You never would have guessed it…not in a million years! How do you take a short, quiet guy you could pass on the street every day without noticing and turn him into the middleman for a huge peace operation? How does the son of American immigrants from small-town Blenheim, New Zealand end up hundreds of miles away in a country not one year out of a 10-year civil war? You’ve got me stumped; even I couldn’t have made this up…
Meet Peter Capell. He is five’foot, seven and a half- the half being very important’ with blue eyes, brown hair and small hands. His profession? A Librarian. Does he practice this? No.
As a great fan of Asterix and Indiana Jones, coupled with being a dreamer, Peter sought adventure. Something more exciting than sorting and stacking books. (This shouldn’t have been hard to find, but he soon found he was in for far more than he had bargained for.)
In 1995 Peter decided to join a ship – The MV Doulos – as a carpenter. With this newly acquired skill, he enjoyed his job immensely, but was soon asked to go ahead of the ship and prepare for its arrival in future ports. This meant visiting places like Liberia, Lebanon, Myanmar (Burma) etc…. It sounded interesting to him, and the thought of living in places like that for three months was more exciting than anything he could have dreamed up.
So he agreed, and after two terms with the ship, he had had more than his share of “adventures”.
In Yemen he had a man point an AK 47 at his stomach and say, “You know, if I kidnapped you we could be on CNN tonight.” Peter calmly picked up his bag and said as he prepared to leave, “No thanks. Besides, you would need an American for that…not a New Zealander.” He was extremely grateful that the man didn’t know about the American passport in his bag. In India he was nearly trampled to death by a raging mob. In Germany he was bitten by a tick and contracted tick fever. In Ghana he was bitten by a mosquito and ended up with malaria.
Because he deliberately chose interesting – and generally war-torn countries like Liberia, Burma, Lebanon, Yemen, Ghana, and Albania, the people on the ship nicknamed him, “The Indiana Jones of Doulos.”
As I talked with him, I was astounded that this very ordinary man had had so many extraordinary experiences. I watched, fascinated at the way he expressed his love for these countries with his hands waving and light shining in his eyes. As he explained the suffering of the people, his voice became softer, and he faded off into his own world, then he shook himself, smiled, and said…”Whenever I am feeling like I don’t have enough because I have never even owned a car, I just think of those people with less than me. It’s a very humbling thought, and I feel so rich all of a sudden.”
Yes, Peter had his adventures, and he had fun, but nothing could have prepared him for Bougainville, Papua New Guinea…
Bougainville is a remote little island somewhere above Australia. Very few people know it exists and even fewer care about it. At the time of Peter’s visit its people were afraid and suspicious after coming out of a 10-year civil war. It had no electricity, phone lines, roads, running water or fuel. Yes, just the sort of place Peter thrived in. He was as excited about going there as a boy is on Christmas morning. He left New Zealand in July 1999 after a short stay with his family, eager to be off.
Upon arrival, Peter was met with hostility, fear, and a few problems. Getting from place to place was not easy, because the roads were mare like four-wheel drive tracks, and cars were few. Finding a place to stay was also a difficulty, but not as hard as winning the trust of the people.
Peter knew that if he couldn’t do that, then there was no hope of bringing a ship with a majority of white people to the island, no matter how they could benefit it.
Everywhere he looked he saw signs of the war: roads were wrecked, buildings were broken, the government was in a shambles… but worst of all, the spirits of the people were torn. Torn, but not broken. This saddened him, but at the same time, he saw the opportunity to invoke change. The people were ready for it, but they didn’t know how to begin.
Slowly, surely, Peter began to win the hearts of the people. Not just the locals, but the officials as well. Permissions to do with the ship began to come in, and doors slowly began to open. Opportunities arose, and teams were organized for people from the ship to go and live for a few days with people on land.
Peter was well pleased with the progress he was making, but he was still concerned with the state of the government. It was set up with
representatives of leaders from both sides of the civil war, and though they had signed a treaty of peace, they had never apologized to one another. There was still a ‘war’ going on in the hearts of the people.
The ship was coming into port in a few days and time was running out. Then one day Peter came home – to the family he was staying with at the time – so excited! The President, Joseph Kabui, had requested that a seminar of peace be held on board the ship so that proper peace could be established. (Peter’s eyes lit up especially bright when he reached this point, and his talking became animated. He was still excited 4 years later!) “The ship was sailing in, but they didn’t have the technology to say where it was, so I had to climb the highest coconut tree I could find to see if I could spot it!” Peter said, laughing at himself. “It was a great moment. One I will remember for the rest of my life…”
Doulos had an incredible 6 days in Bougainville, and it was topped off by a peace ceremony where the “warring” parties officially apologized to one another. “I will still remember Vice President, James Tanis’ words,” Peter says as if still in disbelief, “He said, ’18 months ago I was searching the bush in order to kill you (President Joseph Kabui). I wish to ask for your forgiveness…’ ”
Wow! So how do you take a librarian and make him the middleman for a huge peace operation? I’m still not sure…but I know that if you embrace even the smallest opportunities in life, no matter how strange, they’ll take you somewhere. I think it’s safe to mention that I’d rather not have an AK47 pointed at my stomach like Peter, but they do say, ‘whatever does not kill you, will make you stronger – and for him, I guess it did!