The Crisis: Civil War in Papua New Guinea

Last night I was on edge.

It wasn't just the "ambassador." Much of what I'd read about Bougainville before arriving painted a picture of a troubled and unstable country. Ten years of fighting for autonomy from Papua New Guinea and a brutal civil war ravaged the country in the 80s and 90s.

The "crisis" as the locals call it started in 1989 when villagers in the south protested against Rio Tinto, an international mining company that destroyed a mountainside of pristine rainforest to build one of the largest copper mines in the world.

After witnessing large-scale land destruction, the landowners fought to close the mine. In retaliation the company conspired with the central government to squash the protests. The central government in Papua New Guinea sent troops into Bougainville and set up a military blockade that prevented food, medical supplies, and fuel from entering the island.

Yet the Bougainvilleans turned out to be a tough match for the national forces. Women, who are the traditional landowners, lay down in front of company tractors and protested with their children. Men later formed the BRA (Bougainville Revolutionary Army), built guns from WWII remnants, and powered trucks with biofuels made from coconuts.

Despite the BRA's show of force, by the late nineties 15,000-20,000 Bougainvilleans died due to the military blockade. Most villages were affected by the crisis and today the civil war still looms over the island. To many the crisis explains the problems that now afflict the younger generation like alcoholism, drug abuse and violence.

Given its history and the air of intrigue around the hotel, I was a bit intimidated by Bougainville, and when a couple of men knocked on the cabin door at 1:00AM, I panicked.

"Please open the door," said one. "Your neighbor doesn't have a key." I dove to the floor and assessed the situation. What if it's the "ambassador?" I couldn't open the door. I couldn't pass the key through a window. I couldn't let them know I was inside and I couldn't call for help. I had to wait it out. I watched their shadows pass by the windows as they pleaded with me. For over two hours, they continued to knock.

After a brief sleep, a few hours later this morning we interviewed Ursula Rakova, the Carteret Islander whose organization is leading the relocation. Ursula was born on Han, the main island on the Carterets, but later went to school in Papua New Guinea. She worked for OXFAM until a group of chiefs approached her about the Carteret Islands. "You're spending all this time helping other people. Why aren't you helping your own people," they challenged her. Ursula agreed and later found Tulele Peisa. Translated from Halia, the Carteret's local language, Tulele Peisa means a convoy of canoes riding the waves alone.

The islanders face three main problems, Ursula explained. The population is increasing, access to food and water is decreasing, and the islands are shrinking at an alarming rate.

Tinputz is Tulele Peisa's first relocation plan. Yet it's the third move for the Carteret Islanders. The first relocation failed because of the crisis. The second move failed when local villagers chased the Carteret Islanders from the land.

These failures underscore the importance of the youth tour: the Carteret Islanders need to establish lasting bonds with the people of Tinputz, especially since the islands are becoming increasing uninhabitable. If the relocation fails this time, there may have no home to return to.

After the interview, I learned the men knocking on my door were indeed trying to help a woman who was locked out. I feel a bit foolish for being so paranoid. The "ambassador" is still lurking around the hotel, but he seems less menacing than he did last night.