Rebels Of The Pacific

Partly buried in the gentle surf, a rusting cannon points northward over Iron Bottom Sound, graveyard to an armada. On Aug. 7, 1942, U.S. Marines stormed ashore here on Red Beach to seize the island of Guadalcanal, turning back Imperial Japan's blitzkrieg across the South Pacific. Today the old cannon marks a new battle. Just inland, on a lush palm-oil plantation, aboriginal tribesmen armed with spears and vintage rifles dug up from the old battlefields have driven away thousands of settlers from Malaita, a neighboring island. "They came during a soccer game," says a plantation worker, recalling the May attack. "The militants appeared out of the bush, fired their guns in the air and ordered all Malaitans to get out. The men who resisted got shot. They even slit a little girl's throat."

Tribal hatred is the bitter wartime legacy of Guadalcanal, the crucial link in the archipelago nation of the Solomon Islands. Through jungles depicted in Terrence Malick's 1998 film "The Thin Red Line," aboriginal militants are sweeping down from the mountains to uproot Malaitan settlers, whose presence here goes back to the war. Since May guerrillas have expelled 40,000 of the 60,000 Malaitans, who had made up half of Guadalcanal's population. The ousted settlers are sailing on an overcrowded ferry back to Malaita, just 30 kilometers away and visible on Guadalcanal's eastern horizon. There they are forming vigilante groups, plotting to return and take back their homes.

A peace treaty hastily brokered by the British Commonwealth last month is unraveling fast. Prime Minister Bartholomew Ulufa'alu of the Solomon Islands has declared a state of emergency, gagging the press, imposing a 6 p.m. curfew and granting the police powers to search homes and detain suspects at will. As many as 50 people have died in the violence already. Diplomats and government officials fear civil war may be brewing. "There's been a breakdown of social order and respect for authority," says Solomon Islands Minister of State Alfred Sasako. "This has opened a can of worms that we didn't even realize existed in our midst."

The crisis goes back to the legendary battle of Guadalcanal, when the United States captured a half-built airstrip from Japan. Laborers began streaming in from Malaita to work on the strip for the Americans. After the war, Henderson Field grew into Honiara, the premier city and capital of the Solomon Islands. Though the Malaitans share neither language nor culture with the locals, who know Guadalcanal as Isatambu, they rose to become the island's business and political elite. Resentment among locals increased, erupting in attacks on Malaitans only late last year. Concentrated on the storm-battered Weather Coast, the militants now demand sweeping autonomy, including the power to halt new migration.

Though both sides in the conflict are ethnic Melanesians and citizens of the Solomon Islands, they find little in common. The Malaitans tend to think of themselves as pioneers on Guadalcanal, even cowboy types, and lean toward American and Australian country music. The local rebels relax to reggae legend Bob Marley and, more recently, have developed a cultlike following for the late gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur. They now have an estimated 5,000 men operating under the banner of the Isatambu Freedom Fighters, a.k.a. the Guadalcanal Revolutionary Army, and their ideology is equally confused.

The rebels are organized in the manner of a Maoist guerrilla force, building bases in the jungles of the Weather Coast and working hard to secure a rural following. But they fight for tribal rights, not communism. The two rebel commanders, Harold Keke and Joseph Sangu, are cousins and former Roman Catholic altar boys. They follow the teachings of Chief Moro, a charismatic headman who since the 1960s has preached the return to tribal law, custom and dress: grass skirts for women and bark G-strings for men. Their chief spokesman, George Grey, arrived at negotiations last month wearing combat fatigues, a bark headdress and Ray-Bans. "The insurgency is not a firm or well-defined movement," says a Western diplomat, "but a chain of loosely knit gangs."

So far, rebels have focused on emptying villages of Malaitans, not killing. In Kakabona, youth gangs excavated antique rifles from wartime munitions dumps and used them to scare well-heeled civil servants out of their homes. Near Red Beach, militants rousted more than a thousand families from a vast palm-oil plantation, which has become a free-fire zone for nighttime skirmishes with the paramilitary Police Field Force Unit. "The nightmare will come if militants try to take Honiara," warns a prominent local missionary. "That would be a bloodbath."

