THE MURDERS OF Patrol Officer Gerald Szarka, Cadet Patrol Officer Geoffrey Harris, Constable Buritori and Constable Purari near Telefomin in 1953 had a profound effect on the minds of every kiap and policeman in Papua New Guinea at the time and became a reference point that endured up to independence in 1975.
The 1950s in TPNG were the Shangri-La years, a sort of golden age for the kiaps and the police who worked with them.
Patrols were everywhere walking into hidden pristine valleys and discovering large populations of happy and virile people who greeted them openly with smiles and brightly coloured feathers and flowers in their hair.
As the old kiaps and policemen now contemplate that great patrol post in the sky it is invariably set in the halcyon 1950s. Life was raw but simple, fulfilling and joyous. The events at Telefomin had a jarring effect on that naivety.
What happened at Telefomin was both unusual and disquieting. The people there had had contact with Europeans since before World War II and the patrol post had been set up in 1948. They were not newly-contacted people reacting to the shock of alien invasion. The patrol they attacked was undertaking a routine census.
Most disquieting of all was the fact that the attacks at three separate places occurred simultaneously, were deliberately opportunistic and appeared to have been well planned.
The opportunity to attack finally came when Szarka split his patrol, sending Harris to one part of the Eliptamin valley while he visited the other. This decision turned a strong, consolidated patrol into a weak and vulnerable one.
Jim Sinclair provides the following details:
Harris was attacked first, at about 7.30 a.m., while still in bed in the Terapdavit resthouse. He was terribly wounded with tomahawk blows and arrows. One of his police constables, Kombo, was seized at about the same time and injured with blows from a heavy length of wood and a tomahawk, but he broke free, secured his rifle and shot one of Harris’ attackers, frightening them all into flight.
One of the other constables, Paheki, was also rushed and he, too, managed to defend himself with his bayonet, stabbing a tribesman in the back and another in the belly. The third constable, Muyei, a strongly built man, was outside basking in the sun, and he easily threw off the men who jumped him, running into the police quarters in time to save the medical orderly, Bunat, from a grisly death.
The failure to effectively deal with the police constables ruined the Terapdavit tribesmen’s bloody plan to massacre the entire party but even though they had retreated they had not abandoned their intention.
Although wounded to death, Harris – young, tall and strong – somehow managed to stagger from the resthouse towards the police quarters, and Munyei and Bunat went to his aid. Constable Kombo was ow fainting from the shock and pain of his wounds, and he gave his rifle to Paheki, who stood in the doorway.
It was plain to Bunat and the three constables, that their officer was dying. Bravely, they decided to attempt to carry him to Telefomin. Their chances of escape would have been far better had they abandoned Harris, but this they never considered.
They started off, but the Terapdavit tribesmen barred the track and began firing arrows, forcing them to retreat to the police quarters, and Kombo sent off Harris’ personal servant to the station for help.
The tribesmen now surrounded the police quarters, and began firing incendiary arrows into the thatched roof until the hut was ablaze. The police abandoned it and carried Harris and Kombo to the nearby rest-house, under arrow attack all the way, covered by the indomitable Paheki and his rifle. But the resthouse, too, was quickly on fire, as the flaming arrows rained down upon the dry leaf roof.
Some twenty-five paces from the resthouse was a pig pen, stoutly constructed of upright stakes five feet high, and several inches apart. It was a poor refuge, but it was all there was. Under plunging arrow fire Harris and Kombo were carried to the pig pen, where again Paheki mounted guard.
Arrows rattled off the stakes and whistled through the gaps, but the Terapdavit warriors were afraid of Paheki’s rifle and kept their distance. Throughout the long afternoon the siege continued and at 5.20 p.m. Harris died. Soon afterwards policemen from Telefomin arrived, and the attackers turned and fled.
Szarka’s patrol consisted of three police constables – Buritori, Purari and Mulai – an interpreter, a personal servant and fifteen Telefolmin carriers. On 6 November they arrived at Misinmin and Szarka sent Purari and the interpreter on to a village ahead to tell the people that the patrol would soon be coming to make a check of the census. Constable Mulai went off to cut saplings for bed posts, leaving Szarka and Buritori alone. It was the chance the tribesmen were watching for.
