After several years in the Solomon Islands, Dominican priest Peter Murnane reflects on the people, the effects of the Second World War, recent civil conflict, the Australian intervention in RAMSI, and challenges of development.
Sunday evening, just before sunset; as usual it is still above 300C and quite humid, but there’s still time for a walk before evening meditation and Vespers. As I leave the front gate of our Dominican students’ house and turn towards the sea, children are playing in front of the school across the road.
Wherever you go in the Solomon Islands you see children, or hear them playing in the distance. This morning, at the end of Mass in the Kiribati community’s maneaba, the smiling children who came forward for their blessing were more than half the congregation. Among these five chasing each other across the grass, the littlest, a gleaming chocolate three-year-old, wears only one pink plastic gumboot, evidently a prized possession.
Other groups are out walking: three grubby urchins come towards me, carrying an assortment of plastic containers. In this group too, the littlest walks happily naked, for in this climate, at least away from busy public places, clothes are only a hindrance for boys before the age of self-awareness, although custom dictates otherwise for girls.
These boys are heading for the water tank behind our chapel. Their simple homes scattered along the back-lanes have only a small water tank, if they have one at all. When it runs dry, the children help with the vital task of carrying water from wherever they can find it.
At the end of the street I reach the base of RAMSI (Regional Assistance Mission, Solomon Islands) which came from Australia and New Zealand to settle the ‘ethnic tension’ in 2006. The base occupies many acres along the beachfront. Its high security fence has cameras and sensors, but in places the curling black wires hang useless, for electronics don’t last long in this tropical damp. The coiled razor wire rusting along the fence-top gives an illusion of security, as do the two guards at each gate, who laze hour after hour outside their guard-huts. Along the fence, repeated signs warn us that Man trespas bae go long kot, which interpreted means Any man [or presumably woman] who trespasses will soon go to court, that is, will be prosecuted.
The base is crammed with buildings, shipping containers, vehicles and fuel tanks. Diesel generators throb day and night, perpetually depriving nearby families of peaceful quiet. The exhausts of many airconditioners pour heated air across the street, among the street-stalls and passers-by. The comfort of those within the base is paid for by adding to the discomfort of the locals.
Within the base, on one of several blue-paved courts, four overweight men play half-hearted tennis. A Melanesian man watches them through the security fence. As we exchange greetings, I ask has he ever played tennis. As I expect, he smilingly answers that he would not know how.
Reaching the beach, my heart lifts, as always, at the sight of the immense Pacific Ocean, even though today it is lead-coloured under cloud. It awes me to think that one could sail a straight course across it for 12,000km, from Arctic to Antarctic without striking land. On the horizon to the north in dark blue silhouette is the Florida Group with Tulagi; to the west is Savo Island. I walk towards the west, even though in this direction I will be interrupted often by greetings from people sitting outside their leaf houses; walking along the sand or swimming in the sea, their only bathroom.
Remnants of war
In front of me, embedded deep in the grey sand, are the remains of an iron pontoon, rusting here since the Japanese or the US forces left it in 1942. During their bitter seven-month struggle to control Guadalcanal, each army in turn landed immense numbers of soldiers and materiel on these beaches. I look out across Iron Bottom Sound, in whose depths lie some 60 ships and the bones of many sailors. One night, the people of Savo watched gun-flashes from the deafening dogfight in which five or six big ships destroyed each other.
The goal of all the fighting was the strategic Henderson Field, now the international airport at the end of our street. In the months of struggle to secure it, about 38,000 soldiers died and 1200 planes were destroyed. No one counted the ‘co-lateral damage’ among the Indigenous of all ages, slain by violence, or starved when their food gardens were robbed or bombed.
Our Teacher challenges us to love our enemies. Have we Christians ever taken him seriously? As I picture the thousands who died violently near here, I ask myself yet again whether it was right to ‘defend our country’ by the same inexcusable methods as used by those who were attacking us.
I am persuaded by Dorothy Day’s comment immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbour, that if ‘we’ retaliated by declaring war on Japan, we would end up doing the same terrible things we were trying to prevent Japan and Hitler doing. The gratuitous horrors we inflicted by burning Dresden and Tokyo and obliterating Hiroshima and Nagasaki leave no doubt that she was right.
Are we really loving our country when we teach our population to hate, and train our young to kill their brothers and sisters who like themselves have been forced or cajoled to wear a uniform? When will we admit – and teach our children – that such hatred is the root of future wars? Our enemies are created largely by our own previous violence or injustice. The punitive sanctions imposed on Germany in 1919 led to the Nazi regime; the exclusion of Japan from the world community and trade stoked its imperial ambitions; for a century ‘Western’ invasions and exploitation of peoples in the Middle East have induced some to fight back at last with methods designed to ‘terrorise’, just as ours have been from the beginning.
Those who challenge ‘pacifism’ always object that we need to use force against people who massacre children or kidnap hostages. Plenty of that recently. But does it have to be ‘all or nothing’? In our current primitive stage of development, it can be argued that we need to use some force to counter these. And armies can use force with a determined effort not to kill. The ‘peacekeeping’ forces of which Australia and New Zealand were a part in East Timor and the Solomons achieved their goal with almost no deaths. However, these ‘humane’ armies still train their recruits to fight and kill by partly dehumanising them; and the politicians who control them are all too easily seduced to join allies in the worst of imperial campaigns.
Long after the ships and guns lay rusting around Guadalcanal, Japanese and US visitors came in friendship to reclaim the ashes of their relatives who were slaughtered by high explosives, or who died in great numbers of hunger and tropical diseases.
Richard Flanagan’s novel The Narrow Road to the Far North recently helped me to begin to understand what makes us torture or degrade our brothers and sisters as prisoners of war. On the same subject, the excellent film The Railwayman gave me a glimpse of how victim and torturer might, painfully, be reconciled.
I am more sure than ever that the world will not be healed by huge armies or institutions, which must rely on large-scale destruction and which unthinkingly abandon individual persons to all kinds of neglect and torture. The life stories of those who commit inhuman crimes always reveal damage done to them by others’ abuse. Only one by one can we turn back to see each other truly as human – with all the mystery that implies – and treat each other with the dignity that every person deserves.