Tears of joy as ballots flow

From NETANI RIKA, Buka, Bougainville

TEARS of joy flowed down Francesca Semoso’s cheeks as she cast her vote in the Bougainville Referendum.

Overcome by emotion, the Deputy Speaker of the Autonomous Bougainville House of Representatives leaned against the ballot box and in true Melanesian tradition, she wailed.

It was a curious juxtaposition of emotions as villagers of Malasang sang joyously outside the polling station to the beat of the local bamboo band while inside, their member of Parliament wept.

“We have waited for 30 years for this moment and who would have thought Bougainville would even come this far?” Semoso asked.

“Everybody thought this would never really happen.”

The first tears were of joy, celebrating the fruition of 30 years of struggle for the right to determine the future of this luscious, resource-rich island of dense green forests, white sandy beaches and turquoise blue seas.

Then, the awesome realisation of the huge cost of this one moment in history – more than 15,000 lives lost, 30 years of near-stagnant economic growth, missed educational opportunities for the young people.

And then came the bitter tears and the pain and the gut-wrenching sobs.

Leaning against the reed walls of the makeshift polling station, children aged six and seven peered through the gaps with wide-eyed curiosity.

They were fixated by the crying woman in traditional leaf dress pushing a piece of paper into a big clear plastic box with a green lid.

As she looked up, Semoso said: “We are voting for them, for their future and that’s why I’m so happy.

“But we are also voting for the people who did not live to see this day and for those who gave their lives so that today and the referendum could become a reality.’’

As voters snaked their way along the path to the polling station, traditional entertainers kept up a steady repertoire of songs, beating them out with flip flops on the age-old bamboo drums.

In a reed shed the village women served up plates of roast pork and baked kumala (sweet potato) for voters, entertainers and international observers.

The international media flocked to speak to Semoso who locals say will be a key figure in an independent Bougainville.

“I have my mother here (voting) and I wish my dad had lived to see this day,” she said.

“But I know he’s here in spirit. Man, did we ever think we would get to this day. We have to thank the international community and the media who have been there for us and kept attention on Bougainville and helped bring us to this day.’’

High above the polling station, the dark blue Bougainville flag fluttered proudly in the breeze. On the ground, children ran excitedly among the voters, blissfully unaware of the importance of the day.

In the polling lines the villagers waited to cast their vote, whispering quietly, smiling broadly.

“This is what we mean by a resilient people,’’ Semoso said.

“We are peaceful, loving, forgiving and happy people.’’

That resilience has been tested for 30 years and found to be true.

After the referendum result there will still need to be negotiations between PNG and Bougainville’s autonomous government and later a ratification by parliament.

That resilience of which Bougainville is so proud may yet undergo its most strenuous test.

  • Netani Rika travelled to Bougainville with the support of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat