FEATURES
Volume 18 Number 5
If I Am Killed, Forgive
01 October 2005

When Matthew Waletofea decided to work for peace in his country, he knew he was putting his life at risk. He talks to Caz Hore-Ruthven.

IN 1998 CIVIL WAR turned the paradise of the Solomon Islands into a living hell. Five years later, Australian peace- keeping troops brought an end to the killings, but the conflict and its consequences still lie heavy on the land and its people. Throughout the fighting, businessman and peacemaker Matthew Waletofea risked his life again and again.

‘I told my wife and six kids that there was a possibility that I, or even one of them, could be killed,’ Waletofea told participants in the final conference at Caux in August, ‘but I wanted them to know that I had forgiven the perpetrators of any wrongdoing, and that if I were to be killed, I hoped that they too in time would find the grace to forgive.’

The theme of the conference, organized by Agenda for Reconciliation, was ‘A world in crisis: learning from one another how to be peacemakers’. Among those who heard Waletofea’s story were a large delegation from Somalia, including a minister from the Transitional National Government, who were meeting privately at Caux to wrestle with the issues that afflict their war-torn country.

The conflict in the Solomon Islands flared up after people from one of the two main islands, Malaita, migrated to the other, Guadalcanal, in search of work. The indigenous Guadalcanal islanders felt that in doing this the Malaitans had transgressed ancient tribal land law rules. They rose up in arms and caused the mass eviction of 30,000 Malaitan settlers.

People were killed, women were raped, and property was destroyed. In response, the evicted Malaitans formed their own militia, took over the police and mounted a coup, which overthrew the government. The institutions of state collapsed.

Matthew Waletofea, who is a Malaitan, has been an advisor to two of his country’s prime ministers. He has his own accountancy firm, runs a number of schools, including skills training in rural villages and plays a leading role in the South Seas Evangelical Church.

As a committed Christian, in a country where 95 per cent of the population are Christian, he felt that the churches should take a leading role in trying to stop the fighting and human rights abuses. With them, he set up the Civil Society Network, which mediated between the warring factions.

TIT-FOR-TAT KILLINGS
As Waletofea began his mediation work he suffered abuse from both warring factions, who questioned his impartiality. He was punched and kicked and gun-butted on several occasions by both militias, but in the end he won their trust by not rising to the bait.

Meanwhile the violence escalated. When the headless body of a Guadalcanalan was thrown into the capital’s central market, most islanders were anguished. But a couple of days later there was another beheading—this time by the other side, and a day later there was another tit-for-tat killing. It was a turning point for Waletofea. ‘Islanders were beginning to accept that beheadings and delimbings were a normal part of trying to resolve differences. I started to speak out against these kinds of abuse, and the more I spoke, the more I was hated by both the militias.’

He was attacked a number of times, his office was vandalized, and the bishops he was working with were threatened. ‘One night the militia looted our house, mistook my brother for myself, and cut his body open. He didn’t die. But they didn’t touch me, or any of my family. ‘After they left I had to carry my brother to hospital, but to get there I had to cross three roadblocks of the particular militia group who had attacked us. So I prayed, and just walked. I decided that if they asked me to stop, I would. But they didn’t. On that night they took everything from our house— from our vehicles to the kids’ toys, everything we had.’ Even at such a time of despair, Waletofea found deep inner consolation. ‘I remember praying that night. I thought I was doing God’s work—speaking out when nobody wanted to speak. And I told God that I would rather he took me and not the militia. Afterwards, I had a strange sense of being liberated. The next morning, when we all began to take stock of what had happened, we all shared this feeling. It felt like a form of emptying—that now I was free to serve with little else to lose.’

'WHAT'S WRONG WITH THIS FELLOW?'

Indeed, right from the beginning of his peace-building work, Waletofea had a tremendous sense of being protected. ‘I had an awesome sense of security; a strong calling that this is what God wants me to do, and that he will keep me and my family safe. It gave me great serenity.’

This serenity was put to the test time and time again. Perhaps the worst moment came one Saturday morning, when his wife was away in Australia and three men burst into his home. ‘Four of my kids were there at the time,’ he said. ‘The men kicked and punched me for a while and one of them pulled out an assault rifle and put it to my chest and pulled the trigger. I thought I was gone, I really did. But it didn’t fire.

‘He took out the magazine, put back one bullet, then pulled the trigger again, but it didn’t fire. We’re very superstitious in the Solomon Islands—so I said to him you can try one more time, but you can guarantee it will fire out the other end! He pulled his rifle back and left.’

Throughout the conflict, Waletofea held fast to his belief that forgiveness is a vital part of building peace. ‘Each militia was made up of several warlords,’ he says. ‘As they inflicted trauma on us, I made the point of going to them, to tell them that I forgave them for sending their men. I went to one particular warlord a number of times, and told him I wanted him to achieve his objectives, but that violence was not the way to do it. The first two times I met him he was angry with me. The third time he said, ‘What’s wrong with this fellow?’ The fourth time he ordered his men to stop because he didn’t want to see me any more.’

Waletofea’s work has continued since peace was re-established in 2003. He has pioneered, with others, the setting up of a national branch of the anti-corruption group, Transparency International, and is working to establish human rights and truth and reconciliation commissions. He has also decided to address the critical problem of ethical leadership head-on, by founding the Solomon Islands Democratic Party.

The Solomon Islands face huge challenges: corruption, land issues, unsustainable logging, unemployment, illiteracy, poverty and demographic change (75 per cent of islanders are under 25, and the population is set to double in the next ten years). Waletofea is under no illusions about the size of the task before him, but he has a lot of hope. ‘It really depends on a leadership with integrity, credibility and ability,’ he says.


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