As head of the first Samoan Contingent deployed as part of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) in 2003, Lafaele Uili Seana, can still recall the mixed emotions he experienced at the time.
“Leaving our families – our wives and children – behind for six months was not an easy task,” Mr Uili, now Samoa’s Assistant Police Commissioner, told those at the recent opening of the photo exhibition, RAMSI: A history in pictures.
“But I always carried in my heart what President John F Kennedy said to the Americans in his Presidential address: ‘Do not ask what your country can do for you…. but ask what you can do for your country.’”
As the Commander of RAMSI’s first Samoan Contingent, Mr Uili is seen by many Samoans as something of a pioneer for his nation. While reluctant to accept any praise for his efforts, Mr Uili admits that being the first ‘flag carriers’ for Samoa in the Solomons is something that he and the rest of that initial group of 15 police officers will always be proud of.
“It is something that we’ll always remember. Something we have a lot of pride in, because we were the first police contingent with the RAMSI.”
However he says being part of RAMSI was not an easy experience. From the moment he and other Samoan police officers began their pre-deployment training in Australia, he knew the experience was going to be a major test.
“The training was really tough. We camped in the bushes for about a week. We were freezing at night in our small tent that could only fit one person,” he explained. “On our backs, we carried backpacks of about 50 kilos inside. Some of our team fell and injured themselves on the rocks. It was the most challenging conditions that I’ve ever seen.”
He says landing in the Solomons capital, Honiara was an experience he will never forget.
“When we arrived there were many soldiers patrolling every area of the airport. And when we arrived at the RAMSI Headquarters in Honiara, we came to learn that this place covered with grass and mud, with big trees everywhere, was our new home. Small tents were issued to us for accommodation. The infrastructure was just starting.”
“There was no water for the shower, just a supply of water bottles for consumption, and there was no electricity. When it rained in the day it was ok, because you could just move your tent. But in the night time, we were too scared to move our tents – because of the snakes, the crocodiles and the mosquitoes.”
Mr Uili says once the initial period of militants surrendering and handing in their weapons was over, the key job that he and his fellow Pacific police officers were there to do was to work hand-in-hand with the local Solomon Islands police.
“We shared our skills, our knowledge, and experience from our police work. We exchanged ideas to come up with a better ways to improve the system, and its conditions and values.”
He says Pacific Islands police officers were particularly good at dealing with village-level issues because of their own experiences in their home nations.
“There is a similarity between us and Solomon Islanders, and that was where we really showed our strength, particularly in helping to solve villages’ disputes.”
He says some of the best memories from his time with RAMSI were the relationships he formed with Solomon Islanders, particularly a family in Honiara with whom he would spend every Sunday after meeting at church.
“They reminded me of my parents and my own family. After I came back to Samoa, I would always think of that family and how they used to invite me to join them every week. They would ask me to be with them. It was a special time.”
Mr Uili says seeing the RAMSI: A history in pictures exhibition, which is now on show at the Museum of Samoa in Malifi, has brought back many memories from an extraordinary time.
“The exhibition reflects our memories of the Solomons, and our colleagues from other Pacific nations. It reflects our skills and knowledge, and how we performed our duties.
“I understand that the country is quite stable now, so I would love to have a chance to go back and visit, to take my family to see the country that I was serving in.”
In the meantime, RAMSI: A history in pictures exhibition, it would seem, is the next best thing.
RAMSI: A history in pictures is on display at the Museum of Samoa, in Malifa, Apia, until Friday 26 August. Admission is free.