Police suspect that the campaign to drive out Malaitan settlers was planned months in advance in secret meetings along the Weather Coast. Diplomats and missionaries believe the offensive may have been orchestrated by Guadalcanal's provincial government, which has been pressing for local rights ever since the Solomon Islands gained independence from Britain in 1978. The provincial government wants to halt new migration and return land seized by Malaitans to locals--the same issues rebels are now pressing at gunpoint. Not surprisingly, the Malaitan elite are increasingly fearful. "The trend in rebel demands suggests that what they really want is independence," says John Maetia, a Malaitan who is head of Honiara's town council. "The police should hunt down their leaders and bring them to justice."

The police are tightening the roadblocks that now encircle Honiara, but the rebels lurk just beyond. On a recent excursion, three rebels appear from the coconut groves about 30 kilometers west of the capital. "The Malaitans used to live over there," says their barefoot leader, waving his rifle toward the grassy hills. A former logging-camp worker in his early 20s with an Australian beer logo, xxxx, tattooed across his forehead, he wears wraparound sunglasses, a rainbow knit cap and blue jeans. "On June 9 we cleared them out." Why? They "don't respect our culture," explains a tall, skinny soldier with his shirt tied around his head. "There were big fights over little things, like girls."

The biggest fight is over the land and wealth of Guadalcanal. In the 16th century Spanish mariners discovered the islands and named them, hopefully, after the rich Biblical king Solomon. They found sandalwood, shells and pearls, but also malaria and headhunting tribes. After 1850 European "blackbirders" began coaxing or kidnapping Solomon Islanders to toil on plantations in Australia. They targeted Malaitans--by reputation the hardest workers from the roughest of the islands. Later, when the Americans landed, Malaitans sought out jobs at Henderson Field. They saw black and white soldiers working side by side in what looked to them like relative equality, a sight that left them with their lasting admiration for Americans. By the time of independence, Malaitans dominated Guadalcanal. They had bought land, sometimes from tribal chiefs with questionable authority to sell it, or simply squatted. And they had muscled aboriginals off the fertile northern plain.

The Solomon Islands remain part of the British Commonwealth, which is alarmed by the specter of ethnic cleansing on its South Pacific turf. In June the commonwealth drafted former Fijian strongman Gen. Sitiveni L. Rabuka to mediate. It was a controversial choice. Rabuka, a.k.a. Rambo, led a coup of his own in 1987 and is better known as a warrior than a statesman. He says rebel grievances cannot be dismissed. "There are some very strange relationships between the police and the public," he told NEWSWEEK, citing "a view among the Guadalcanal people that they are being victimized by the police because of the prevalence of Malaitans on the force."

Rabuka quickly cobbled together a peace deal, the Honiara Accord, which aims to keep the rival ethnic groups apart and address rebel demands. It proposes a review of all landholdings, new policies to discourage migration and consideration of a "state government system" for the Solomon Islands. It calls for "even development" in all provinces and provides some $500,000 in compensation for "social costs borne by indigenous peoples." To some, the Honiara Accord sounds like a scheme to Balkanize the Solomon Islands. Outgoing National Police Commissioner Frank Short, a salty Australian expat, has publicly rebuked Rabuka for appearing to "sympathize" with the rebels.

Will the Solomon Islands fall apart? In the weeks since the accord, Guadalcanal's crisis has intensified. Santa Isabel and other islands in the chain have declared themselves neutral and warned refugees to stay away from their shores. The accord calls for rebels to lay down arms and for shuttered industries to reopen, so far to no avail. The fighting has closed Solomon Islands Plantations Ltd., a palm-oil farm that accounts for a fifth of the country's $370 million GDP. Rebels are demanding that ousted Malaitan workers not be permitted to return. Plantation manager Michael Workman dismisses the demand as "totally unrealistic," but says he can't reopen until militants agree. "It's impractical to protect a 6,000-hectare plantation," he says. "This is excellent country for guerrilla warfare."

