The Oria church doesn’t get many outside visitors. Located in a remote area (population 2,000) of southern Bougainville, visitors would have to travel four or five hours from the island’s largest town, Arawa, to get there. The corrugated gravel road is suitable only for four-wheel drives and passengers immune to motion sickness.
But if a visitor were to find themselves at the regular Saturday service, the disproportionate ratio of women compared with men would be unmissable. Of the three sectioned rows of pews, the men and boys fill one row and the women and girls fill the other two.
The Konnou conflict (2007–2011) claimed the lives of 49 men and boys from the Oria community. Neighboring ethnic groups — the Wisai from Oria and the Me’ekemui from Mogoroi — began a war of payback killings for events that happened in the Bougainville Crisis (1989–1999). Fighters on both sides left behind widows, mothers, and sisters; women who first cried for revenge and reprisals against the enemy, encouraging the violence, then pleaded for peace as more and more of their men were buried.
“A lot of people were against us,” said Joelina Potoura of the Oria women’s attempt to convince Wisai Liberation Movement (WILMO) combatants to start peace negotiations with the Me’ekemui. In their mind, the women weren’t involved in the fighting so shouldn’t have a say.
“But we said, ‘Yes, we don’t carry the guns and fight but we tell our sons and the men in our community to hate and to take up arms’. We knew that we had influenced the men here to hate our brothers outside, to go and kill when someone is killed from our community.”
“If the mothers didn’t get involved, we’d still be fighting each other,” says Veronica Naisy, the widow of Jacob Naisy who still struggles to talk about her husband’s death, more than a decade ago. Jacob’s murder, a revenge killing by the Me’ekemui for his support of the PNG Government during the Bougainville Crisis, sparked the Konnou Crisis in 2007.
Four years later, following the deaths of some 500 people across the district, a group of widows and mothers, sisters and daughters of slain men from both sides came together in an official reconciliation ceremony. They shared stories, shook hands and hugged.
“We were all relieved and a lot of tears were shed,” remembers Joelina.