Wednesday, December 19, 2007


EVERYONE deserves a second chance at life. This belief is the ray of hope that ex-convicts Olita Kau, Isireli Bera and Apenisa Jopelesi hold on to as they try to live reformed lives.

Mr Kau, 42, Mr Bera 37 and Mr Jopelesi, 17, hail from Vanuavatu in Lau. Each have been in and out of prison for various reasons.
Mr Kau spent 10 years at the Natabua Prison where he met Mr Bera who spent six years. Young Jopelesi says he spent six months at the Suva prison.
These men are members of the Green Army Ex-prisoners Association which was formed about six months ago to help in the rehabilitation of a group of ex-prisoners in Lautoka.

Already, it has 22 registered members. Mr Kau, who is the association's president, said the forum was formed to help given the difficulty for ex-prisoners to fit into society.

He said the association was formed to use the ex-prisoners skills in handicraft and other related work. This includes wood carvings and the weaving of handbags and other handicraft items. Their handiwork has drawn a lot of positive response from the community, he said.

But the stigma of having been imprisoned is. As such, it was the association's hope to facilitate growth in this area, particularly as most of their members are uneducated.
"Our members have already taken the initiative by trying to establish a group and asking certain members within society to assist them in their ideas," said Mr Kau.
"Putting our craft work pieces together is an expensive exercise. "Just for carving the materials is not cheap and it would cost more than $100 just to purchase the materials. "The timber alone costs around $32 and then there's the vanish and sand paper.

"That's why the end product is sold around $45 just to make up for the costs. "I draw up the designs and the rest of the members put the pieces together. I try my best to pass on whatever knowledge and skills I have to the other members.

"As for the weaving of baskets, we involve our wives." Mr Bera said their past decisions to take the wrong side of the law was largely influenced by their poverty.
At times there was nothing to eat, he said. He admits it is not an excuse to commit crime but at that time for them, it was a huge influence.

"If the tummy is not well fed one would go out and look for things," he explained.
"This leads to meeting up with other friends and leads on to other things, which usually do not have a good outcome. This is why he is very supportive of the initiative to form an association to help ex-prisoners change their lives for the better.

"When we go into prison we have lost everything," he said. "I have four daughters. Three are in school with the eldest being in class six. "Once we come outside of prison we try and find ways to earn a living to support, not only ourselves, but also our families.

"Some of the skills we have acquired were from when we were inside and now that we are outside we want to try and put it to good use. "But society is not very generous to us as the stigma of being an ex-prisoner still hangs over.

"When we approach business houses or some members in society to seek their assistance in getting our work recognised, they don't understand us or where we are coming from," he said.

Mr Bera said in order for the association to earn a daily living he and many of their members move around on foot to business houses. They had tried selling door to door in residential areas but sales was practically nil. He said sometimes they would travel down to Ba or even go to Suva just to try and sell their handicrafts.

"Its not an easy job but its our way of making up and trying to put food on our tables and ensuring that our families are okay," he said. "I start walking around town from about 8am and I can go right until the afternoon.

"Sometimes if we are lucky once the craft work is completed we come in to town. "There are time though when we are lucky and our items are sold so quickly that we have to go back home and get some more to sell," he said.

Adapted from the