Young people given a chance after years of conflict
By Ruth Ayisi
BOUGAINVILLE, Papua New Guinea, 20 July 2004
It is Genevieve Doni’s second day in school. She looks unsure of herself, probably because she is 17 years old and only in primary school.
Barefoot, Genevieve holds her head down as she picks at her peeling purple nail varnish. Although Genevieve, who lives with her elder sister, has been put in grade five in primary school, she is already struggling to keep up.
Like tens of thousands of young people on Bougainville Island, situated in the south-western Pacific Ocean, Genevieve missed out on the chance of an education. She was born just before the start of a 10-year civil conflict over the independence of Bougainville from the mainland Papua New Guinea. By the time she was school age, the conflict was at its height. Genevieve spent her childhood hiding in the mountains and rainforests, trying to survive. Schools were burnt down and teachers fled.
At the age of 12 Genevieve occasionally attended different makeshift schools run by untrained teachers in the conflict zone, but it was sporadic and only when security permitted. “I was hiding in the mountains most of the time,” says Genevieve in Tok Pisin. “I couldn’t go to school often.”
She looks down again. There is silence. Genevieve does not offer much information voluntarily. Asked whether she lost any family members, she says softly, “We had just returned from the mountains. We thought it was safe.” There is another pause. “I was sleeping at the time. The soldiers came into my home and shot my uncle in front of me. They burnt my home down. We had to flee again. I still think about my uncle being shot, especially when I see people in uniform.”
Another pupil, Tom*, does not know his age but looks about 15 years. He is in grade four and says he had received some schooling by volunteers in the bush, but most of the time he was a child soldier. “I was a member of the revolutionary forces,” he says in Tok Pisin. “I know how to use a gun. I was protecting my village. I wanted to guard my mother. That was the most difficult thing for me during the crisis – protecting my mother,” he says. “My father was shot dead.” Asked about the future, he says, “I don’t know about the future.”
The chance for Genevieve and Tom to receive a basic education for the first time, was given by a local businessman, Andrew Nompo. He got together young people out of school, many of whom were former child combatants, to build the classrooms. This year (2004) the school was registered with the Education Department as St. Andrews Primary school.
The classrooms, which are simply built with local materials, are set in a lush valley of brilliant red hibiscus and bougainvillea flowers just outside the town of Arawa. The young people used timber for stilts, intricately woven bamboo for the walls and dried sago leaves for the roof.
The school now has 61 girl and 75 boy pupils, and five teachers who teach grade 1-5. Most of the pupils have recently come out of what is called the No Go Zone, where the opposition figurehead Francis Ona of the Me’ekamui Defence Force (MDF) and his supporters are still armed and are in control of an area covering an estimated 40,000 people.
At the time of writing, Ona continues to separate himself from a peace accord – known as The Bougainville Peace Agreement -, signed on 31August, 2001, allowing Bougainville to develop its own constitution and to vote at a future date for independence from the mainland Papua New Guinea.
Bougainville is located in the east of mainland Papua New Guinea in the Solomon Sea. It has an estimated population of 185,000 people. The island is endowed in rich natural resources including huge quantities of copper, which by the 1980s was accounting for 40 per cent of all Papua New Guinea’s exports and 19 per cent of state revenues. Ona and his followers felt that their land was exploited and the people on the islands received little benefit.
There is a huge task ahead, especially to contain all weapons, and to establish a functioning court and police system and to rebuild the social service network. The psychological toll, especially on young people is high. The crisis claimed the lives of an estimated 20,000 people and has left a mass of uneducated youth.
The chance to go to school is critical for the island’s youth, says Simon Koraikove, the headmaster of St. Andrews Primary School, which is still struggling to equip itself with materials. But today Koraikove is smiling as vital new school materials arrive in a 55 kg steel box supplied by UNICEF.
As Koraikove, opens the box, his face lights up at its contents, which includes, exercise books, pens, pencils, rubbers, a clock and a host of other teaching materials. “These materials help boost the morale of these young people,” he says sorting through the box.
By the beginning of 2004, UNICEF had supplied 40 boxes of school supplies to Bougainville covering some 20 schools, most of which were built by the community members. UNICEF also assisted in training the teachers for these and other schools.
But getting the boxes to the schools in the areas surrounding the “No Go Zone” is a feat.
After leaving UNICEF Copenhagen, the boxes are flown to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’s capital. At high cost, they are then flown from the mainland to Bougainville Island. The journey is still just beginning.
In Buka, the capital of Bougainville, young men heave the heavy boxes on to the back of a four-wheel drive truck for a ten-minute ride before being offloaded again onto a small motorboat. It is a five-minute ride on the boat, but the rain begins to pelt down, luckily not too heavy to stop the boats this time. Another four-wheel drive truck has to be organised to pick up the boxes on the other side of the channel. Lack of basic infrastructure, such as bridges and good roads are a major logistical problem.
No sooner is the truck on its way again when the driver, Francis Orina, comes across a wide fast running river. The cement bridge has been washed away. The driver is used to it and skillfully steers the car across the river. The water splashes up on the side of the vehicle, which at that point seems to be more like a boat. “It is a problem when we have lots of rain, then we can’t cross,” says Orina
It is the first of 12 rivers without bridges, all of which he crosses in a similar fashion. Some of the rivers are wide, some are narrow, some are fast flowing and a few are more like streams.
Only the week before, a UNICEF project officer, Bertha Bade, based in Arawa, got stranded between rivers en route to fetch a shipment of school –in-a-box. She crossed one river in the pouring rain only to find when she came to the next river, it was too high to cross. She turned back, but the water had risen dangerously high in the first river, which she had just managed to cross a short while ago. She waited on the road from 1 pm to
Approaching Arawa, there is a small sign saying “No Go Zone”. Behind the thick green lush forest, it is difficult to see who is there, whether just one person or a group of armed men.
But it is calm and Orina picks up speed to his destination. Judging by the face of Koraikove, the headmaster as he opens the box, it has been worth it. The contents of the other boxes have been finished and new pupils, like Genevieve, are without materials.
Koraikove, who also lost two of his own brothers in the conflict, says that education is key for the young people in the school. “The big challenge is to bring them to the stage that they see themselves as students in a school. They have been in the bush for too long. Many of the boys have been soldiers, and they still act like soldiers. They like to dress in military clothes. They find it difficult to express themselves. They aren’t socialized.”
The other challenge, he says, is that most of the young people have very low levels of education, but because of their ages they have not put them in grade one and two. “I can’t put them with the smaller ones. They wouldn’t like it. The school materials in the box are excellent for them, as they are basic.”
UNICEF also works in close collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme [UNDP] and the United Nations Observer Mission for Bougainville [UNOMB] in peace building and in overall development.
“Tens of thousands of lives were lost,” says Dr. Isiye Ndombi, UNICEF Representative. “And the destruction of the infrastructure during the 10-year war was vast. We have to build everything from scratch in this little known island. The funding needs are very large to face this challenge.”
Meanwhile a difference is being made for children like Genevieve. She concedes that she feels strange being in a primary school, but even on her second day, she is motivated. “I should be in secondary school, but I want to continue learning. I want one day to get a job in an office, so I can look after my family. Many of my friends are still out of school. I feel lucky”.
* Not his real name