Photo: Alan Hood
Feature

Bulletproof Grace

During the deadly Bougainville Conflict, many local Bible translation staff experienced God’s amazing protection and deliverance.

(Above) Surveying leftover debris from a razed hospital in Arawa, the former capital of Bougainville, translator Samson Sukina recalls his struggle for survival during a decade-long civil war. Both he and fellow translator John Wesley Gareitz (pictured here) escaped sure death when God miraculously intervened to deliver them from gun-toting revolutionaries
(Photo: Alan Hood)

On an early March morning in 1990, invaders arrived by sea just as residents of Torotsian, a small island west of Bougainville, were beginning to stir. Heavily armed and menacing, the noisy squad of independence fighters spread out across the small island, bellowing orders to the sleepy villagers to assemble at the village church without delay. 

John Wesley Gareitz [gar-ATES], a Bible translator for the Saposa people and paramount chief of his island, knew why they had come.

“They knew that my brothers were with the ‘other side,’ the Papua New Guinea Defence Force,” says Gareitz, now 64. “One was an air force pilot, the other an officer in the military.”

The soldiers lingered throughout the morning and into the afternoon. When all the villagers had gathered, the commander approached Gareitz and demanded to know where his brothers were hiding.

“On my right was my colleague, Charles,” Gareitz recalls. “I told him to answer the commander’s questions while I did my praying. I said, ‘God, if this is the time you want to take me, I’m OK. But if you want me to continue with the ministry of Bible translation, then spare my life.’

A man dressed as a warrior takes aim at an imagined enemy, during a traditional dance held in Sinkodo village in honour of the visiting Word Alive team. Although villagers frequently laughed during the mock battle enacted in the dance, it was a reminder of the war and bloodshed that has been part of the islands’ history.
(Photo: Alan Hood)

“I didn’t notice that the commander was pointing a gun at us, myself and my colleague. After my ‘amen,’ the commander tried to shoot. He was just about a metre apart from us.”

As Gareitz continues with his story, he struggles to find the precise words to explain what happened next. 

“The bullet flew away. . . . Then a second time . . . and a third, he tried to pull the trigger—the same thing happened. 

“The commander was speechless.”

Gareitz may not know the precise words to describe what happened that morning; he only knows that somehow, all three bullets fell to the ground. The officer could only stare at him. Flustered, he picked up the errant bullets and stormed off, barking orders to his men to grab any valuables they could carry and take them to the boat.

As the boat pulled away from the island, Gareitz turned to his people and led them in a prayer of forgiveness for the intruders.

“They could all feel the presence of God and they could see what the Lord had done.”

Miraculous Interventions

Gareitz has since shared his remarkable testimony in mainland Papua New Guinea and as far away as New Zealand, which he visited in 2010. He is aware that believers in that country, as well as Australia and around the globe, were interceding in prayer for the people of Bougainville throughout the decade-long crisis. 

Similar stories have been well-documented in books like Sons of Thunder by Royree Jensen, which chronicles the spiritual revival that swept through the islands as the conflict intensified. Furthermore, retired SIL linguist Conrad Hurd has compiled numerous testimonies of divine intervention from people he and his wife Phyllis knew and worked with during more than 40 years in Bougainville.

Scarred by the violence of the Bougainville Conflict, this Sibe man wanders aimlessly from village to village most days, draped in a ragged, loose-fitting sheet and talking incoherently. As a youngster during the civil war, he was wounded by gunfire and saw some of his friends die at the hands of independence fighters.
(Photo: Alan Hood)

“Our own house in a rural area . . . was preserved along with all the other buildings there, despite the fact that helicopter gunships had strafed the area,” says Hurd. “They didn't hit anything that we could see. Our co-translator, not knowing what else to do, went and stood out in an open garden area near the church. He stood with hands raised to heaven and prayed for God's protection. 

“One lady said she saw the tracers from the helicopters diverting off into the jungle, where they did no damage!”

Translator Valentine Takahu, who lost his brother during the civil war, says the only good thing about the violence of those years is that it drove people back to God. He recalls many prayer meetings in the Catholic church, where frightened Halia people cried out to God for His protection and blessing.

“The Crisis turned us around . . . and we came back to Christ at that time,” he says. 

Strengthened by Strongpela Tok

In the Sibe region, deep in the interior of Bougainville Island, translator Samson Sukina, 55, experienced God’s miraculous protection on more than one occasion. However, his uncle, a cousin and one brother-in-law were all killed during the conflict. 

When the independence fighters forced Sibe villagers to leave their villages, thousands of them—including Sukina, his wife and four children—fled into the rainforest where they built huts and planted gardens. Then one day, a squad of soldiers came looking for Sukina because, as a clan chief, he was a man of influence and they suspected he was siding with the PNG government in the conflict. 

When they found him, they told him he was going to die.

The cheerful, easy-going Sibe chief made eye contact with the leader of the ragtag band of soldiers and informed them he was a man of God. 

“I told them, ‘In Jesus’ name, I tell you, you can’t shoot us.’ When they tried to shoot, their guns didn’t fire.”

On another occasion, Sukina says God warned him while he was travelling in a PNG army truck with his Bible translation mentor, Mark Sipaala, and several others.

“I heard the Holy Spirit speak to me, saying, ‘There is an ambush in front of you.’ ”

Within minutes, they were ambushed by armed troops. 

“They fired at us,” says Sukina, but the bullet from the M-16 [rifle] just passed by my cheek and it fell down . . . it didn’t penetrate.”

Other victims, like the young men building a covered meeting hall in Sinkodo village, escaped with their lives but emerged from the war with no formal education and few marketable skills.
(Photo: Alan Hood)

Sipaala also escaped without injury, but others were wounded and two young men died in the attack. 

Looking back on his experiences during the Crisis, Sukina uses a Melanesian Pidgin expression—“strongpela tok”—to describe the encouragement he found from the powerful words in Psalm 91. The passage is filled with promises of God’s protection and deliverance in times of trouble. He and other spiritual leaders like Mark Sipaala shared that encouragement with others in the camps, too. 

“We would go out on Sundays and in the middle of the week, and we would meet with groups of people to share God’s Word,” says Sukina. “We would tell them, ‘When you’re in a crisis, you don’t look to the problem and what’s happening, but you need to look beyond to heaven. Just look beyond the crisis to Jesus, who will provide for you and look after your needs and help you in your time of trouble.’

“The results of this were that people in the jungle camps didn’t get sick and they weren’t dying from diseases; it was like God was looking after them. They weren’t even hungry in the bush. They planted food and there was plenty to eat.” 

Mark Sipaala says the people who lived in the jungle stayed healthier than those who lived in care centres established by the PNG government.

“The greatest need we had while we were in the bush was clothing . . . I had only one pair of good shorts and two shirts when we fled from our village.”

As for their spiritual wellbeing, Sukina says, “During the crisis, the church played an important part, and most of the people became Christians. They came to faith in Christ because they saw God’s provision and the help He gave them. 

“For some of them, it was the evidence they needed to believe—because they actually witnessed the supernatural work of God.”

“But after the crisis many left the church, because they did not have God’s Word in their language to help them grow strong.”

Word Alive writer Doug Lockhart and photographer Alan Hood travel by boat to meet with translators and church members on Torotsian Island.

At the site of the Panguna copper mine on Bougainville Island, little remains of the once-thriving operation that became the epicentre of the civil war. Anything of value was taken by the numerous factions involved in the conflict and the rest was bombed or set ablaze.
(Photo: Alan Hood)

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In the South Pacific, Bible translation in Bougainville gains momentum after a brutal civil war.