Focus Groups: TRC Public Hearings, Kastom, and Revenge

The focus groups conducted in 2011 and 2013 give a quite contrasting picture to the utility of the TRC for reconciliation. Above we have seen how the witnesses have used the TRC public hearings as a platform to invite a process of reconciliation and to offer forgiveness. The nearly 100 participants in the focus groups did not mention these possibilities, but were instead strongly critical of the TRC’s perceived failure to follow kastom and the risk of revenge it posed. There are two main dimensions to the latter issue of revenge, both of which emerge from the global tradition of holding TRC hearings in public: first, that ex-militant public hearings reignite anger, ill feelings, and ultimately revenge; and second, that public hearings of victims’ suffering bring anger, sadness—and risks inciting revenge. The findings below will first focus on the issue of kastom, then on revenge.

Focus group participants repeatedly stressed the fundamental condition in kastom to not openly discuss all of the details—the ‘full story’—of a conflict. Relating the ‘full story’ is only done in private to the leaders and chiefs who then order compensation accordingly and peace thereby becomes restored.

...where[as] in our kastom, one thing that is done is that the story will not be told in full detail. The chiefs know that the problem is there; only a few people solve it, the two people reconcile, [the problem is] finished. But if you go ahead with the full details, yes, you will be reconciled but not in the mind—[you think] will there be retaliation someday or what? [.] But another person who lives somewhere else just hears the story and [decides to retaliate]. [...] Because we on Guadalcanal have an expression about kastom, ‘don’t complete the story.’ You don’t complete the story. You put it in a parcel. Because once you complete it, once you complete it, it’s a different story. So you’ll parcel the story, the leaders and chiefs are wise, they already know that matter has been dealt with there [in the private discussion] and they’ll charge [compensation] accordingly. So what the TRC is doing is out a little from kastom. That is what I know and think, it misses [the point of kastom] a bit. We from Guadalcanal have a word, humuru—‘that’s all, they’ve set the compensation, you don’t tell the full details.’ (Woman, Maravovo, West Guadalcanal 2013)

The view that hearings should be conducted in a closed setting, involving only those who were affected and their leaders is widespread. To not ‘dig out what has been buried’ (Man, Visale, West Guadalcanal 2011) is recurring; statements like ‘it would be best for just the people who were directly affected to sit down themselves together with the leaders and talk together’ (Man, Visale, West Guadalcanal 2011) and ‘it is not good to tell out such things’ (Woman, Maravovo, West Guadalcanal 2013) are common.

I think really to tell them out in public in such a place [as the TRC] is just nonsense. Just the victims and perpetrators alone should come together and talk. I think it is very dangerous to tell the stories out in public... We can tell out things and anything can happen. So I think the real victims and the perpetrators, only they, should meet together and sort out [their problems] for the TRC. Don’t put them out to the public. The stories have nothing to do with the people. The same time they hear the story, they will be angry— crazy with anger; then a different story will go out and around and come back and injure us more; so it will be dangerous too. It will be hard to tell the story out to the public. I don’t believe in it. If you stand up in public and tell the truth of what you did wrong, people will have bad thoughts about you who did something wrong. That’s just my thought. (Woman, Bita’ama, North Malaita 2011).

The longer quotes above, one from a woman in Guadalcanal, one from a woman in Malaita, both point to how through opening the process of telling the full story of the past, the story itself becomes something different—it takes a new shape, becomes a story of a new kind by now belonging to many. The dangers of public story-telling and, in particular, the problem of revenge, were emphasized by several participants in the focus groups.

Focus group participants’ views on how the process of truth telling should be done—closed, not openly—are closely linked with the perception that the TRC is a foreign concept, brought in from elsewhere. This also mirrors comments from several interviewees in Guthrey’s (2015, 2016) studies. For example: [1]

Islander and a Malaitan. Why not build on the kastom and culture that is already here?’ (Man, Bita’ama, North Malaita 2013).

Another man in the same focus group continued:

...The big TRC leaders—why do they not take the church leaders and chiefs, people in the community who are directly involved with the people? When they bring the Commissioners from outside, they show that this concept of the TRC comes from outside. Yes? A foreign type. We don’t need a foreign concept. We need our own cultural way so that when we settle our problems the old kastom way, it is more peaceful and its lasts long, it stays for a longer time, and nothing will happen afterwards. The way they do it, they bring another culture to try to step on top of our culture to settle problems;

I tell you, no how much longer we go on with the TRC, it cannot work. All we are doing is [shouts] wasting our time and wasting the money!’ (Man, Bita’ama, North Malaita 2013).

Other comments touch upon different aspects of the TRC as a ‘foreign’ concept, such as that the hearings are just testimony or education—not proper reconciliation:

But because the concept came, when people testify, they seem to talk about the truth, but the reconciliation part has not yet [been achieved]. I see that that’s not reconciliation. It’s only testimony’ (Man, Radefasu, Central Malaita 2013).

The TRC is for educating young people, just for awareness. to go back to all the happenings and to look inside to see who was involved inside, to see who really caused the problem, then put all that information in a paper, to see how [the problem] might be solved, then put in a book to remind others (Man, Burns Creek, Honiara 2013).

Focus group participants in all research locations emphasized that for testimony to lead to reconciliation, kastom is needed:

We have our own way for settling problems. This fund they give for the TRC should be cut down a little and a small committee be formed in each area and let them handle it. Yes, we should go without the TRC; that one is the style of waetman [Europeans]. (Man, Burns Creek, Honiara 2011).

The way we have to solve it, especially our group, we will take red money.4 We will take red money and give it and everything which has happened, we forget it... I know from my life experience, it is something that is very simple. That’s what I think about reconciliation. (Man, Burns Creek, Honiara 2011).

