Sideline abuse is a problem in New Zealand but in the Solomon Islands it can escalate into attempted murder - as a Canterbury policeman found out first-hand.

Detective Sergeant Darren Folau has been in the Solomons for various stretches since 2002. He saw first-hand the lawlessness and violence that took the country to the brink and saw an Australian-led peacekeeping effort that finished last week after 14 years.

Folau's closest scrape came not when on patrol but at a weekend rugby game. Like other Kiwi police officers working in the country he's helped build up the sport, particularly by mentoring referees.

Darren Folau referees during an annual Sevens tournament in the Solomons. Photo supplied.
Darren Folau referees during an annual Sevens tournament in the Solomons. Photo supplied.

That's what he was doing at a game between two village-based teams during the height of often deadly conflict between ethnic groups, known as "the tensions".

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"Somebody knocked the ref out for awarding a dodgy try, the ref was a wantok [kin member] of the other team, so they started chasing this player around the field. It was like the Benny Hill Show, really - people chasing each other with bush knives and machetes."

Folau went to the referee's aid, when he heard a pop.

"And I looked up and there was bloke from less than five metres shooting at us with a .45 pistol. I heard the pops go past my ears. It was a former policeman who was a militant.

"He wasn't a good shot, that's for sure, otherwise I wouldn't be here telling the story. That's the volatility - it can just escalate within seconds."

The Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (Ramsi) cost New Zealand $150 million, with more than 1000 Defence Force personnel and 800 police serving over the 14 years.

Australia led Ramsi at a cost of almost $3 billion, answering the plea for help from the Solomons Government in 2003.

Rugby has grown in the Solomon Islands during a 14 year peacekeeping mission. Photo supplied.
Rugby has grown in the Solomon Islands during a 14 year peacekeeping mission. Photo supplied.

Folau's work included a leading role in the operation against warlord Harold Keke, who was jailed for life for murdering a Cabinet minister in the first of the so-called tension trials.

He said the change over Ramsi's 14 years had been dramatic.

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"When we first got here it was complete lawlessness, it was ruled by gun. The police were corrupt and they were ruling by gun. The infrastructure had fallen over, the government had collapsed with finances, the hospital was almost non-existent.

"Now infrastructure is really good, the government finances are being tracked really well and the police force in particular it is two-thirds new police force from 2002."

Despite that widely-acknowledged success, there is significant unease locally about whether security can be maintained once the foreign police leave. Corruption is widespread, thousands of illegal firearms have not been surrendered in official amnesties, and tensions over land remain.

During her three-day visit last week Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett signed an agreement that will keep eight New Zealand Police advisers in the country.

Folau will return to policing in Canterbury at the end of the year after helping with the changeover. He wanted to acknowledge the six Ramsi personnel who lost their lives, and the countless Solomon Island victims of the ethnic violence.

An unusual number of Crusaders supporters around Honiara will be just part of Folau's legacy here.

"They are just amazing people. I put my hand on my heart and say that I get more co-operation and genuine support and thanks and good mornings than I would back in New Zealand," Folau said of the experience.

Kiwi cops in the Solomon Islands

• The Solomon Islands was on the brink of collapse during civil and ethnic conflict between 1998 and 2003 that saw more than 100 people killed and around 40,000 driven from their homes.

• After the Solomons Government asked for help, Ramsi was established and an initial force of about 2200 military and police offices, primarily from Australia and New Zealand and with representatives of several Pacific Island states, restored security.

• The last NZDF platoon left in November 2012. Last week marked the official end of Ramsi, and most of the 16 Kiwi police officers in the country flew home.