Papua New Guinea: Living in the dark, still waiting for the missing

Arriving in Arawa Town shortly after ten on the morning of August 30th, Isabell Neriema sat sweating beneath the big rain tree in Independence Oval. She stared at the line of stores beside what Bougainvilleans call the Second White House – once the seat of the provincial government, now an empty shell of a building. Her eyes bore the vacant intensity of someone whose mind had drifted far away.

Isabell sat quietly among her relatives, nearly all of whom were dressed in black, the colour of mourning. She had turned her mind to the day when it all started: to the morning when her brother and cousin left home, never to return. Tears ran down her face. "I will not stop crying until I find these people, I tell you," she said. "I will continue to cry. My own brother is missing in action."

Isabell lost her brother and cousin during the height of the Bougainville Crisis. She is still waiting for news. What happened to them? Are they dead or alive? And if they were killed, where do their bodies lie? Nearly two decades after the end of the Bougainville civil war, commonly known as the "Crisis", almost every family on the island has a story to tell. But recalling the events that unfolded can be painful, traumatic and fraught with anger.

On the 30th of August each year, the International Day of the Disappeared (IDoD) provides an opportunity for families and friends of people who went missing during armed conflicts and disasters to come together and remember their loved ones. It is also a day to raise awareness about forced disappearances and promote international humanitarian law. The day is commemorated worldwide, in places as disparate as Colombia, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. In 2014, the International Committee of the Red Cross helped introduce IDoD to Bougainville by supporting families in Arawa in their efforts to mark the day.

This year, the event was commemorated in Arawa, Buka and Buin, giving families from Central, North and South Bougainville the chance to publicly remember their missing loved ones. Isabell was among those who commemorated the event in Arawa. She knows that news of her relatives' disappearances may not be revealed anytime soon – a harsh reality that many families have to put up with. But faith continues to drive her. She hopes that one day she may be able to recover the bones of her brother and cousin to give them a formal burial in their own land so that their spirits can rest in peace.

"We will never retrieve the bones of all of them. But please – the ex-combatants must come and we will work together to at least mark the sites where they are, even if they're in the seas, the mountains or along the rivers," she said. "These people's remains are very holy and we have to treat them as holy," she added. "We are superstitious people, we believe in the spirits of our ancestors and spirits of the departed and if we leave them as they are, they will continue to disturb the minds of those that killed them."

The Bougainville Crisis started in September 1988 and continued until a ceasefire was announced in 1997. No official figures were released as to how many people were killed or went missing. But government records estimate between 15,000 and 25,000 people, including PNG soldiers, died.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of those people simply disappeared. After the Crisis, some of their families were able to move on with life – but others are still struggling to cope. Central Bougainville Paramount Chief and youth patron, Thomas Koronaru, said that often the grief of the loss is accompanied by other difficulties, from financial insecurity to political problems. "Families cannot easily rebuild their lives," he said. "Some children are not in school because they have lost either their father or mother or both parents."

Marcelline Kokiai, the Central Bougainville Women's Advocate in the House of Representatives, said solving this issue will not take place overnight. Ms Kokiai pointed out that a perpetrator might be afraid that coming forward would jeopardise his security. "He could come openly to the victims, but will they forgive him?" she asked.

In September 2014, the Autonomous Bougainville Government adopted an official policy on missing persons, stating its intent to work towards solving the issue on behalf of their families. Similarly, the PNG National Government is considering a national version of the policy that will give all its institutions, including the PNGDF, a mandate to work together with the ABG to address the question. Accountability and criminal responsibility will not form part of the process, which is to be treated as a humanitarian issue only. But it is hoped that this policy will provide answers to at least some of the families. Then, perhaps, people like Isabell will finally be able to mark the passing of their loved ones – and begin to put the Crisis behind them.