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Martyrs who walked into danger

by
13 October 2023

It is 20 years since the death of seven Melanesian Brothers. Richard Carter, who was their chaplain at the time, reflects on what happened

The Funeral of the Seven Martyrs of the Melanesian Brotherhood at Tabalia, Solomon Islands, 2003

The Funeral of the Seven Martyrs of the Melanesian Brotherhood at Tabalia, Solomon Islands, 2003

IN THE year 2000, I was living in the Solomon Islands, called the “Happy Isles”. But then we started hearing news of an internal conflict: ethnic aggression on the island of Guadalcanal. People from the island of Malaita since the Second World War had come over and settled on Guadalcanal, and they had built their houses and homesteads. They had been very successful in business, corporate farming, and fishing.

And, as often happens in the world, the native Guadalcanal population had grown, silently, more and more resentful of this intrusion on to their land. In 2000, they started burning down Malaitan houses, and started attacking schools. And then I heard news that someone had been killed.

In all these conflicts, you never believe that the worst can happen. I had seen these people living, eating, worshipping, and praying together, and, suddenly, this conflict was escalating. In the next few years, it really did escalate, and it became an incredibly violent conflict: many people in the community were killed.

The Melanesian Brotherhood were a community of people from every island group, and they realised that the gospel was calling them to make a stand. The plan was that they would go and camp between the two opposing factions, who had divided the island between them. And, in that no man’s land, the Melanesian Brotherhood, to which I was chaplain and of which I was a member, would camp, and each day our community would visit both sides and try to talk reason to them.

The words that we used were words that we had gleaned from Óscar Romero, another martyr. “Those you kill are your own brothers and sisters. Stop the violence. Stop the terror. Remember your unity in God.”

And the Brothers became famous for this work of reconciliation. When people were killed, they carried the bodies back to grieving families. We worked for the release of hostages. We were right in the thick of the action, and a myth began to develop that the Brothers were the peacemakers — far more than the police force, which had become compromised and corrupt. People came to our community to ask for help.

 

WHEN a peace agreement was signed, we thought that it was the end of the conflict — but far from it. Again, our community gathered and asked: “Where do we stand in the violence?” Our community decided that we should put out a message that we would destroy the weapons that people were holding. We had no idea whether this policy would work, but I remember the day when we put out a message to the whole island, saying, “If anyone has guns in their hands, guns that they’ve used, guns that they want to get rid of, we will visit them. We will take away their guns, and we will destroy them, and we will pray with them.”

We thought that this sounded naïve and idealistic. But the response was overwhelming. I remember living in a room in Honiara, where, in the course of two weeks, the whole room was filled with piles and piles of high-powered ammunition and guns from every part of the world.

We took the weapons, and we dropped them in Ironbottom Sound, which is an area of sea two miles deep. But there was one militant faction, on the west coast of Guadalcanal, who started saying that our community was in league with the Malaitan government, and that our community was corrupt. One of our Brothers went to visit the militant leader on the Weather Coast, and he didn’t return. We waited. We sent messages. His name was Brother Nathaniel Sado.

I remember the day we got the news, a rumour that he had been killed. No one could believe that anyone would kill a Brother who had gone on to the other side of the island in good faith to talk to the militant leader.

That night, 24 April 2003, I woke up from an incredible nightmare and hearing one of the Brothers screaming. It was as if he was seeing evil, face to face. The following morning, I said to the head Brother: “I had the most terrible nightmare. Last night, I dreamt that Robin Lindsay was screaming.”

He said: “Robin Lindsay and five other Brothers have gone to the other side of the island to try and rescue Nathaniel Sado.” I had no idea that they’d gone, but six of our Brothers had risked their lives, taken a boat, and gone in search of their Brother, Nathaniel, who was lost.

Our community tried to intercede with the government; with the militant leader Harold Keke; with everybody. There was complete silence. In the mean time, the violence escalated, and more members of our community were taken hostage. It became frightening even to go out of your house, because the peacemakers were now being seen as the enemy.

And then the governments of Australia, the Papua New Guinea, and New Zealand decided to send a military force of intervention. That force went to the Weather Coast, and they met this militant leader, Harold Keke. Three months after we had been praying night and day for the safe release of those seven Brothers, we heard the news that they had all been murdered.

 

I WENT to an internet café in Honiara, and I wrote this message: “Yesterday, our worst fears were confirmed. The Melanesian Brotherhood were officially told by the police commissioner that he had been informed by Keke that all six of our brothers are dead. They were murdered three months ago, when they arrived on the Weather Coast on the 24 April, in search of our brother, Nathaniel. He too, is confirmed dead. The months of waiting have been in vain.

“It’s hard for such news to sink in. These were six young innocent brothers who went out in faith and love in search for their brother. They went without weapons. They went without defence. It seems too much to bear that they should have been murdered in cold blood.”

And then I went on to tell them a little bit about each one of those Brothers, because martyrs are not just statues. They’re human beings. Brother Robin Lindsay; Brother Francis Tofi, who was my best friend; Brother Alfred Hill; Brother Ini Paratabatu; Brother Patteson Gatu; Brother Tony Sirhi; Brother Nathaniel Sado.

“Of one thing I’m certain,” I wrote. “These seven men will live on in the hearts and minds of our community. Their sacrifice seems too great and hard to believe. All night our community have been sitting, telling stories, recounting their lives. Trying to face the enormity of their loss.

“And beneath the grief and trauma we all feel, somehow there is a strength and a peace in the knowledge that each one of these young men believed in peace and goodness. They knew that there was a better way. They were prepared to oppose violence and to risk their lives. At the end of the day, they stand against all acts of brutality which disfigure our world, bravely and confidently and with love. They lived for the love that most of us only proclaim. When such real issues are at stake, is not this the gospel we all should be trying to live?”

I wrote this email, and from around the world I received hundreds and hundreds of replies. One person wrote this: “How strange that in the finality of these young deaths, I glimpse something that gives me courage and strength. . . I think it is your testimony that six good humble and faithful men died because they were devoted to one another and to Christ that simultaneously causes me so much pain but also affords me so much hope.”

 

I REMEMBER the day when their bodies were brought back from the Weather Coast for burial. It felt like the worst day of my life. And yet, suddenly, everybody from all the different tribal groups started lining the road. The road from Honiara to our community headquarters is about 12 miles long, and all along the road people were standing to witness these seven coffins of seven Brothers from different island groups being returned to their mother house, where they were to be buried. It was a moment I will never forget.

Why did they go? Why did they go in search of Nathaniel? They knew the danger. It seems a sacrifice too great for anyone to make.

They went, I believe, because they believed the gospel not just in word, but in the action of their lives. They believed that they must go and search for the one who was lost. They believed that the Good Shepherd must willingly face danger for the one who is lost. We profess a gospel that is, at its heart, a proclamation of the love of a God who is prepared to send his only Son to die for that love, and that is the gospel that they lived.

There is not a day in my life when I don’t wish them back. There is not a day in my life when I don’t wish I could have stopped them from going. And yet there is not a day, too, in my life when I wish that I had the same courage to stand for the things I believe in. To stand alongside those who need it most.

 

This is an edited version of a lecture given as part of the St Martin-in-the-Fields Autumn lecture series “Here I Stand”. smitf.org/lectures

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