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Post-Conflict Trauma Haunts Solomon Islands

HONIARA, Solomon Islands, Apr 29 2013 (IPS) - After ten years of working towards peace and reconciliation in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, following a five-year civil conflict known as the ‘Tensions’ (1998-2003) which left 30,000 people displaced and hundreds unaccounted for, people now go about their daily lives in improved freedom and personal security. But below the surface, untreated post-conflict trauma continues to impact many individuals and communities.

Robert (name changed) is sitting under a tree, his hands clenched together, as though in pain. He speaks of atrocities witnessed during the ‘Tensions’ more than a decade ago.

“There is pain in my heart when I remember men with high-powered guns coming into the community at night and grabbing a young child, dragging him away from his parents,” he recounted. Robert still hears the child, who was never seen again, screaming for his parents.

The Solomon Islands is an ethnically and culturally diverse nation comprising more than 900 islands located east of Papua New Guinea and northwest of Fiji. The economic downturn and rising unemployment in the late 1990s and crime contributed to escalating grievances by the indigenous Gwales of the main island Guadalcanal against large numbers of migrants from Malaita, a heavily populated island 100km to the east.

In 1998 the Gwale-led Isatabu Freedom Movement (IFM) began evicting Malaitan settlers, alleging they were encroaching on land, resources and jobs on Guadalcanal. Armed warfare followed when the Malaita Eagle Force, formed in defence, began to retaliate.  Despite a peace agreement brokered by Australia in 2000, violence continued until the arrival of the peacekeeping Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) at the request of the government in 2003.

Today state infrastructure and services that were destroyed or damaged are slowly being restored, but healing minds will take much longer.

“There are people whose lives are haunted, they roam around town, they are silent; they are traumatised. They don’t want to participate in any form of development,” Reuben Lilo, director of Peace and Reconciliation at the Ministry of National Unity, Peace and Reconciliation told IPS.

There are no available statistics on the extent of post-conflict trauma in the Solomon Islands. However, a social impact assessment by the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat in 2004 revealed that 75 percent of female and 73 percent of male respondents suffered personal trauma as a result of experiencing rape, death of relatives, threats and intimidation, destruction of homes and villages and being held at gunpoint.

Jack Kaota, a clinical mental health consultant at the National Psychiatric Unit in Auki, Malaita Province, told IPS that he had seen an increase in numbers of young people, especially since 2000, afflicted with substance abuse, and there was a connection with the legacy of the conflict.

Health professionals are particularly concerned about the long-term emotional impact of exposure to extreme violence in those who were children during the ‘Tensions’ and are now entering young adulthood. According to the Ministry of Health, up to 80 percent of those suffering from mental illness in the Solomon Islands are aged 20-30 years with issues for this age group including depression, substance abuse and suicide.

In 2008 the Anglican Church of Melanesia (ACOM) established the Commission on Justice, Reconciliation and Peace to address a number of conflict-related issues, including trauma, and to provide counselling.

“Many people don’t know what post-traumatic stress is about"
“Our position is that healing comes first before reconciliation,” Reverend Graham Mark, secretary of ACOM Commission in Honiara said. “There is also post-traumatic stress which continues to accumulate. It is important that we always monitor and also revisit places that we have already worked in.”

The National Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which began hearings in 2010, has aimed to allow people’s stories of suffering to be heard, to promote accountability for human rights violations and restore dignity to victims.

For many women it was an opportunity to speak out in a supportive context. Sexual violence towards women increased during the conflict, but many have remained silent due to potential social repercussions. The Women’s Submission to the TRC acknowledged the “strong negative cultural stigma and taboos attached to violations such as rape,” but advocated that “the nation should talk about the past to ensure that healing takes place for all parties whether they are survivors, victims or perpetrators.”

But there are vulnerable individuals who remain unable to participate in the national mission for truth and healing.

“For the reasons that there is some presence of arms still with some people in communities and that somebody who is the perpetrator to them is just living next to their home or their village, they can’t come forward,” Lilo said, acknowledging that these places, especially in rural areas, required more government support.

For others, personal anguish continues because the fate of loved ones who disappeared is unknown and their remains have not been returned.

The final report of the TRC was delivered to the government in February last year and is still waiting to be passed through cabinet before public release.

According to Reverend Mark, reconciliation had occurred in communities where there was acceptance and restoration of relationships and communal activities. However, provincial leaders have made it clear to the Ministry of National Unity that there remains a huge need for trauma counselling centres across the country.

“Many people don’t know what post-traumatic stress is about,” Kaota emphasised. “They have the experience of trauma, but they don’t know what it is. When we go out and talk about post-traumatic stress in communities, people suddenly realise they need help.

“Counselling services need to reach out more and create awareness. Then people will come forward and talk about their feelings,” he said.

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