Bougainville’s tinderbox threatens to reignite
Counting down at the traffic lights

From arrows to M16s: highlands tribal fights get deadlier


PILIKAMBI - Tribes in Papua New Guinea's rough and rugged highlands have fought one another for centuries, but a recent influx of automatic weapons risks turning minor beefs into all-out war.

Israel Laki misses the old days - just a few years ago - when clansmen would settle fights in what he deems the proper way: with bows, arrows, axes and spears.

It was honourable, he insists, even if an arrow once thumped within millimetres of his heart as he tried to axe a rival tribal fighter to death.

The wiry 69-year-old still carries the scars and spirit of the old ways from this picturesque part of central Papua New Guinea, which Westerners reached only in the 1930s.

Even today, the modern state is little more than an abstract concept in the isolated region, where few respect the government.

Old rivalries persist, as do fights over rape, theft and tribal boundaries.

But tradition is increasingly melding with modernity, to devastating effect.

Locals now speak darkly of an influx of American M16s and AR-15s and Belgian FNs - all brutally effective rifles designed for the military - and of roving mercenaries and arms dealers willing to work for cash, pigs or women.

Papua New Guinea's population has more than doubled since 1980, placing increasing strain on land and resources and deepening tribal rivalries.

Elsewhere in the country, however, tribal fights have become rare or ritualistic, thanks, in part, to urbanisation and the fear of firearms igniting an ever-escalating conflict.

But in Enga province, regional police commander Joseph Tondop has already seen dozens die during the three months he has been on the job.

"I was surprised to see people armed with very high-powered weapons and they were just killing one another by the side of the road," he told AFP.

The surge in violence has prompted a company of around 100 government soldiers under the command of a Sandhurst-trained major to establish a makeshift garrison at a hotel in the main town of Wabag.

"They decide to take the law into their own hands and apply justice amongst themselves. Jungle justice," said commander Tondop.

Under this system, "one person's problem becomes everyone's problem".

Military intelligence suggests the guns come from nearby Bougainville Island - where a civil war raged until 1998 - or from across the porous Indonesian border, or even from within the security services themselves.

The police commander likens it to a tribal arms race.

"When one clan knows that the other opposing clan has some weapons, they have to also acquire some weapons somehow. It's like warfare now."

Commander Tondop hopes to introduce a gun amnesty next year, with rewards of up to K20,000 for turning in rifles.

But he admits the real answer is better policing and a criminal justice system seen as fair and efficient.

Outside the modest police headquarters at Wabag, the urgency of his task is clear.

On a dusty patch of waste ground, a crowd of around 300 stern-faced Epok men gathered to demand justice for 16-year-old tribesman Chris Solomon.

The teenager was recently shot dead and hacked to pieces by a rival clan as he returned home from his school.

The school had become a flash-point for tribal violence and effectively been closed for months.

But students were forced to return when they were told they would fail the year for non-attendance.

After receiving assurances that commander Tondop would arrest the perpetrators, the tribesmen carried the schoolboy's body on a convoy of more than a dozen buses, flatbed trucks, and 4x4s back to their land.

In the village of Pilikambi, almost a thousand people took part in a haus krai ceremony - the entire tribe circling the boy's coffin weeping, howling and chanting for more than an hour in the rain.

Such ceremonies are ostentatious shows of grief, with each member of the tribe trying to outdo the sadness of the other.

But there was also palpable anger.

Around the edges of the haus krai, tribesmen whispered to one another, axes and sword-length machetes slung by their sides as they eyed outsiders warily.

Heavily armed police and soldiers stood at a distance, watching for any potential outbreak of violence.

If police are to contain the anger, they will have to act fast: to identify, find and apprehend suspects in this unforgiving terrain before the tribe's patience wears out.

They know that with guns, the actions of young men looking for revenge, status or honour can quickly spiral into tit-for-tat murders.

"I thought he was going to come back home," said Amgal Solomon, insisting his son was innocent. "They shot him down."

"The government must take action," he said, making clear that if it does not, the tribe will choose another path.

"If the government doesn't take any action, the violence will continue," he said grimly. "It will go big."


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Martin Auld

"....or from across the porous Indonesian border"


"Tito said there were also weapons obtained from smugglers in Papua New Guinea and entered through illegal channels. 'I did not say from the government (Papua New Guinea)...' "

Paul Oates

A quick check on the rules of war, also known as international humanitarian law reveals 10 rules that make interesting reading.

What of these hasn't been broken many times by warring factions in the Highlands?

1. Protect those who are not fighting, such as civilians, medical personnel or aid workers.

2. Protect those who are no longer able to fight, like an injured soldier or a prisoner.

3. Prohibit targeting civilians. Doing so is a war crime.

4. Recognize the right of civilians to be protected from the dangers of war and receive the help they need. Every possible care must be taken to avoid harming them or their houses, or destroying their means of survival, such as water sources, crops, livestock, etc.

5. Mandate that the sick and wounded have a right to be cared for, regardless of whose side they are on.

6. Specify that medical workers, medical vehicles and hospitals dedicated to humanitarian work cannot be attacked.

7. Prohibit torture and degrading treatment of prisoners.

8. Specify that detainees must receive food and water and be allowed to communicate with their loved ones.

9. Limit the weapons and tactics that can be used in war, to avoid unnecessary suffering.

10. Explicitly forbid rape or other forms of sexual violence in the context of armed conflict.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I saw M16s in the Southern Highlands in 1997 but they were there before that. The guys with them also had Kevlar helmets, flak jackets and hand grenades.

Like many Australian government agencies in PNG it takes thirty or so years to catch up on what's going on.

Peter Sandery

Can't help but agree with my namesake

Paul Oates

Peter, the answer to your question might possibly be: Embedded with the AFP deployed in PNG in the 'Wok Wantaim' team.

Peter Salmon

I apologise for my sarcasm but where has this correspondent been for the past 30 years.

Paul Oates

The question that should be addressed is: What rules apply?

Police can only (we hope) take action in response to an illegal action or activity or the potential for such an activity to happen. That means they are constrained by law to keep within the law. They can only take action in a reactive mode.

The rules of war however are something that provide a different scenario. To apply the rules of war would allow proactive action.

In other words, to take proactive action before something happens.

Surely the escalating violence in PNG and especially in the Highlands is indicative of a war zone. If that is the case, then what are the rules that could or should apply?

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