SYDNEY - The pictures that came out of a remote highlands village in Papua New Guinea two weeks ago were not, at first glance, particularly graphic: bulging cocoons of blue mosquito nets hanging from wooden poles propped along a roadside.
But the story they told was gruesome.
The nets, said the health worker in Karida village who supplied them, held the remains of 10 women, six children and two unborn babies, all hacked to death with machetes sometime before dawn on 8 July.
The health worker told the Guardian they had not been able to work out which body parts belonged to which person.
The slaughter, which occurred in the mountains of Hela province, about 600 kilometres north west of the PNG capital of Port Moresby, followed the killing of three women and four men in a neighbouring village the day before.
The photographs showed the remains being watched over by a pair of elderly women waving branches – fending off flies in the tropical heat.
This small rite of respect required immense courage. The killings scattered hundreds of terrified people into the surrounding bush, where many remain today.
“I am so worried about my women,” says Janet Koriama, president of the Hela Council of Women over the phone from the local capital of Tari, having just spent a night near the scene of the massacre.
“Families have lost everything,” says Koriama – their food gardens, shelter, clothes. Last Wednesday, Koriama says another woman was killed “and one had her hand cut off while looking for food to feed their hungry children”.
Koriama is desperately trying to enlist defence forces to bring around 2,000 women and children displaced by tribal fighting into shelters she’s coordinating with local churches.
But reports indicate that while soldiers have been deployed as promised by prime minister James Marape, who is also the local MP for the area, their mission is focused on capturing the killers, dead or alive.
Even if they succeed, this will be of little comfort to Koriama and other local leaders fearful about what this massacre signals. While tribal conflict is deep rooted in Hela, they describe what happened in Karida village as unprecedented in lore or memory.
“This, I have never seen in my life,” bereft local chief Hokoko Minape told PNG journalist Scott Waide.
Police Minister Bryan Kramer declared his concern that the killings “changed everything … that it will become the new trend”.
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