A long day's flying around some of PNG's backblocks
‘Montevideo Maru’ – Australia’s biggest maritime tragedy

There’s a new breed of ruthless killer at large in PNG today

PHIL FITZPATRICK

Velma Ninjipa
Velma Ninjipa shot in the face - robbery is not enough, now gunmen shoot to kill

TUMBY BAY – ABC journalist Eric Tlozek filed a story on Saturday about Velma Ninjipa who was held up by gunmen outside a motel in Port Moresby and blasted in the face with a shotgun.

Tlozek was pointing out how dangerous Port Moresby has become and how money and resources are being thrown into security for the upcoming APEC meeting in November.

The ferocity of the attack on the woman and the patent disregard for human life by her attacker reminded me of an incident in which I was involved in the Southern Highlands in 2003.

In that case we were victims of a set up. A company helicopter was supposed to meet us at a remote airstrip to pick up a payroll and whisk it away to safety. But workers on a seismic line had engineered a fake medical emergency to divert the aircraft to another location.

The inexperienced chief of the seismic camp fell for the ruse, sent the chopper elsewhere and left us on the airstrip with the payroll and no alternative but to make a run for it in our truck.

A few kilometres from the airstrip, in a planned attack, a gunman stepped out of the bush onto the road in front of the truck and without hesitation shot at the driver, Peter Mantilla.

I was sitting beside him in the truck cab. He had seen the gunman and ducked. The shotgun blast raked across the top of his head blowing a hole in the partition at the back of the cab.

Peter Mantilla
Driver Peter Mantilla, ducked just in time to escape the worst of the shotgun blast

Thinking clearly despite the situation, the driver drove straight at the gunman who was busily reloading. The man jumped to one side and we powered past him up the hill and around a bend. There was a tree felled across the road.

By that stage the gunman and his mates, armed with bush knives, were running along the road after us.

We slammed into the tree, pushed it aside and continued up the hill, hoping none of the workers we had picked up at the airstrip had fallen from the back of the truck.

I pulled off my tee shirt and wrapped it around the driver’s head to try and stop the bleeding and between us, me steering because he was blinded by blood and him changing the gears, we managed to get away.

When we were far enough along the road, we stopped while I got the driver out and managed to contact the seismic camp on a hand-held radio. A helicopter was sent to help us.

There were several things about that incident that remain in my mind.

The first was the bravery of Peter Mantilla from Mount Hagen, who ended up with 27 stitches in his scalp.

The second was the way we had both remained calm during the whole incident and did what was required to remove ourselves from further harm. I think that appropriate reaction surprised both of us.

Shot up truck
The gunman attacked the cab from the wrong angle; otherwise the outcome would have been deadly

The third was how dumb the gunman had been; he had stepped from the bush on the wrong side of the road and fired diagonally at us. If he had come from the other side he would have been able to fire straight at Peter and kill him.

The fourth and most significant thing was how the gunman had fired at Peter with absolute intent to kill him. There was no hesitation whatsoever and no attempt to just hold us up.

The same thing struck me about the recent incident in Port Moresby. A man with a shotgun who deliberately intended to kill someone.

In both cases it was lucky the gunmen didn’t have more deadly high powered weapons.

What I have a great deal of trouble comprehending is how one human being can point a gun at someone deliberately with the intent of killing them. I don’t understand this in war let alone in peacetime.

I know it happens the world over but I never expected to see it in a place like Papua New Guinea. Unlike the hotheads who injure and kill each other in tribal wars these characters are simply vicious killers and murderers. I don’t think that was common in Papua New Guinea twenty or thirty years ago.

The gunman who tried to hold us up was tracked down by Mendi police but ‘unfortunately’ drowned while they were trying to arrest him. The inspector who led the hunt told me in a quiet aside that they had to hold him under water for quite a while before he gave up.

The man who shot the woman in Port Moresby has not been caught and it doesn’t look like the police are in a hurry to catch him.

I still have a handful of flattened, razor sharp shotgun pellets I collected from the floor of the truck that are spattered with Peter’s blood. They are a reminder of how much Papua New Guinea has changed.

Comments

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Chris Overland

I'll meet you half way Phil.

The new breed is new in the sense that the motivations are different but not so new in their willingness to assert power over others by exercising an assumed prerogative to kill them.

I cannot see us humans mastering our nastier impulses any time soon, whether in PNG or Syria or Eastern Ukraine or Iraq or Afghanistan or the Yemen or the good old US of A or anywhere else.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I'm not sure they are the 'same old breed of killers', Chris.

For one thing their motives are different. They are not about tribal animosities or conquest but about robbery and personal gain via violence.

This sort of motive was socially constrained in the past. Now that 'community' has broken down these people are now free to enact their violent inclinations.

The raskol culture has many attractions for young men, notoriety and gain among others, that weren't available or condoned in the past. The entertainment industry certainly doesn't help either.

As is the wont of conservative governments Australia is now spending vast amounts of money on defence equipment that could be better employed on health and education.

Thankfully most of the toys they buy for the boys in the military will never be used and will quickly become obsolete.

One day we will all wake up to this pointless glorification of violence.

Chris Overland

As the world continues to regress towards an approximation of the state of affairs that existed at the end of the 19th century, Phil has rightly drawn attention to one of the dubious blessings that modernity has given to the developing countries such as PNG.

It is a sad fact of human existence that our aggressive nature, inherent fear of the other and instinct towards tribalism frequently combines to create a state of war.

Worse still, we have proved marvellously adept at creating new technologies with to wage war more efficiently and effectively.

The developed world has now achieved mastery over technologies for killing that are capable of threatening the very survival of our species.

Fortunately, thus far at least, we have felt constrained from using those technologies, mostly owing to the fear of mutually assured destruction, which has generated the exceedingly apt acronym MAD.

Less fortunately, we have enthusiastically provided vast numbers of lesser weapons to societies such as PNG's.

This means that people whose culture and world view is, quite frankly, hardly different to their ancestors, possess not bows and arrows but Armalite rifles and similar weapons.

Such weapons are exponentially more capable of doing harm than any traditional weapon. Their mere possession is deemed to confer power and authority upon the bearer in a way that no traditional weapon ever could.

The problem with seeking to use a weapon to make others submit to your will is that, in the event of non-compliance, you have to make a decision about whether to actually use it.

My cousin is a very senior police officer. He has said that amongst Australia's criminal classes, any threats that are issued are meaningless if those threatened believe that they will not be acted upon. Thus a threat to kill has to be, in fact, a promise.

This is the logic that led to the lethal gang warfare that overtook Melbourne's criminal world for much of the 1990's and early 2000's.

Now PNG's criminal classes have both the weapons and the will to use them. Traditional PNG cultures valued "fight leaders' who were willing and able to use lethal force, although usually only in certain defined circumstances.

These men were, in practice, ruthless killers. Pre-colonial PNG was no more some sort of Arcadian idyll where people always lived in harmony than was medieval Europe. Power was exerted by force to achieve both personal and tribal ends.

It is a very small step from that culture into the sort of the tribalism that is an intrinsic feature of criminal gangs.

So, I would contend, the only really new thing about what is happening in PNG is that men who imagine themselves to be the true heirs of a warrior culture now have access to modern weapons.

These men are, in fact, the same old breed of killers, not a new one.

They blight all societies and, if their malignant energy can be harnessed by political means, they can turn into ravening killers and destroyers of any viable rules based society.

There is much to fear in these gun wielding thugs and a failure to deal ruthlessly with them will do untold harm to PNG.

Lindsay F Bond

Timely note, Phil.
Timeless as a tale.
Timidity it ain't.

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