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Life On The Run In The Jungles Of Bougainville

Life On The Run In The Jungles Of Bougainville

By Michael Perry

SYDNEY (Reuters/Pacific Media Watch): Josephine Sirivi spent at least 10 years on the run in the jungles of Bougainville, hunted by Papua New Guinea soldiers because her husband was chief of the rebel forces on the South Pacific island.

Sirivi eked out a jungle existence during a bloody 13-year secessionist struggle from 1989, ever fearful of helicopter gunships and never knowing if her husband, Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) leader Sam Kauona, would come home.

Bougainville is due to gain an autonomous government by the end of 2004 and will stage an independence referendum within 15 years. The wounds of the region's longest-running conflict run deep, especially among its women.

"Many times I would cry aloud as I nursed my baby alone in the mountainous jungle," Sirivi recalled.

"Prayer was our only solace. We had no one to turn to. We survived because our world was so fertile. The jungle was our friend," she told Reuters in Sydney.

Now in her mid-30s, Sirivi recently launched the book As Mothers of the Land, in which several Bougainville women detail their harrowing lives during the secessionist rebellion.

Sirivi's infectious smile hides the painful memories of the horrors she witnessed.

Bougainville's men fought the war but it was the island's women who fell victim to gang rapes, forced prostitution, mutilation and death. Amnesty International called the conflict "The Forgotten Human Rights Tragedy".

A 1993 Amnesty report highlighted widespread human rights abuses on Bougainville from both sides of the conflict, ranging from rape and torture to extra-judicial executions.

A lack of medicine due to a four-year blockade of the cigar-shaped island saw babies die at birth at an alarming rate and children suffer malaria, whooping cough and leprosy. Thousands of women were widowed or abandoned during the fighting.

The exact death toll on Bougainville will probably never be known. Kauona estimates that 15,000 were killed or died, many of them civilians. The government puts the toll in the hundreds.

ESCAPE BETWEEN COFFINS Sirivi was a 22-year-old business student when a dispute over mine royalties sparked Bougainville's rebellion in 1989. She had dreamed of marrying her boyfriend Kauona, then an army lieutenant, but her life changed when he was charged with being a rebel.

"We married on the run," said Sirivi, who had to forgo the traditional island wedding ceremony so important to women in Bougainville's matrilineal society.

Initially Sirivi remained in her village thinking she would be safe. That was until the day soldiers killed and mutilated a good friend and the woman's 14-year-old daughter.

"The PNG soldiers placed dirt in their private parts and dumped them at Arawa hospital, in the front yard. They were unrecognisable," Sirivi wrote in As Mothers of the Land.

Hiding between two coffins on the back of a truck, Sirivi fled for the jungle. She was seven months pregnant.

On a rainy night three weeks later she gave birth to her daughter Melanie. After a two-day labour, Sirivi was forced to leave the rebels' bush camp and lay in the open to give birth. Post-birth complications almost killed her.

"One week later I resumed my journey on foot, not knowing how my baby would survive. From this time onwards I was living like a nomad," Sirivi wrote.

"This traumatic time often returns to me. The feelings of loneliness, isolation and vulnerability as I made this journey with a tiny new-born baby in my arms."

Everyday chores for new mothers, like washing nappies, were huge problems for Sirivi. She could not dry nappies over a fire for fear the smoke would attract helicopter gunships.

Sirivi would walk, sometimes for days, across rugged mountains to collect taro, yams and bananas for her family and rebel fighters.

"Sometimes, depressed and overcome, I would travel in silence for many hours, the tears flowing," she recalled.

But as the wife of the rebel military chief, Sirivi could not publicly show her sorrow because it would be seen as a sign of weakness. She, like her husband, had to lead by example.

In 1994, Sirivi and Kauona ran the blockade to the neighbouring Solomon Islands for peace talks. They became stranded there for seven months, leaving their children, Melanie, 5, and Imelda, 2, in the Bougainville jungle with relatives.

WOMEN DELIBERATELY TARGETED But while life in the jungle may have been harsh, it was at least safer than in government-controlled villages and towns like Buka, the military's headquarters.

The women on Buka island, a short canoe ride north of Bougainville, say they endured gang rapes and forced prostitution from soldiers and pro-government militia.

"When the army members raped women they often used objects such as the handle of a coffee cup," wrote Scholastica Raren Miriori in As Mothers of the Land.

"On one occasion they pumped engine grease into two died. I think the PNG army did not come to help Bougainville, they came only for the women."

Bougainville's women believe they were targeted for abuse in an attempt to break the spirit of the Bougainville people.

"In Bougainville, women are the custodians of our land and, by attacking them, the opponent aims to destroy the very roots of our communities," wrote Daphne Zale, the wife of a Uniting Church minister on Bougainville.



PACIFIC MEDIA WATCH is an independent, non-profit, non-government organisation comprising journalists, lawyers, editors and other media workers, dedicated to examining issues of ethics, accountability, censorship, media freedom and media ownership in the Pacific region. Launched in October 1996, it has links with the Journalism Program at the University of the South Pacific, Bushfire Media based in Sydney, Journalism Studies at the University of PNG (UPNG), the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ), Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, and Community Communications Online (c2o).

(c)1996-2004 Copyright - All rights reserved.

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