by the Revd John Pinder who recently re-visited Solomon Islands
We were heading east out of Honiara, the capital of Solomon Islands, in a small truck, driven by Sr. Catherine CSC. Although I knew what to expect, the reality still came as a shock. As we picked our way through the pot holes, we could see ahead a line of oil drums and a heavily fortified bunker belonging to the Malaita Eagle Force. After careful cross examination and inspection of the truck and contents we were allowed through. A few yards further on, across Alligator Creek, we passed another bunker belonging to the opposing militants, the IFM, destroyed a few days before by the Eagles, using a make- shift tank with a machine gun mounted on the top. On that occasion the sisters had brought the dead and wounded back to Central Hospital in Honiara on the truck. The wounded were not to survive - four days later they were shot in their beds.
The Sisters of the Church have a training centre some ten miles east of Honiara. We were heading there for a special celebration to receive three junior sisters into the community. Further along the road we passed two more check points manned by teenagers, heavily armed with machine guns and assault rifles. Half a mile further on we reached the training centre at Tete Ni Kolivuti, situated on a small hill, which ironically had been used as an American look out in World War 11.
Solomon Islands used to be known as 'the happy isles' but now the T shirt says it all, proclaiming the 'not so happy isles' and listing all the causes of the current devastation. Tension between two groups from neighbouring islands had been mounting for eighteen months. It finally erupted in a series of shoot outs in June. The sisters had agonised whether to evacuate their training centre which is in an isolated and vulnerable spot and there had been reports of violence robbery and rape in villages close by. They decided not to evacuate but to work with the Franciscans and members of the Melanesian Brotherhood to try to bring about a cease fire. A peace camp was established in no man's land with the brothers and sisters trying to keep the two sides apart. At the moment there is a fragile cease fire to the east of Honiara. On the west side the situation is more volatile. Because of this the Anglican secondary school, Selwy College and Kohimarama Theological College were evacuated during May and June.
The reasons for the conflict are complex. Over the past thirty years more and more people from Malaita have bee settling on the Island of Guadalcanal, working on plantations and setting up businesses within reach of the capital. After several months of harassment by militant groups from Guadalcanal some twenty thousand Malaitans left the island earlier this year. In June it was the turn of the Malaita militants to seize the initiative. They raided the police armory with the collusion of Malaita members the police and Solomon Island defence force and took over the capital in early June. Many young unemployed Malatains in Honiara attached themselves to the militants and went on a rampage of looting, arson and robbery. The police force ceased to exist as an effective means of law and order. The economy of the country is in ruins, tourism is dead, the police force has melted away. Guadalcanal militants recently blew up the town water supply, domestic rubbish is uncollected and the oil companies have withdrawn credit facilities for the electricity company. To the great distress of Anglicans in Solomon Islands the Archbishop of Canterbury, due to visit in July, decided to cancel his visit, despite assurances from all sides that there would be no threat to his safety.
Enter the Melanesian Brothers, a group of some three hundred young men who take monastic vows for five year terms. On 5th June, amid great confusion in Honiara, as the MEF took to the streets, the Melanesian Brothers and Franciscans deployed around the city to stop looting and panic. A small group went to Government House, to discover the police guard had left. They stayed to protect the Governor General (himself an Anglican priest) and his frightened family. Another group boarded the three patrol boats of the Solomon Island 'navy', removed the keys and placed them in their chapel at Tabalia. For the last three months the Melanesian Brothers and members of the other religious communities have been the only effective force for law and order around Honiara. Whenever there is an incident, the brothers are quickly on the scene. While I was in Honiara in September, shooting could be heard most nights. On one occasion after a gunfight, the wounded were taken to hospital and when the frightened nurses did not attend quickly enough, more shots were fired and the home of one of the doctors was trashed. Many residents have suffered from looting and there is much anxiety and tension, but now people at least know that if there is a major threat the brothers will soon be on the scene. Even commercial companies have been asking for the brothers to act as security guards.
Inevitably in such a situation, rumours abound and there are remarkable stories of the brothers' powers. Guns jam when aimed at them, a young man who foolishly broke a brother's walking stick was later admitted to hospital with paralysis. Despite the brothers' best efforts, one of the patrol boats was commandeered to fire on a group of villagers gathered on the beach, but word quickly got around that the brothers had put a jinx on the boat when the bullets passed harmlessly over the heads of the villagers and on the way back to base the propeller fell off The boats have been deployed since. Without any doubt, the Anglican religious orders in Solomon Islands have shown amazing courage, literally putting themselves in the cross fire and going backwards and forwards across the lines to try to reduce tension and bring support and comfort of villagers in the battle zone.
Peace talks are now under way at last and are likely to drag on for weeks. There are fewer guns to be seen in Honiara and some police are returning to duty. There will be difficult questions over disarming the rival groups. Many have suggested the brothers should monitor the handing in of weapons but there should be some international monitors as well. There is a strong hope among church and community leaders that Britain will offer assistance with rebuilding the police force. Most people agreed that this is a crisis which Solomon Islanders must sort out for themselves and the hope must be that if a way forward can be found this former British protectorate will come to greater political maturity. Much overseas assistance will be needed will be needed to rescue the education service which is on the brink of collapse and the medical services and to develop the economy away from the capital to other islands.
Meanwhile the brothers and sisters continue to patrol the roads and man the peace camps although they are exhausted with all the demands being made upon them. In a fitting recognition of the work of the Anglican church's witness for peace and reconciliation, the government of Solomon Islands has recently awarded a knighthood to the Archbishop of Melanesia, the Most Reverend Sir Ellison Pogo.
The Revd John Pinder Rector of Farlington, was formally a teacher at the Anglican secondary school in Solomon Islands and English secretary of the Melanesian Mission.