Broken Nation

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Ezekiel alebua was driving to Honiara shortly after breakfast on June 1 when he was ambushed on the capital's outskirts. Between six and 12 men in military clothing and black masks opened fire from behind trees on the roadside, hitting the Premier of Guadalcanal province in the face, chest and arm and sending his car veering into the scrub. Bleeding profusely, Alebua scrambled from the car and staggered down the road to a post of the Peace Monitoring Council, set up to calm the civil conflict that has raged in the Solomon Islands since 1999.

Peace monitor Philip Nika rushed Alebua to hospital, where the veteran politician was soon declared out of danger. Half an hour later, after exchanging his blood-soaked shirt for a clean one, Nika reflected on the latest violation of what many had hoped would be a permanent peace. "Because of this shooting, people will have fear again," he told Time. "It could cause them to have different feelings about the peace process."

If the attack on Alebua had succeeded, he would have joined an estimated 100 islanders who have lost their lives since the scrappy ethnic conflict began. At stake is land. People from Guadalcanal, the cigar-shaped island on whose northern side Honiara sits, resent the incursions-and relative economic success-of settlers from nearby Malaita. Two and a half years ago, they launched a violent campaign to expel the interlopers from the capital. The rival groups formed militias-the Isatabu Freedom Movement and the Malaita Eagle Force-and, using homemade weapons and guns looted from police outposts, fought chaotic skirmishes after which prisoners were sometimes tortured to death.

When the m.e.f., with help from police paramilitaries, deposed Prime Minister Bart Ulufa'alu in a coup last year, the Solomons' neighbors demanded that the fighting end. The Townsville Peace Agreement, signed in October, led to the disbanding of the m.e.f. and the i.f.m., whose former commanders-in-chief now sit on the Peace Monitoring Council. Its aim-and that of the International Peace Monitoring Team that works with it-is to implement the agreement by promoting reconciliation and the surrender of weapons. That process is failing.

But the Solomons can hardly afford more unrest. The conflict-and endemic corruption-has brought the country to its knees. The government is all but bankrupt, the economy barely functioning. Teachers and public servants wait weeks for paychecks; hospitals are starved for doctors, nurses and medicine; the timber, palm-oil and mining industries that earn most of the country's income have collapsed. East of Honiara, the rutted road snakes past one deserted ruin after another. Near a silent sawmill, two men and a boy scavenge for pieces of pipe. A palm oil plant is empty, the houses of its former Malaitan workers trashed. At the Gold Ridge gold mine, local landowners fossick for alluvial gold. "You wanna buy some?" asks Matthew Mamata plaintively, holding out a vial of yellow specks.

Countless lives have been upended by the fighting, which has sent shockwaves far from Honiara. Twenty thousand Malaitans were driven from Guadalcanal back to their home island; they are now building houses on the crowded plots of sympathetic relatives. Those left on Guadalcanal are pinned in Honiara, living in barrios that cling to muddy creeks and steep hillsides. "We're trapped," says Ivan, an unemployed geologist. "I can't even go to the beach on Sundays." Guadalcanal natives, known as Guale, fare little better-there are no jobs and nothing to sell. With millions of dollars' worth of property stolen or destroyed, thousands of Solomon Islanders are demanding compensation from a government that cannot pay. Mass meetings of petitioners are not placated by wobbly official assurances, and the discontent could build into a flashpoint for further unrest.

But the biggest problem is guns. More than 500 modern weapons are still being held by former militants. In his ramshackle house in Kabia, a Malaitan enclave in Honiara, former m.e.f. fighter John Robo tries to explain why. When the paramilitary Police Field Force made its decisive move to side with the Malaitans on June 5 last year, he says, his unit's homemade guns were replaced with self-loading rifles, pump-action shotguns and Singaporean SR-88 assault rifles from the police armory. "When my unit broke up," Robo says, "the guns were given to the commanders. And though we want peace, we don't trust the Guale. If they harass us again, we'll come back together."

On a track winding out of Kabia, former m.e.f. fighter Willy, drunk on Sol Brew beer, blocks the way. "Gimme 50 dollars," he barks, thrusting his hand through the window of the four-wheel-drive vehicle. Rebuffed, he throws a punch, knowing no one in this neighborhood will dare to intervene. Speeding away, driver Robert Misimaka-a fellow Malaitan-says, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. But that's how it is now."

Throughout Malaita and Guadalcanal, militant thugs are an everyday bane. "There's been a generation quickly militarized and given a taste of fighting, and they're finding it very hard to go back again," says David Hegarty, the Australian chief of the International Peace Monitoring Team. The traditional social order is under strain as newly armed youths throw their weight around; village disputes are now conducted at gunpoint. Says schoolteacher Clement Fakasori: "The men with guns are holding this country to ransom."

