HELEN DAVIDSON | The Guardian | Extract
WAPENA - “It was in the night, we didn’t see them coming. There was a guy who came in the house, and everybody without disabilities they decided to run off, leaving the place, [but] I couldn’t run.”
Twenty-year-old Cathy Mek speaks in barely more than a whisper. She’s sitting on a thin bamboo bench in a quiet, private clearing above her village of Wapena, in the highlands of Papua New Guinea.
It’s a region known for inter-tribal violence as much as stunning scenery and Wapena – perched on a hill overlooking the tidy crops and lush valleys of Western province – is no exception for either.
But rape, indiscriminate destruction and automatic weapons are changing the face of traditional conflict, and PNG authorities and international non-governmental associations are struggling to get a handle on the deteriorating situation.
On 28 June, the people of Wapena were attacked by a neighbouring tribe over political differences during the national election.
The village’s men were at a counting station in a nearby town. Able-bodied women grabbed their children and fled. Mek, who has a permanently injured foot and deformities in both hands, could not.
“They put a knife to me, they took me out and raped me,” Mek says. “I refused, I argued, but they slept here and ate here and then they continued on.
“After that I started screaming. I was still screaming until a fellow from the other village heard my screams and came into rescue, and other people … came and helped me out.”
Mek’s mother, Elisabeth Yong, and Wapena’s leader, Jerry Rombena, sit with us. As Mek talks Rombena, a former police officer, silently shakes his head in anger and sadness.
He says the police know who the rapists are but won’t make an arrest unless the men leave tribal land, for fear of triggering another battle. Justice for Mek is unlikely.
She suspects the other women feel guilty for leaving her behind but says no one is helping her to overcome the trauma. “I am calling out for help but they don’t want to help.”
Near a collection of huts covered in Red Cross tarpaulins, Mek’s fellow villagers share their stories of 28 June. They gather under the shade of a tree on the edge of the hillcrest, cradling children and phones and machetes. No one mentions Mek.
Asked to raise a hand if their house was destroyed in the attack, nearly everyone does so.
“They came from the other side of the creek,” Rombena recalls. “They walked, they came in groups with all the clansmen, with weapons like bows and arrows and high-powered ammunition.
“We saw them coming from the other side, with their weapons and shouting,” says Susan Dupi, pointing across a field to the one dirt road in.
“They burned the first place there, and we saw them coming in large groups so we decided to run with our children. We went to the other side [of the village]. They didn’t find us.”
As well as assaulting Mek, the attackers burned down 36 homes, slaughtered 32 pigs and destroyed the grain stores, gardens and cash crops, says Gus Kasyaki.
Wapena was luckier than many villages in that the attackers brandished their military-grade assault weapons, but did not shoot anyone.
Guns are now a common feature of the increasingly violent tribal fighting, replacing traditional bows and arrows.
The region’s extensive stock of high-powered guns are believed to come from over the border, in Indonesian West Papua, illegally traded for PNG-grown marijuana. Some say they can also be bought from police and soldiers.
Marijuana “grows like wildfire” in the highlands regions, and the black-market trade of weapons, including M16s, AK-47s and explosives, has often left police officers outgunned, says the acting provincial police commander for Enga, Epenese Nili.
In a documentary produced by the Red Cross this year, the former PNG defence force commander Jerry Singirok says the use of weapons in the highlands is “out of control”.
“That’s where 80% of the population of Papua New Guineans live. We know for a fact that every tribal fight guns are used, every roadblock guns are used, every murder guns are used, and we know that during elections guns are used to intimidate, to harass, even to murder opposing people, and we are very concerned.”
Just recently 11 men were shot dead in a dawn raid on a village in the Eastern Highlands region, the Post-Courier reported. About 30 people were reported to have been killed in election-related violence this year, the worst of which was in Wabag, Enga province, where the dead included two police officers killed outside a hotel.
Hundreds of security forces were deployed to Wabag to control the violence after the contentious defeat of the former opposition leader Don Polye. On the outskirts of town a burnt-out ambulance rusts by the side of the road. More than 120 homes in the electorate were reported to have been destroyed.
“We called troops to move in and camped out in the middle between two warring tribes,” Nili says of the Wabag violence. “Police from day one are still camping there now.”
Nili says the groups agreed to lay down their arms, but during an amnesty they surrendered only homemade weapons, keeping the rest.
“We saw those guns in the battlefield,” says Nili, shrugging. “We have search powers to go and search the premises, but somebody has to come and complain, give us the intel report about a particular house having a high-powered weapon. But who is going to come and talk to police?”
The International Committee of the Red Cross, based in Mount Hagen, says it mostly sees homemade weapons during its fieldwork in the region.
For this reason the organisation uses plastic rather than metal pipes when it builds water facilities in villages. But the Red Cross head of office for Mount Hagen, Kakhaber Khasaia, says the high-powered guns are a problem.
“When you talk to the tribal leaders they’ll often mention that those guns are owned by young people who are not really controlled by the leaders, who think they are now the most powerful person, they don’t have much experience and they create problems,” Khasaia says.