On a prearranged signal both men were seized from behind. Szarka was thrown to the ground and decapitated with axe blows, but Buritori, an axe sticking out of his back, broke free and tried to escape. He was swiftly caught and he, too, was beheaded. The slaughter was silently done.
When Constable Mulai returned to camp he found it deserted. The carriers had fled, Szarka’s body had been carried off, and Buritori’s run for life had taken him into the bush, where his body lay, unseen.
But Mulai knew that something terrible had happened. He saw natives coming for him, arrows at their bowstrings, and another crept upon him with upraised tomahawk. He plunged into the bush and two days later won through to Telefomin.
Constable Purari was seized by eight Komdavip men as he was in the village resthouse preparing for the expected arrival of Szarka. Very tall for a Melanesian – 5 ft. 10 ins. – and powerful, Purari screamed out a warning to the interpreter, who escaped, and then fought hard for his life, taking axe blows in the throat, breast, thigh and back before the butchery was over.
They lashed his body to a pole and threw it over a nearby waterfall, where it lay for two weeks before being recovered.
Word of the killings flashed swiftly to the Telefolmin Valley, and the tribesmen gathered to complete their grand design. It is still not certain why the attack was not immediately launched.
There were at the time only four policemen at Telefomin and a massed attack must have succeeded; but it is likely that the unscheduled landing of a Gibbes Sepik Airways Norseman aeroplane upset their schemes and then it was too late.
Harris’ personal servant reached the station with his frightful news, and the Baptist missionary, Rev N W Draper, used the station radio transmitter to tell Alan Timperley, the District Commissioner, at Sepik District headquarters, Wewak….
Among the grievances later recorded by Barry Craig and others, were manslaughter, bashings, verbal assaults and the burning of houses by police, looting of gardens and the theft of pigs by government personnel, sexual use of women by police and the previous patrol officer, failure to pay compensation for the deaths of five carriers drowned on an earlier patrol, imprisonment without trial and forced labour without payment.
Unfortunately both the PNG Supreme Court and the PNG National Archives are unable to locate the records of the trial of the men accused of the murders and it is necessary to rely on secondary sources, which vary in their accounts, for an understanding of the events.
The media and the Opposition in Australia had a field day over the murders. The Australian Administration was castigated for sending young and inexperienced men out to isolated patrol posts and the Minister for Territories was accused of bowing to United Nations pressure to speed up the development of Papua New Guinea.
The tabloids paraded the spectre of the Mau Mau uprisings in Kenya and contrasted them to the situation in Papua New Guinea.
The Administration and the government in Australia moved to quickly protect their own self-interest and, as usual, looked for scapegoats.
The parents of Szarka and Harris became enraged when the Administration claimed that their son’s deaths were their own fault for not patrolling together. The Min were portrayed as unpredictable, primitive and treacherous savages whose motives were not possible to understand.
The 32 men eventually brought to trial for the murders were sentenced to death but this was commuted to ten years imprisonment with hard labour.
A memorial to the murdered kiaps and police was later erected at Telefomin. The courage of the police was outstanding. In summing up in the Supreme Court, Judge Gore said “their involvement was a story of heroism, resolution and loyalty which, even in the cold marshalling of facts in a judgement, must appear sublime.”
While never admitting that some of its methods were flawed the Administration quietly reviewed the way it did business in the bush and the ways of the past slowly gave way to a more measured and thoughtful approach that became a hallmark for both the kiaps and the police in the countdown to independence.
There are a number of accounts of the Telefomin murders, many of them romanticised and sensationalised.
For a balanced account of the actual events I would recommend Jim Sinclair’s 1981 book, Kiap: Australia’s Patrol Officers in Papua New Guinea, Pacific Publications, Sydney.
For an interesting analysis you can’t go past anthropologist Barry Craig’s 1990 article, The Telefomin Murders: Whose Myth? in the Oceania Monograph, Children of Afek: Tradition and Change Among the Mountain-Ok of Central New Guinea, University of Sydney.