Papua New Guinea: Returning the spirits of the missing to their ancestral land

The 1988-1997 conflict in Bougainville resulted in the loss of thousands of lives. Many went missing at the outbreak of violence and remain unaccounted for, leaving their loved ones to endure the uncertainty and trauma of not knowing their fate. The extent of emotional torment is hard to comprehend for those who have not walked the same road and, two decades on, the pain and grief experienced by these families has not diminished.

The International Day of the Disappeared (IDoD) provides a platform for families in Bougainville to come together and remember the missing.

This year, the ICRC supported the community of Sipotavai, Tinputz, to commemorate IDoD by erecting a monument for those missing– the first of its kind in Bougainville. Families have the right know the fate of those missing and this monument provides a step forward in bringing closure to the loved ones of the 24 people still missing in and around Sipotavai.

The community itself planned the ceremony and monument after several communal meetings.  Sipotoavai exists in a highly spiritual setting in which the monument would allow for the spirits of the missing to return in peace to the land of their ancestors.

Family members of the missing in Sipotovai commemorate their loved ones. CC BY-NC-ND / ICRC

The positive impact of such an initiative was clear to Maitu, whose brother disappeared in the early years of the conflict and until recently was considered missing by his people. For Maitu, who walked 18kms in heavy rain to attend the unveiling ceremony, the monument allows his brother's spirit to finally be at peace, with a resting place.

For Suzzane, a now-elderly woman whose 12 year old son went missing during the conflict, the construction of the monument brought mixed feelings. After holding out hope for two decades that her son would one day return, the monument brought closure for Suzanne, yet also great sadness - it confirmed that her son will never return and the hope she kept clutching to has now disappeared.

Linus Saram, head of the monument committee, made it clear that the community wanted to move forward with their lives but only after dealing appropriately with the issue of the missing. Following a local motto 'to not leave any Bougainvillean out, dead or alive', they opted for the monument with the sole intention to address the issue without discrimination.

The ceremony and monument, in line with local traditions, has returned the spirits of the missing to their ancestral land and allowed their families to consider them dead – ending a very long wait and bringing closure to trauma that has spanned over decades – at least for the people of Sipotavai and its surroundings.