Wed, Jul 16, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Islands' peace process disrupted by renegade thugs


Kama squats in the shade of her bush shelter and shakes her head slowly.

"I have nothing and nothing left to lose," she says quietly as children prepare sweet potatoes.

From Ogio village, Kama is one of 142 refugees who trekked for a week from their villages along the rugged Weathercoast of Guadalcanal to seek safety in the capital Honiara.

In recent weeks a string of villages along the southwest coast of the island have been terrorized and their houses burnt by renegade Harold Keke and his band of thugs.

One baby died along the way and had to be buried in a makeshift grave in the bush.

Kama's grief is even more profound -- Keke's men executed her two sons John and Weatley because they were police "special constables" working for the government. Now she feels alone and vulnerable.

"Keke and his boys came into our village at three in the morning and executed the constables, beat their heads in with sticks," said another refugee still too afraid to give his name.

"They demanded everything from us -- chicken, pigs, money. If we didn't give them such things they threatened to kill us. Then they burnt our whole village anyway."

Guadalcanal, scene of one the biggest battles in World War II, is divided by a rugged mountain range, leaving its south or Weathercoast inaccessible from the north where the capital, Honiara, is located.

Four years ago Keke, a former policeman, founded the Guadalcanal Liberation Front (GLF) to drive off the island the people from Malaita, across Iron Bottom Sound from Honiara.

The civil war that destroyed the Solomons economy, killed more than 100 people in a nation of an estimated 400,000, and resulted in more than 20,000 people losing their homes.

Last month Australia announced it would send in an intervention force to restore law and order to the Solomons.

Since May, at least 1,000 refugees have moved into Honiara, says Josiah Karich who fled with them and is now working with the National Disaster Management committee on contingency plans for a further influx.

"People here are still afraid. Their home villages have been destroyed and now they are in Honiara they are afraid of militants, especially if there is a backlash when the intervention force arrives. I have requested a police post to be established here to help protect us."

Some of the refugees fled Honiara back to their villages during the conflict to escape harassment from another rebel group, the Malaitan Eagle Force (MEF), only to find themselves at the mercy of a rebel from their own island.

Most Guadalcanal militants, known as the Isatabu Freedom Movement joined attempts to bring peace but Keke and his followers, thought to number 30 to 40, refused to join the peace process and have been on the run ever since.

It remains unclear what Keke and his group actually stand for, since he appears not to have any political agenda.

"In the beginning he wanted to get rid of squatters on our traditional land and he talked about independence for Guadalcanal, but that was just talk," says Guadalcanal Premier Ezekiel Alebua.

"We people on Guadalcanal have been demanding a state government within a federal system for a long time, but independence has never been an issue."

He said Keke may be holding out for his own survival, fearful people want to kill him.

"He's just a gangster who watched too many Rambo films," he said.

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