GEOFF Smith was in the shower when the business end of a Biami war arrow penetrated the thin saksak wall just above his head.
By the time Smith (pictured on the cover of my book Bamahuta) had wrapped a towel around his waist and buckled on his holster and revolver, several more of the exquisitely carved but decidedly nasty arrow heads were sticking through the wall.
Still covered in suds, he emerged to see his police scrambling for their rifles and retreating towards the house-come-office of Obeimi Base Camp.
One of the policemen had an arrow sticking out of his leg. Like all Biami arrows it would be a bugger to remove and help and an airstrip was two days walk away.
Smith fired three rapid shots into the air and the police followed with a volley from their .303 Lee Enfields.
As the thunderous boom of the firearms echoed and died a strange silence fell over the base camp. The Biami attackers had melted away into the forest greenery and disappeared.
These attacks were a regular occurrence in the Nomad Sub-District in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They were designed to unnerve the police and kiaps and were part of the ongoing war the Biami were waging against the gavamani (government).
When in Biami country you slept with your revolver and took it with you to wash and attend to your other personal needs.
Another of the Biami’s favourite tricks was to knock off any stragglers at the end of the patrol line. On most of our patrols it was the kiap at the rear and the sergeant up front, a reverse of the traditional order.
Several months before this latest attack the Administration issued Press Statement No 539 announcing that “the last two restricted (dangerous) areas in New Guinea – the Hewa area north of Mount Hagen and part of the Mianmin area in the West Sepik District – are being derestricted because they’re now regarded as safe for all outsiders”.
The statement was published by John Ryan's short-lived New Guinea News Service which “publicly challenged Acting Administrator, A.P.J. Newman, and secretary of the Administrator’s Department, TW Ellis, to test the honesty of Press Statement 539 by walking alone and unarmed (at New Guinea News Service expense) through the Biami people near Nomad, 350 miles north-west of Port Moresby”.
Ryan went on to explain that the Biami were not officially regarded as dangerous and the area had never been ‘restricted’ to outsiders.
“However, that’s simply because of politics and the winds of change!” he added.
“The Biami area is peopled by scores of practising cannibals who repeatedly attack Government patrols … the March 25 Press Statement is a blatant untruth, simply for political mileage in Australia and among Australia’s allies overseas and neighbours in South-East Asia”.
The Acting Administrator’s response was particularly naïve, insipid and galling. He said, “Well, I’ve talked to a few people who participated in the Scoutabout (in Port Moresby) over the weekend and I saw what the effect of walking 16 miles round here had on them.
“Knowing Mr Ellis (55) and myself (52) and our physical condition I’m quite sure that much as we’d like to take up the challenge we just couldn’t. I don’t reject the challenge on the grounds that it’s unsafe. I reject the challenge on the basis that Mr Ellis and myself couldn’t physically undertake the walk (Newman and other journalists laughed).”
Apart from the fact that there were plenty of kiaps over 50 still patrolling through the forests and mountains what really irked me about this response was that the Australian Administration was knowingly putting people’s lives at risk by their lies – people like me and Geoff Smith and all the other kiaps who served in places like Nomad.
A year or so later, just short of Papua New Guinea’s declaration of self-government, Craig McConaghy and I arrested and brought to trial seven cannibals from the Nomad area at no insignificant risk to ourselves and our police.
Such is political expediency.
It still exists in all sorts of ways. Poorly resourced and equipped and under-strength police in Papua New Guinea risk their lives every day and receive nothing but criticism for their efforts.
The same thing happens in Australia and elsewhere in the world. Police, soldiers, nurses, paramedics, firefighters and a host of other caring people are exploited by cynical politicians in pursuit of questionable agendas and some of them die in the process.
But that’s just politics, isn’t it?
Footnote: I’ve been back to Nomad and Obeimi (now Mogalu) several times and the Biami (Bedamini) people are peaceful and settled. Some of their children have attended university and have senior positions in government.
Editor's note: Phil Fitzpatrick's 'Bamahuta' is one of the iconic novels written by expatriates about Papua New Guinea. It is available from Amazon Books here for $US10 plus postage - KJ