THE charred foundations are all that is left of the homes that made up Kenemote village in the mountainous Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea.
For the past four and a half months a tribal war has raged between four clans of the Kintex tribe who are armed with high-powered guns, as well as bows and arrows.
Nine people are dead, including a small boy, and most dwellings have been burned to the ground, while women and children are traumatised.
“We [the women] are really affected because our lives are at risk, we are not free to go to the garden to look for food and the children cannot go to school; there is no freedom and no safety,” Aulo Nareo, a resident of Kenemote, told IPS.
Fighting erupted at the beginning of April after one clan accused another of using poison or sorcery to cause a death in the community. The victorious clan, still brandishing their weapons, are encamped among the ruins.
The other three clans, numbering three quarters of Kenemote’s population of 1,500, have fled and are staying in squatter settlements in the nearby town of Goroka or with relatives scattered in other villages.
“We want peace when we see the houses burning and properties destroyed, but the other clans’ people continue to come and provoke us. It will take years to recover the loss we have gone through, so we want peace, but we don’t know who can bring this peace,” chief Lim Nareo declared to IPS.
A police mediation team and the Eastern Highlands branch of the Red Cross are attempting to broker a ceasefire. But until that happens, chief Nareo’s people won’t leave the area because of the risk of further attacks, and those displaced are unable to return.
For the past two years, the Red Cross has devoted enormous quantities of resources to helping people caught up in ongoing fighting in at least four of the province’s eight districts, providing temporary shelter, access to medical care, water and food supplies.
Meanwhile, in a province of about 579,000 people, the local police say they are trying to address at least 30 separate conflicts.
The human toll and suffering due to tribal fighting has escalated in the last 20-30 years with greater access to modern high-powered weapons. Today international and local gun smuggling networks provide villagers with a supply of M-16s, AK-47s, 0.22 rifles and grenades.
Many highlanders claim that guns are needed for their personal security and that of their businesses and communities because of lack of reach of the state, particularly law enforcement, in rural areas where more than 80 percent of the country’s population live.
However, guns have also become a major symbol of status and power for men and youth.
The consequences are increasingly tragic, Robin Kukuni of the Eastern Highlands Red Cross said, because most villagers “haven’t had any firearms training, so they just fire their guns indiscriminately and a lot of women and children are dying.”