IT WAS IN THE YEAR 1982 that I did Grade 8 at Minj High School in what is now Jiwaka Province. I don’t know what the school is like now because I haven’t been back since completing Grade 10 in 1984.
During my time there were no dormitories for the boys. The girls had one small dormitory. This building for the girls was an old converted administration office. The boys who came from distant areas were given land on the school grounds to build their own houses to live in and go to school.
My two cousin-brothers, Alki Tine and Du Kunagel, who arrived there before me had a house and I was accommodated by them.
Alki had left at the end of 1981 and gone to Goroka Technical College. I was with Du who was doing Grade 9.
We had to find food ourselves. Du and I were unfortunate because we were cut off from home due to tribal fights. Our home was some 30 kilometres away from the school. We depended on Du’s sister for food since she was married to a man from Kudjip, at that time a 50 toea bus fare trip away.
Our staple food was kaukau. We would cut flat kaukau and fry them on a heated drum oven. If we were lucky we would have them with tea. Most of the time we just had to be content with kaukau. The school only provided lunch and we had it with the rest of the students. Lunch was mostly rice and tinned fish.
One weekend I decided to go home and see my family because it had been almost a year since I had seen them. The tribal fights at home had stopped and people were now moving around freely. I went on a Friday.
My mother wailed and cried because she was happy to see me again. I am her first born son. My other family members were also happy to have me in their midst.
On Sunday it was time for me to return to the school. My mother filled an empty rice bag with some kaukau that she had dug and three round cabbages from my father’s vegetable garden. Then my parents walked me to the next village to catch my transport. The distance between my home and the next village was about three kilometres.
I was lucky. There was a car ready to leave with some passengers for Minj when we arrived. Our neighbouring Golekup clan owned the car, a green Toyota Stout. My parents put me on the car and saw me leave before they returned home.
When we were halfway to the main Highlands Highway the driver stopped to collect our transport fees. I paid mine. It was about two kina. But the other passengers refused to pay because they claimed they were all owners of the car. The driver’s facial expression indicated that he was not happy with the reception he got from the passengers.
However, he got in the car and drove until we finally reached the main highway at Ganigle. Now we had to head west. Our home borders the Kerowagi District of Simbu Province. Minj would be about a 30 minute drive from the junction of our trunk road and the main highway.
The driver was speeding on the highway and I began to sense that there was something abnormal about the movement of the car. We had travelled the longest part of the journey and were close to our destination. Then the worst happened.
The driver lost control and went off the road. The car hit an old woman who was sitting on the side of the highway. The accident happened at the Wahgi Bridge just a few minutes’ drive from Minj town. There were about 10 of us on the car, six males and four females.
The old woman who was hit by the car was from the area of the accident. The story of the old woman got to me some hours later. Though I was travelling in the car, I did not realise it had hit the woman.
All that I remember is that stones, sticks and axes were swung at us. I did not know what had happened to the other passengers. I jumped out of the car and ran into a big kaukau plot. Some men followed me with axes.
Now I realised my life was in danger. I got out the five kina note that my parents had given me, put it in my mouth and clamped it with my teeth. I plunged into the Wahgi River and started swimming.
I was struggling with the rushing current because it had rained heavily the previous night. I put the money in my mouth because I did not want the water to wash it away from my shirt pocket.
I managed to reach the other side of the river. When I looked back, the men who had pursued me were searching everywhere among the pitpit thickets to locate me. There was a man and a woman with their dog on the side on which I was standing, but some distance away. The men who had chased me called to them to track me down.
There was a bush track close to where I was standing so I took that and started to run. I was not familiar with the place. I knew I was being followed so I had to run as fast as I could. I was exhausted but I had to push myself to get out of danger.
I finally reached the top of a mountain. I looked down and it was clear to me that no one was following. But I did not stop. I ran from the mountain until I reached the Minj River, which I followed upstream. It was quite a distance to walk before I arrived at Minj town at around two o’clock. I had left home at 10 o’clock that morning.
I saw the town buildings. I could see the high school from town. There were people walking around in town but none of them knew what had happened to me. My five kina note was still with me so I settled down with a packet of chips and a bottle of Coke. But the experience of being chased by the armed men did not disappear.
From town I walked slowly to the school. Before reaching the high school the road passed the town hospital. When I was closer to the hospital I saw someone I knew walking out of the hospital gate. She mentioned to me that some people had been in an accident that morning and were admitted to the hospital. I went to check.
In one of the wards, the driver of the car in which we had been travelling had white bandages all over his body. Two other male passengers who had travelled with us were in the same condition. They told me what had happened.
Armed relatives of the old woman clobbered them with fence posts but they were fortunate to be rescued by a police highway patrol. I thought to myself that it could have been fatal for me.
After visiting the hospital I walked back to the school but without my bag of kaukau and cabbages.
When at school I got the news that the old woman had recovered at the Kudjip Nazarene General Hospital. One of our clansmen, who was a passenger was killed and thrown into the Wahgi River.
His body was later washed up in a whirlpool downstream.
If I had not escaped the wielding axes of the pursuing men the fish in the Wahgi River could have feasted on me.
I was just another human being but fortunately the axes did not have the mobility and speed to bite and tear on that day.
Peter Maime (44) was born at Kukam Nok near Minj in the South Wahgi District of Jiwaka Province. He trained as a journalist at Divine Word University in Madang and worked with the Times of PNG, Wantok and The Independent newspapers. He is now Executive Officer at the Office of the National Statistician in Port Moresby