In fact, the rebels are just down the road. Their arsenal is a grab bag of spears, crossbows, vintage guns and tribal magic. Most militants use either .22s, which are popular for hunting small game, or .303-caliber rifles from World War II. They mine munitions dumps for old bullets, which they pry open and douse with alcohol, so the old gunpowder will fire. Then they reassemble the bullet. To ward off incoming fire, rebels trust in "magic" walking sticks or amulets of seashells strung on threads of bark. They also claim to ride magic "bush motorbikes" that can fly across the island in seconds. By the roadside, a rebel in sunglasses eases behind a comrade and gently takes his rifle. "We are invisible," he explains. "We can steal guns from the arms of the police and they would never notice. I could even take your car keys."

The rebel attacks have driven Malaitans to flee Guadalcanal on the MV Ramos, a big rust-eaten ship that makes the run to Malaita several times a week. Refugees pack the lower decks with furniture, tools, sacks of rice, farm animals--whatever they manage to grab before abandoning their homes. By departure time, the Ramos is dangerously overcrowded, standing room only from stem to stern. The night passage takes six hours across a shark-infested sea. More than 200 passengers perch on the ship's roof under the starry southern sky, passing around a vicious home-brewed rice wine called kuasol and lamenting their fate.

The peace plan calls for the promotion of a Solomon Islands "national identity," which seems a tough sell. The Ramos passengers are strangers even to Malaita, their ancestral land, an unforgiving island of steep mountains and impenetrable rain forests. Many are second- or third-generation settlers in the far more hospitable plains and U.S. Army-built towns of Guadalcanal. With just a few kilometers of paved road and a single weed-tangled airstrip, Malaita is barely suited to handle its pre-crisis population of 70,000 subsistence farmers and fishermen. "I wanted to stay in Honiara," says a 36-year-old father of six as he leans against a crate holding the family's prize possession: a 20-inch color television. "I never thought I'd be going back." A plantation hand in his late 30s is moving his family for safety, at least temporarily. At midnight he sees the village houses of Auki, the tiny capital of Malaita, coming into view over the bow. "We are home, my brothers," he hollers. A traveler asks the plantation hand if he can recommend local lodging. "Sorry," he confides. "I've never been here."

He'll join tens of thousands of other refugees, who are already experiencing downward mobility on Malaita. Chief Donation Waleilamaeled moved his clan to Guadalcanal in 1982, purchasing a 14-hectare farm in the village of Tangarare for pigs, shells and $2,000 in cash. His family grew coconuts and sold beer and betel nuts until gunmen chased them into the bush on Easter Sunday of this year. Chief Donation's family watched the looting and burning of their homes until a police boat arrived to evacuate all 73 of them after dark. The clan has since returned to ancestral lands on Malaita's Langa Langa Lagoon, a tranquil-looking spot where locals worship sharks. As he struggles to make huts without nails or gasoline for the chain saw, Chief Donation pines for revenge against the people of Guadalcanal. "I would like to kill them all," he says.

Malaitans have a tradition of swift reprisals for any affront to the wontok, or clan, fueling fears of a civil war. There is much to avenge these days. On the slopes above Honiara, several thousand Malaitans now live in thatched huts built on old World War II battlefields. The stone memorial on Bloody Ridge recalls 30,000 imperial Japanese troops and 7,000 Americans who died on Guadalcanal. On July 31 gunfire rang out on these hills for the first time in five decades, when 200 ragtag troops of the Guadalcanal Revolutionary Army marched into the area. As Malaitans ran in panic, the paramilitary Police Field Force Unit moved in to confront the rebels. In a fierce three-hour barrage, police fired more than 1,500 rounds and killed four militants--the highest one-day death toll in Guadalcanal's insurgency. Rebel supporters say the militants were murdered in cold blood as they stepped forward to surrender. Minister of State Sasako says the rebels fired first, and adds a warning. "Unless the militants begin to use common sense," he says, "a lot more people could lose their lives." On both sides of Guadalcanal's new thin red line.