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Graham Reid: A sad state in the Happy Isles

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The Solomon Islands was once paradise on Earth, but to some it now feels like a trap.

Village children in Honiara. Photo / Alan Gibson
Village children in Honiara. Photo / Alan Gibson

It is called it the Point Cruz Yacht Club, but the name elevates it. It's just a slightly shabby but enjoyable seafront bar in Honiara, the capital of the strife-riven Solomon Islands.

The club is a haven for expat officials, cash-only businessmen, doctors and lawyers, shopkeepers, and rogue traders of this part of the western Pacific who gather daily to drink SolBrew or something stronger and talk over the events of the day.

And in Honiara - a rundown town of a few broken streets working on gossip and rumour - is always full of events to discuss.

I was there after what they euphemistically called the ethnic tensions, which is a polite way of talking around the massacres that had happened, and the still-simmering tensions between people from the nearby island of Malaita and those here on Guadalcanal.

Two days before I arrived in the Solomons, the Prime Minister's special adviser was the target of an assassination attempt as he left his house.

On the final day, disgruntled special constables - former rebels who had been given the status of policemen in an attempt to placate them - took to the streets for a noisy and potentially violent parade as they protested about promised cheques which hadn't arrived.

Honiara was volatile but generally safe. No guns were visible, although there were occasional shots in the night. But politicians were keeping out of sight because, as expat Aussie Kenneth said one night over a SolBrew at Point Cruz, "A moving target is harder to hit."

Most afternoons of my fortnight in Honiara I would go to the club, sign in as a temporary member, and get the gossip. In the absence of radio and a decent newspaper, the club's coconut telegraph kept information - admittedly sometimes bent out of shape - on the move.

It wasn't particularly attractive. The view took in a broken-down Navy boat that some friendly government had bequeathed the Solomons, and kids diving off the pier.

One afternoon, while swatting away malarial mosquitoes, I noticed a family of rats leave the club's kitchen and sprint down the muddy open creek just a couple of metres away from where I was sitting with Richard.

He seemed barely interested when I pointed them out.

Richard was originally from Germany but had somehow fetched up in the Solomons well over a decade ago when it was just another beautiful, peaceful and largely undiscovered part of the western Pacific.

Richard ran a small store selling dubbed-off cassettes to the local boys - CD technology hadn't reached the increasingly impoverished Solomons - but business was getting worse.

Music ran a poor second behind food and, since the troubles began, it was costing Richard money to keep his store open. But what else could he do?

At the end of one long, SolBrew-soaked afternoon he told me a story I had heard from so many middle-aged men washed up and emotionally adrift in Pacific islands which had once been their paradise.

Richard had married a local woman and they had a little boy.

About 10 years ago he had gone back to Germany to see his family but had felt like a stranger.

His friends had moved on and he now had nothing in common with them - none of them even knew where the Solomons were.

Now, with his business in free-fall and their uncertain future, his wife was saying they should go to Germany, because he had spoken about it so often.

But he knew they didn't have enough money to get out and start again in Germany and that she wouldn't be able to stand the cold or the rejection she would inevitably face from his family and friends.

So Richard was trapped in a place riven by endemic corruption, simmering violence and spiralling poverty.

A place where he no longer even cared about rats running in the creek just a metre or so away from where he would sit most days, staring at his beer in a country once known to the world - and to him - as The Happy Isles.

- NZ Herald

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