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A walk to the heart of darkness

22 November 2006

Brothers: top: the bodies of the Brothers coming home to Tabalia; middle row: Brother Francis Tofi, Brother Basil, Brother Tony Sirihi and Brother Robin Lindsay in the last photograph taken before Brothers Francis, Tony and Robin left; the Brothers perform a Passion play, Solomon Islands Easter 2005; bottom: the Revd Richard Carter celebrates the Eucharist

In 2003, members of the Melanesian Brotherhood, an Anglican Franciscan order, were attempting to mediate in a civil conflict between the government and Harold Keke, a rebel leader . . .

From the diary of March and April 2003

WE HAVE just heard that one of our Brothers, Nathaniel Sado, seems to have been taken hostage by Harold Keke and his men. Why? Brother Alfred Tabo and Father Francis, the present priest at Kolina, went with him to deliver a letter to Keke from the Archbishop, Ellison Pogo. It was apparently a follow-up offer for the Church to work at mediation and dialogue in this conflict. They were unable to meet Keke, but when Brother Alfred Tabo and Father Francis returned, Brother Nathaniel insisted on staying behind to meet with Keke personally. . .

The Assistant Head Brother, Robin Lindsay, immediately called a meeting at Bishopsdale to discuss with the Archbishop what should be done. The Archbishop said that somehow Keke’s attitude towards the Church seemed to have radically changed, and that he had just received a letter from the group full of false accusations. He said that he would make contact again and request Brother Nathaniel’s immediate release.

25 April 2003
ON EASTER DAY, we heard news over the radio of Brother Nathaniel Sado’s death. This morning, I was awoken very early by Brother Alfred Tabo knocking on my door. Alfred had come from our household at Mbambanakira to confirm the radio story. He had made the six-hour journey by canoe with outboard engine to report the news. Apparently, one of Keke’s men had deserted and fled to Mbambanakira after witnessing Brother Nathaniel’s death. Brother Nathaniel had been held in a cage and had been so speared and wounded that he had even asked to die.

A line has been crossed. A Brother, one of those whom people have always believed to be “workmen along with God” and therefore protected by God, has been murdered. No one believed that anyone would turn against the Tasiu. They have always been considered holy men and that to attack them would be taboo, bringing down the wrath of God. . .

They have been the hope of so many that God and goodness will prevail, and now it is as though the myth has been challenged. Keke has confronted their spiritual mana. Brothers are as mortal as anyone else. Yet because of the power of this belief, the temptation is to blame Brother Nathaniel himself or the Community, rather than Keke and his men. In other words, Brother Nathaniel has somehow forfeited divine protection, and this is therefore God’s punishment rather than the work of evil. . . What kind of God would call us, and then abandon us to torture and death if we fail? No, this is pure evil.

I have never wanted to belong to a magic Brotherhood buoyed up by superstition, but to one that celebrates that the Word became flesh, real flesh. And yet the reality of that is that there is no miraculous divine protection: there is a young man bleeding to death in the misery and rain of the Weather Coast, seemingly abandoned by everyone. His only failing was his innocence. The witness told us that even when he was dying he sang a hymn, “Jesus you hold ’em hand blong me”.

The witness reports that they had forced a confession from Brother Nathaniel, accusing him of being a spy for the Prime Minister, Sir Allan Kemakeza, who is from Savo, the same island that Brother Nathaniel came from. They say he was carrying a passbook proving he had received money from Kemakeza, and that he admitted his guilt. All this, our witness said, was invented by Keke.

Keke has a secretary who keeps a meticulous record of facts dictated by Keke, and Keke invents the plot as though he is writing his own history. The secretary is an ex-student from a church school, a frequent visitor to Tabalia. I know him, and had always thought him a thoughtful young man, so earnest I had thought he would join the Brotherhood. This is how life choices are made: he could have been a Brother working for peace, or the apprentice of a psychopath. . .

When Keke was sick he called members of our Community to pray for him. He had seemed to honour and respect the impartiality of the Tasiu and even requested that Brother Nathaniel visit him. Only last year Brother Nathaniel helped Keke’s brother, Joseph Sangu, with the disarmament of Gela and Savo. But there is no trust, no loyalty; they say Keke has killed his own relations; fear, paranoia, and evil are growing on this Weather Coast.

30 April 2003
MY LAST vivid recollection of Brother Robin Lindsay is at the Maundy Thursday eucharist at Tabalia. The Governor-General, the Revd Sir John Ini Lapli, was celebrating, and washed his feet. Brother Robin took the water and together with me we washed the feet of the Brothers and novices. On Easter Day, we heard the rumours of Nathaniel Sado’s death. On the following Wednesday, Brother Robin left Honiara with the other five Brothers for the Weather Coast.

On the Saturday night, I woke in the middle of the night with a vivid nightmare in which I heard Brother Robin crying. If you asked me now what the cry meant, I would say that it was the cry of someone who had come face to face with evil. It was the cry of someone confronting sin and being shaken by it. It was a cry for the loss of innocence. It was a cry that seemed to expose the sins of the world — including my own.

On Monday, I am called urgently to the church warehouse, as there is a message on the radio for the Brotherhood. The radio message requests that the Head Brother go immediately to the central police station. We go together. The news is from the police position nearest to Keke’s camp on the Weather Coast. The police there wish to report that they saw our Brothers arrive at Mbiti village the previous Thursday, 24 April. They left their belongings in the canoe and walked along the beach towards Keke’s camp. The police had watched them through binoculars and had seen Keke’s men, carrying guns, surround them. They had not been seen again since Thursday. They believed they were now being held hostage against their wishes.

Everything stops. Everything is changed. I cannot believe they have gone directly to Keke’s camp. It had not even entered my head that they would do this except in that dream. . .

