Joelina Potoura lives with her elder sister in the village of Oria, Konnou constituency, southern Bougainville, the largest island in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea.
Following the death of her husband during the Bougainville Crisis (1989 – 1999) Joelina became involved in women’s welfare at her local church. At the time, Oria was being used as a communications base by the Papua New Guinea (PNG) Defense Force. Joelina was selected to be one of the women representatives for the ongoing dialog between the PNG Defense Force and the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ARB) movement.
When a second conflict erupted in the Konnou community, Joelina was an advocate for peace in Oria, the base for the Wisai Liberation Movement (WILMO) who were at war with the neighboring Me’ekemui combatants. Though she had peace negotiation skills, Joelina felt intense fear at that time. She felt vulnerable and unable to have an influence over the events that were unfolding.
“During the Konnou Crisis, we organized and tried to hold a few peace talks with the key leaders of the factions — the village chiefs, church leaders and some government workers from those communities — but I didn’t feel empowered with my knowledge then, it was hard during those times. The other factions always made it difficult for us. I didn’t feel we were fit and we didn’t have much support.”
After the women of Oria reconciled with the women from Me’ekemui, Joelina found the strength to confront the men of her village. At first she tried negotiations with the WILMO combatants but they responded with a lot of negativity. So, she tried a different approach.
Joelina walked to the WILMO headquarters, a place women from the Oria community did not go, and sat down on the ground. She refused to move until the combatants agreed to talk peace.
Eventually, after lengthy discussions and pressure from women in the village, they did. Joelina’s protest inspired the beginning of peace talks and eventually, reconciliation and an end to the violence between the WILMO and Me’ekemui groups in 2012.
“I represented the mothers from this side, the women of Wisai, and through a reconciliation process we opened a dialog with the Me’ekemui control areas,” explained Joelina. “This peace talk was successful mothers from three of the main religious groups in Wisai came together. We said that we, the mothers, need to be an example and reach out to the women in the warring communities.”
“We invited the young men in the community to witness the event also, the young men involved in the fighting. All of us the mothers stood together. We went around and shook our hands and hugged. We sang a lot of spiritual songs and songs with messages. We were all relieved and a lot of tears were shed. Our boys followed and organized another [ceremony].”
Today Joelina is a cocoa farmer and participant in the World Bank-funded Productive Partnerships in Agriculture Project (PPAP). She has 50 clone cocoa trees and has already started harvesting; she looks forward to being able to support her children with the profits.
“The cocoa project is a part of rehabilitation also for us,” explained Joelina. “After the conflict, a lot of the young men were aimless. They got involved in drugs and smoking marijuana. We need to think about these young men, and the widows in the communities also, and give them priority.
“Growing cocoa is helping us take care of our children and paying for their education. We’re realizing that now. I’m involved.”