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Tears, hope as foes reconcile before Bougainville independence vote

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Arawa (Papua New Guinea) (AFP)

Once-sworn enemies in Bougainville's cruel decade-long civil war are holding a series of reconciliation ceremonies, hoping shared tears and apologies can bury the past ahead of a landmark vote on the region's independence from Papua New Guinea.

Former separatist fighters and PNG military are meeting face-to-face, trying to come to terms with a conflict that left up to 20,000 people dead in the bloodiest fighting the South Pacific witnessed since World War II.

Until a 1997 truce, George Diva was a fighter with the pro-independence Bougainville Revolutionary Army.

Now a 50-year-old, he still carries deep scars on his chest from a battle that left him unable to work. But he is adamant reconciliation is the only way the next generation can enjoy a brighter future.

"We had enough loss, sorrow and pain," he told AFP during a reconciliation ceremony this week on the neighbouring island of New Britain, where he fled. "We don't want to fight any more."

Tens of thousands like him were displaced as the internecine and complex conflict raged through the 1990s, amid extrajudicial executions, torture, mass killing and the arrival of foreign mercenaries from Britain and beyond.

"I killed one of my own cousins," Diva said. "I killed more people, but I have made compensation for the lives I took."

To cap the 20-year peace process, more than 200,000 Bougainvilleans will from November 23 go to the ballot box to choose between independence from Papua New Guinea or more autonomy.

The island territory's residents -- many of whom feel culturally closer to the nearby Solomon Islands than Papua New Guinea's complex patchwork of tribes and language groups -- are expected to back independence.

The process then requires a "negotiated outcome" between the central and regional governments to achieve final status.

- Breaking of bows -

Since the truce, armed groups have been laying down their weapons and holding reconciliation ceremonies, seeking forgiveness for atrocities of the past.

Those ceremonies are now quickening in pace and carry extra weight ahead of the vote.

Self-styled "Melanesian brothers" meet to embark on symbolic customs including sharing in the popular stimulant betel nut, breaking of bows and arrows and planting coconut trees for peace.

Accompanying gun amnesties have so far netted thousands of weapons, but thousands more are believed to remain in circulation.

"We got it wrong in the start in 1989, that is why we lost men and women," retired PNG defence force commander Jerry Singarok said during the two-day ceremony in Kokopo.

Singarok was a key player in the conflict and blew the whistle on the "Sandline affair" -- which saw a British company contracted by the Papua New Guinea government to send mercenaries and military equipment to kill secessionist leaders in Bougainville.

At Kokopo, retired generals embraced ex-combatants and tears were shed over wartime confessions, with Singarok calling on former PNG prime ministers and leaders to continue the healing process.

"We need those people in the past who were responsible for those decisions to come and say sorry," he said.

In Bougainville's old capital Arawa, around 1,000 people gathered last week for a similar reconciliation ceremony.

A procession of women and children in tribal colours kicked off proceedings, followed by prayers before ex-combatants huddled in a circle with families seeking forgiveness for a long list of past grievances.

"Seeing the different groups forgive each other, it shows that we are just one big family," Arawa village chief Mark Niniku told AFP.

But like similar reconciliation initiatives from South Africa to Rwanda, the process is designed as much to inoculate against further atrocities as to address the wrongs of the past.

"It is about rebuilding relationships," said Thiago Oppermann, an anthropologist at the Australian National University. "It is likely that there will be more problems and reconciliation but that's how it works."

"Living in a small community in Bougainville is a little bit like living in a shared house, where no one is ever evicted," he said. "You just can't vote people off the island, but there is a constant effort to make things work."

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