The perception that the TRC goes against kastom is strong and recurring:

.The TRC doesn’t follow our kastom because our kastom is secret. It’s secret. We talk about things secretly until you find the real truth and solve the problem. Not come to the public, and one person says something, and someone else says something, and everyone hears it; it is really against our kastom (Man, Burns Creek, Honiara 2013).

Similarly, another identified problem with open hearings is that they hinder truthful testimony from ex-militants:

As far as having witnesses as part of the TRC panel, I see that that is straightforward because that person tells what is in his/her heart. But for the militants and the men who went to fight, to come to the public to tell what is in their heart, I see that this concept does not allow this person to confess what is under and inside his heart. The TRC should call them privately or use any other approach so that the person has freedom to pour out what is in his heart to the TRC (Man, Bita’ama, North Malaita 2013).

That ex-militants would not dare confess openly may have several reasons: fear of revenge from those close to the victim, or—as is suggested below— due to the networks and loyalties to former commanders who pressure ex-militants to withhold the truth in the TRC public hearings:

I think some of the militants are just liars. They are frightened because I’ve heard that some ‘big men’ are backing them and that’s why they don’t want to tell out the truth. I think it’s good for [the TRC] to go and ask them again carefully about their stories (Woman, Bita’ama, North Malaita 2011).

The problems of opening up ‘the full story’ in contrast to kastom leads to the next critical issue: revenge. While some focus group participants supported victims coming forward in the TRC and believed it may help them feel better, all were unequivocally against open-hearings for ex-militants. There are two interwoven reasons for this: first, the belief that ex-militants will not, in a public setting, tell the truth as they fear retaliation, and; second, the idea that the old wounds opened up by their stories will reignite anger and spur violent revenge. According to kastom, conflicts should be left behind once they have passed:

One thought goes like this: let the past go. When we think about the past, it takes us back to the past; feelings about the past still remain... That’s all I think, we should just let go (Woman, Bita’ama, North Malaita 2011).

There are two sides: it is good and bad. On the one side, because it is a national matter, the information should be released nationally. But because people never deeply repent and still hold this anchor, it is though there is a sore inside, when the talk touches the sore of those who are still angry, people might do something (Woman, Kilusakwalo, Central Malaita 2013).

Many focus group participants argued along similar lines, that hearing testimonies awakens ill-feelings that should have been forgotten in order to prevent a cycle of violence and revenge:

How I hear the testimony of others, some I don’t feel happy with, some you hear them tell their stories and you feel disagreement about what others did to other people of ours.. As one person, I think we should just forget all these things because when we put them back in the [TRC] program and bring up again things that some of us have not heard about before, it builds up our minds to disagree again and become angry again about some of the stories of what happened that we hear in this [TRC] program. (Man, North Malaita 2011).

Another man continued:

Instead of our being sorry [for the victims] this [TRC] program makes us angry again about the things that were done against people; it sounds terrible. I have these thoughts and sometimes I listen a little when people share, you hear and then you turn off the radio, you don’t want to hear any more because it doesn’t sound good to our ears (Man, North Malaita 2011).

A woman focus group participant also spoke of a sense of guilt for feeling anger when hearing testimonies from the TRC: [2]

I heard them cry about what they did to them, eh!—It made my heart sorry for them even more and it made me angrier at the people who did these things to them. But it shouldn’t be like that; I shouldn’t feel cross at them (Woman, Bita’ama, North Malaita 2011).

Overall, the risk of revenge ignited by open hearings was a strong theme throughout the focus group interviews. It was linked, in particular, to the necessity to retaliate for ill deeds, in accordance with kastom:

But as to the ex-militants, one thing, we are in Melanesia. When such a man confesses in public, someone will say, ‘You did that....I’ll see you one day [to retaliate].’. That kind of thinking cannot be avoided. It stays with us in Malaita and every island. And so I think it is good, as my other colleague has said, let this be done confidentially (Man, Bita’ama, North Malaita 2013).

Similarly, another man argued:

.but for some of us, something like the ‘blood system’ is very strong.5 So there is the danger if we talk about something and one person there— maybe his brother or someone close to him died in the tension—he might be among us; when he hears it, something that was done, [says] ‘For what they did, I must pay back the life that was taken.’ That is how I see it; I say what has been buried, let it stay buried now (Man, North Malaita 2011).

In sum, in contrast to the positive ways in which the TRC witnesses themselves used the TRC hearings—as a platform for asking for reconciliation and offering forgiveness—the focus groups provide a more somber picture of TRC success. The discussions in the focus groups pointed to several overarching problems with the TRC’s approach to reconciliation, all related to the issue of the TRC process not being conducted in accordance with kastom (see also Quinn this volume). Public, open hearings—as opposed to the traditional small, private, and secret deliberations on matters of conflict—were seen as leading to untruthful testimonies by ex-militants, as well as re-opening ill-feelings among the public. It was pointed out that untruthful testimonies by ex-militants could also be due to pressures from former commanders, now ‘big men’. With these skewed or untruthful testimonies, as well as with the sadness and anger provoked by witness testimonies, the risk of retaliation—in line with the ‘blood system’—was heightened. Hence, the process of reconciliation may be jeopardized.

  • [1] was surprised when they invited Bishop Desmond Tutu to come, a manfrom Africa, South Africa, to come. This is not South Africa. This is SolomonIslands. South Africa is an apartheid system that they are trying to deal with,not an ethnic conflict. So when I saw it, I was a little critical as a Solomon
  • [2] feel a little sorry for the victims and my mind is not good towards thosewho did this to them, because they injured people, damaged their properties; it’s not a good way. But the victims, I feel sorry for them; because when
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