On Malaita in the first week of June, former militants closed the airstrip at the provincial capital of Auki. The town's Mobil gas station is a battered shell, wrecked by an m.e.f. commander in retaliation for the owner's refusal to pay a trumped-up compensation claim. Peace monitor Sam Nuala, a father of six who fled Honiara, says villagers around Auki are regularly threatened with violence. Though weapons are no longer seen in the streets, he says, "the people are still very scared."

On June 6, two i.p.m.t. officers came under fire as their boat passed Visale, 40 km west of Honiara. Within hours, Hegarty pulled his team out of west Guadalcanal. "It's quite a serious incident," he said. He was unsure who was behind the attack, but locals immediately suspected Harold Keke and his brother Joe Sangu, former i.f.m. members who now head hardline remnants of the disbanded militia. At the coastal village of Vila, his stronghold near Visale, Sangu-dressed in a camouflage T shirt, blue paramilitary-issue pants, army boots and a necklace bearing a Jesus medallion-admits no outsiders. But after days of negotiation, he sends men to escort Time through seas of elephant grass to a meeting point on the coast. "I'm a freedom fighter for Guadalcanal," he rages. Reaching under folded matting, he pulls out a light machinegun and waves it in his visitor's face. He admits that it was his men who fired on the peace monitors' boat; they mistook the team for police, he explains. When 15 rebels arrive hanging off an i.p.m.t. pickup, he quips, "We're looking after it for them."

Sangu says he and Keke were also responsible for the ambush on Premier Alebua. "The shooting had to happen," he says. "Alebua is a corrupted man, using the province as his own company. We make a peace agreement, and he sabotages it. Most Guadalcanal people want him to die." From his guarded hospital bed, Alebua denies any wrongdoing. In the Solomons, accusations of corruption are rife. On the shaky back deck of the Opposition Leader's office overlooking Honiara, deposed Prime Minister Ulufa'alu rails against what he calls "an old-style criminal mafia" whose members, he claims, "designed this ethnic tension, were rewarded with government, and are now millionaires."

Those in the midst of the conflict have more down-to-earth explanations. "They take what's ours," says rogue militant Patrick Ruben of the Malaitan migrants who have dominated Honiara's political and economic life since World War II. "They believe they're superior to everyone. That's the basis of the war." On the aging freighter Sa'Alia, making the slow run from Auki to Honiara, Ivan the Malaitan geologist says Guale are jealous of his people's success: "When they sell us a piece of land and we do something with it, they get angry. They say, 'When I owned it, it was nothing, but now there's a piggery and crops.' That's why they hate us."

Trying to repair the damage that hatred has done is like trying to run a marathon in quicksand. The two peace monitoring groups have bases scattered through the two main islands, and their workers talk up the peace process in church gatherings and village markets. Yet the weapons only trickle in. At a clutch of huts near Sangu's home on June 11, hours before his group is due to start talks with the peace monitors, men are dusting off shotguns and rifles whisked from hidden caches. The guns are not seen at the talks a short time later, but a negotiator, told about them after the visit, says, "It just shows how far there is to go."

Ordinary citizens enthusiastically support the peace process, but their government appears increasingly diffident. Mired in debt, it stopped funding the Peace Monitoring Council in April; the unpaid workers live off aid rations. Instead, the government has hired 1,800 special constables, most of them former militants, who some locals fear could become a private army. According to some sources, the i.p.m.t. is considering quitting the country.

What is badly needed now is a reliable police force. Factionalized, underpaid and ill-equipped, the Royal Solomon Islands Police disintegrated during the civil war. Police Commissioner Morton Sireheti is struggling to claw back his authority, but many of his officers show more allegiance to one of his deputies. Outside Honiara, there's no effective police presence, though Police Field Force paramilitaries on Malaita have managed to round up some outlaw ex-militants, and regular police cling valiantly to their posts. In his office at Malu'u, north Malaita, Superintendent Allan Kelomae, barefoot and in a batik shirt, says: "I wanted to be retired fishing by now, but there's no one with the experience to replace me."

Police can help restore order, but they can't impose unity on these scattered islands. And the Guadalcanal-Malaita conflict isn't the Solomons' only potential fault line. With Bougainville moving toward autonomy and perhaps independence, some in the Solomons' Western Province have thoughts of joining it. But if the 23-year-old nation fractures further, it can expect little help from regional powers like Australia. Though they are concerned that the troubles of Bougainville and the Solomons could spread, Canberra diplomats say intervening in the affairs of weak island governments would be futile. If the Solomons cannot save itself, no one will.