“Has anyone been back for their bags or their clothes?” I ask.

Silence. I keep on hoping that somehow they have got it wrong.

“How many Brothers?”

“Six. . .”

I think of the 12 novices who are doing three months of practical training and ministry on the Weather Coast of Guadalcanal. They will be in potential danger, too. I make arrangements with the police that the novices must be immediately pulled out of Kolina and transported round the coast to Father Lionel Longarata at Marasa. The next day they contact me to say they have done this. . .

At Tabalia, all the Brothers meet in the chapel. Many want to go to the Weather Coast straight away and search for these six Brothers. Painful accusations are made by one of the Brothers that this is the fault of the Brotherhood leaders, but I do not think anyone knew they were going to Keke’s camp. This was a decision that they seem to have made for themselves with the Assistant Head Brother, Robin Lindsay, who went with them.

The Head Brother, Harry Gereniu, seems more shocked than anybody. I myself had seen Brother Francis Tofi after I had heard news of the suspected murder of Brother Nathaniel. I had said to him: “Francis, do not go anywhere near Keke at this time. If he has killed Nathaniel Sado he will be more paranoid than ever, and he will see you as the enemy.”

It suddenly begins to dawn on me. . . Of course they would go. That is the kind of men they are; they would go right to the heart of the darkness if that is where they believed they must bring light. They had gone to look for Keke in the very same way that Joseph Atkin had gone to look for Bishop Patteson 150 years before. . . It was the same choice to face danger, the same faith, and the reality leaves you speechless. . .

Many of our Brothers want to go in search of them; they are talking of 24 more Brothers going, but there must be some restraint. . .

Months later we were to learn that at this time our Brothers were already dead, and that if we had sent more Brothers at this stage they would undoubtedly have been killed, too. Nevertheless, these thoughts still haunt me, and are deeply painful to remember; for we longed that we might save them.

When the Archbishop meets with the Brotherhood, he calls upon us all, before making any further decisions, to spend time in vigil and prayer seeking the guidance of God. All the time we pray. The rain falls constantly. And in our hearts and minds we have the fear that our Brothers may be suffering.

Tuesday 10 June 2003
TWO MORE of our Brothers and five Novices have been taken hostage. I am gutted. I don’t want to hear this. Let me wake up and hear it is not true. Have all our prayers and intimations of hope been simply mocking us? Why was God silent? Why in my prayers did there seem to be no warning of this? . . .

This evil is hard, cold and brutal. Its weapons are real guns which really kill, and our God is a mirage. I want others to realise there is absolutely no one who can help us. The police force are worse than useless; any contact with them will be at the risk of being accused of complicity. No one is venturing out of Honiara. Not one priest or bishop has visited Tabalia since the news of the Brothers’ being taken hostage was received. The whole community is completely vulnerable. . .

Twenty-two members of our Community are now believed to be held by Keke. We have no idea if some of them are alive or dead. . .

From the diary of June 2003
IT IS THE Queen’s birthday, and I have been invited to the Governor-General’s Residence with the Head Brother, Harry Gereniu, and my brother Daniel for drinks. Everyone is there: the Prime Minister and members of the Cabinet, the High Commissioners, important Honiara expatriates, and the leaders of the different churches. They all know about our Brothers being held hostage, and talk to me with a look of detached sympathy. Yet, as long as Honiara is not threatened, it appears to me that the suffering of our community seems peripheral to their concerns and drinks.

These politicians were the ones who begged the Brothers to come to keep watch over their houses and families at night during the conflict. I have this dreadful realisation that now they are no longer useful, they have become more of a liability, exposing rather than redeeming the failure of this government. The good-luck charm has become unlucky.

The Governor-General himself is different: Fr Ini Lapli is a man of genuine humility and Christian concern. . . He has always feared that the government that called upon the Brotherhood to help in the peacemaking would be seen to compromise the Community’s integrity. . .

I phone Bill Morrell, the Police Commissioner. I tell him that news is filtering through that Keke’s men have murdered two boys and that Father Lionel Longarata, the priest at Marasa, is being held hostage and that they are demanding a payment of financial compensation or ransom for his release. . .

“What about outside help? What about Australia? Can’t you ask for special forces?”

“I am trying for that, of course.”

I feel totally powerless. . .

Our Church of Melanesia is holding a mission conference in the Quality Motel, Honiara. I cannot believe that, in the light of events which are unfolding, life continues seemingly oblivious. It’s as though reality is too painful to mention, so they talk about methods of evangelism and church growth and enlivening public worship, while the wider Church seems only concerned with the condemnation of the loving relationships of gay bishops, as if that is the world’s major evil. . .

This is an edited extract from In Search of the Lost by Richard Carter (£12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70) 1-85311-780-3), published by SCM- Canterbury Press on 30 November.


1998 Isatabu Freedom Movement in Guadalcanal — the largest of the Solomon Islands — attempts to drive migrant Malaitans from the island.

September 2001 Murder of Isatabu Freedom Movement leader threatens peace agreement signed in February.

August 2002 Cabinet minister and RC priest Fr Augustine Geve shot dead.

June 2003 PM Sir Allan Kemakeza requests military assistance from Australia and New Zealand.

July 2003 Peacekeeping force disarms militant groups.

August 2003 Isatabu Freedom Movement leader, Harold Keke, surrenders.

October 2003 Peacekeepers announce Weather Coast safe.

March 2005 Harold Keke, and two others, jailed for life for murder of Fr Geve.

May 2006 Manasseh Sogavare elected PM.

October 2006 Sogavare survives no-confidence vote in parliament.

‘This evil is hard, cold and brutal’

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