in the village you have to reconcile, because it is very inconvenient not to," said Tanis, vice president of the Bougainville People's Congress. "You don't talk to each other, can't look at each other, so life breaks down."

There is also hope for the economy even without the long-closed Panguna mine. Bougainville's rich volcanic and alluvial soils could make the island economically self-reliant, some experts say.

Farmers grow coffee, rice, vanilla and other spices. But the main crop is a high-quality cocoa, once used in America's best-selling chocolate bars. The industry's revival is now the focus of U.N., European Community and Australian development programs.

Even as they seek peace among themselves, Bougainvilleans are well aware that Papua New Guinea -- weakened by the war, corruption, financial mismanagement, political instability and dependence on foreign aid -- is a questionable peace partner. Western aid workers say the local administration is so disorganized that frustrated expectations could precipitate more violence here.

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