Solomon Islands: News Year’s greeting

By Bishop Terry Brown

Dear Friends,

Warm New Years greetings. I write from Florida where I have had a pleasant Christmas with my parents (both going strong at 82), my sister and nieces. I’ll be here another week before going on to Toronto, Vancouver, Victoria, Sydney and Brisbane, with side trips to Fredericton, Boston and, perhaps, elsewhere. I’ll arrive back in Auki on February 10th. Mostly the trip is holiday but I’ll be preaching at three Toronto parishes, visiting various church national offices and taking part in a mission conference in the Diocese of British Columbia. But already I miss Auki!

As you probably know from the media or previous letters, the past year has been a very difficult one in the Solomons. During the first half of the year, the conflict between the two militant groups, the Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM) and the Malaita Eagle Force (MEF) intensified. This culminated in a take-over of Honiara by the MEF and elements of the police (both regular and paramilitary) on June 5th, including the capture of the central armory, all the police stations, Telekom and Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation. The Prime Minister was placed under house arrest and resigned a few days later.

The meeting of Parliament that followed elected a new Prime Minister, one acceptable, if not beholden, to the MEF. All this disruption on the streets of Honiara, not to mention the continuing fighting between the two groups on both edges of the city, resulted in the decision by Australia to evacuate all its nationals from the Solomons. This decision spread to other embassies and high commissions in Honiara, and planes and ships were sent in to evacuate expatriates. Needless to say, I continued on in Auki without any difficulties.

To make a long story short, through the hard work of the Deputy Prime Minister and others, the two militant groups signed a ceasefire in August and a peace agreement on October 15th in Townsville, Australia. Since then there has been considerable improvement in the overall situation.

A week after the signing, the militant groups organized a public reconciliation event in Honiara which lasted three days and nights. All the bunkers and checkpoints were pulled down, Guadalcanal people flooded into (largely Malaitan) Honiara and Honiara residents were finally free to go out into the Guadalcanal countryside.

Guadalcanal and Malaita families and friends were finally able to see each other, eat together and sleep in each others homes again. There were many tears — both of sorrow for those who had died in the conflict (often young students forced to fight against their wills by the militant leaders) and of joy of discovering that friends and family were still alive. Honiara is again full of people and the central market is again full of fresh food.

The country remains in terrible economic shape with almost all foreign exchange earners (oil palm, fish, mining, copra, tourism) not working. Many people have lost their jobs or been sent on unpaid leave both from government and private employment. As usual, the subsistence village economy absorbs people but many families are facing the crises of not being able to cover school fees and other essential items. There are some hopes that the economic picture will improve in 2001 but much depends on the security situation of the country and the wisdom of the government in the distribution of its limited income, including foreign aid. Much needed new elections are also coming up in 2001.

The diocese and I have been in the midst of all the mess, facilitating humanitarian assistance, trying to discourage human rights abuses, encouraging peacemaking and reconciliation, encouraging the church simply to do its work at the local level, especially with youth, molding church institutions to respond, etc.

Malaita itself was fairly quiet throughout the conflict, aside from attempts to recruit young Malaitan men into the MEF which did, of course, happen. Now we are trying to integrate these returning militants back into Malaitan village and town life. Some militants have come back deeply disturbed, never really having killed anyone before, or addicted to kwaso (homebrew) or marijuana and very anti-social.

The police who joined the MEF and are now being reintegrated into the police are also a problem. The diocese is organizing a series of ecumenical conferences on peace and reconciliation issues around Malaita covering such issues as models of development, customary land tenure, human rights, environmental issues, women as peacemakers, working together as a community. The first conference was held in North Malaita in early December and was quite successful.

I am glad to be out of the situation for a short break, as at times it has been stressful. At times Auki is a “cowboy town”, with anyone (militants, criminals, the police) shooting off guns for no good reason. While I have been regarded with respect, the judgment of drunken police or ex-militants is not very good. The lack of outside telephone services (including fax and e-mail) in Auki since last May, with no end in sight, is also difficult. Recently Auki has been without water although with the rainy season it has come back. Electricity is also a bit dicey (especially in Honiara) but Auki has been all right except for a month last Christmas when we lived by lamplight. We have shortages of imported food but the local market abounds. We continue to house and feed our many visitors.

Despite all the problems, generally the work of the diocese and my work went well last year. I thank God for that. I look forward to returning. Thank you also for your prayers and support.

+Terry

Terry Brown is the Anglican bishop of Malaita and a former mission coordinator for Asia and the Pacific with General Synod.

 


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