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Testimony from dark years of violence

By Liam Fox

HONIARA, Solomon Islands (Radio Australia, March 9, 2010) –Old wounds have been reopened in the Solomon Islands as the country delves back into its violent past.

Victims of ethnic violence have shared their stories at the first public hearings of the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

School students lined the entrance to the commission - a symbol the proceedings are not just about the country's past but also its future.

Its chairman, Father Sam Ata, says it is important victims of the ethnic violence that rocked the country between 1997 and 2003 are able to speak, "so the entire country listens and begins to accept this tragedy as part of its own history".

John Dion was the first person to address the commission. He was attacked by members of a militia in 1999.

Ethnic violence claimed more than 20 lives and forced 20,000 people to flee their homes.

Much of the violence stemmed from the resentment felt by people on the main island of Guadalcanal towards immigrants from nearby Malaita.

Three years later, Australian, New Zealand and Fijian troops arrived to restore peace under the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI).

Father Ata, who ran a theological college outside Honiara until fighting forced its closure, says the tension of those days is still simmering away.

"Peace in the Solomon Islands is still fragile at the moment," he said. "There are a lot of dissatisfied Solomon Islanders who were hurt in the conflict. Anything could happen. We hope and pray that this will enable those who are willing to come forward to tell their stories to move on and make a life for themselves," he said.

Victims of the ethnic violence will share their stories in what Father Ata says is a last-ditch effort to move on from the past.

He says it will be a painful but hopefully cleansing experience.

"Definitely they will open old wounds but it is to redeem those old ones and get them healed," Father Ata said. "A lot of terrorism that happened in other parts of the world, they feel the same thing."

Former politician George Kejoa is also sitting on the five-member commission.

He says once it has held hearings around the country, it will advise the government on how it can avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

"I believe that what happened was the government was unprepared," Mr Kejoa said. "There was no mechanism to deal with any social unrest. We were caught unprepared."

The commission does not have the power to refer people to the police and the information it collects cannot be used in court.

But one incident Mr Kejoa said he would like to investigate was a break-in at the police armoury in Honiara in 2000.

"It has a very important bearing on the outcome of the social unrest," he said. "It was after the break-in that people were armed and a lot of things happened. It also affected education of children, other legal aspects in the economy. It is all intertwined."

Hearings will be held around the country before the commission advises the government on how to avoid a repeat of the violence.

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