Port Moresby- The signs of unrest and the escalation of violence are clear to be seen, including the remains of a house set alight during an attack targeting a family accused of sorcery. In this case, six people, who were accused of causing the death of a local politician were captured and tortured for several weeks in an effort to force confessions. Their village was burned to the ground.
The clan’s revenge came at night. Armed fighters slipped into Ragu, home of the Wombe, at 2 a.m. Three of their clansmen lay dead at Wombe hands, and they could not let the outrage go unanswered.
With machetes drawn, they approached the haus man, a community building meant only for men. Did the attackers know that Wombe women and children were inside? Perhaps not. After all, their presence in this male space broke tribal custom.
But then again the attackers may not have cared. What happened next reflects a worrying trend in Papua New Guinea: increasingly violent tribal attacks — including the use of rape and mutilation — against targets that include women and children.
Helen, about 60, was one of the Wombe women hiding in the haus man that night. Sitting on the same windswept hilltop more than three years later, surrounded by incinerated homes, charred wooden pillars and her now-homeless clansmen, she recounted the deadly attack: “I woke up and felt a strange heavy feeling in the house. We did not know we were already surrounded by our enemies.”
Then came the inferno. The haus man was set alight. There are disputed accusations that the attackers used a grenade. Either way, the wood and bush materials quickly erupted in flame with dozens of Wombe inside.
With her village destroyed, Helen remains displaced, and relies entirely on the goodwill of her host community to survive. “I’m like a child,” she said. “I wait for other people’s plates of food. When they give me food, I eat. When they don’t, I sleep without eating.”
The Wombe who managed to escape the burning structure were set upon by men with machetes. The whole village was torched. By dawn, some three dozen Wombe, mostly women and children, were dead.
What happened that night in November 2013 shocked Papua New Guinea and made headlines across the Pacific. The level of carnage in this Kagua District village in Southern Highlands Province was far greater than anything seen before in tribal conflict. But it echoed escalating violence and an erosion of the traditional limits to tribal conflict across Papua New Guinea.
A team from the International Committee of the Red Cross spent two weeks traveling through Hela and Southern Highlands, neighboring provinces in the island nation’s Highlands region, to document the humanitarian consequences of tribal fights. The result: evidence that traditional rules limiting tribal warfare are breaking down, and dark warnings that money from a boom in resource extraction is being spent on high-powered guns.
In the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, towns nestle in valleys hemmed tightly by steep mountain ranges. The dramatic landscape is home to almost 40 percent of Papua New Guinea’s population, with communities living in villages that are often remote, poorly serviced, and difficult to access.
Flying into one of Papua New Guinea’s Highlands airstrips can be hair-raising. Towns nestle in valleys hemmed tightly by steep mountain ranges.
It’s this dramatic topography that gives Papua New Guinea its unique character and makes it the world’s most ethnically and linguistically diverse nation. Some 800 languages are spoken here, underscoring a startling diversity of culture and custom, as any tourist who has seen the myriad costumes on display at the world-famous Hagen and Goroka cultural shows will attest.
In this young nation, which lies due north of Australia, from which it gained independence in 1975, loyalty to tribe still trumps loyalty to country. And while tribal culture fosters a comforting sense of belonging, one of its consequences can be to amplify violence. In the mindset of many Highlanders, an attack on one clan member is an attack on all.
The ICRC team touched down on the thin landing strip of Tari, capital of Hela Province. It was an apt place to begin an investigation into tribal fighting, since the airport itself sits on disputed territory. The land is claimed by two clans: the Homori and Kobala, from the village of Kikita II.
Henry Timbiawi, Air Niugini’s agent at the airport, recounts how in December 2015, Kikita II erupted into violence. Two men married to women from the opposing clans got into a drunken brawl. Their in-laws got involved. Then came the killing: within days, 12 people had been shot dead and hundreds of houses had been incinerated.
“Women and children are very, very badly affected,” Timbiawi said. “They have no involvement in this sort of fighting. They’ve been made to run and go live in other places. Children, they miss out on education. They miss out on good food, good rest in houses, and they don’t settle well there.”
From its Highlands base in Mt. Hagen, the ICRC works to address the humanitarian consequences of tribal violence. With teams operating in Hela and Southern Highlands Province, as well as another province with similar troubles, Enga, it has access to dozens of affected communities where it delivers relief kits of essential tools and shelter items.
The ICRC also works to ensure access to clean water and health care, which suffers gravely from the violence. It is difficult, for instance, to convince doctors to work at Tari Hospital, given the insecurity and volatility of the environment. Patients at times can’t access medical centers, since they might have to cross enemy territory.
Robin Klaver, a young doctor from Holland, had been at the facility for six months. Despite a certain medical stoicism, he seemed to be dismayed by what he had seen in Tari. Klaver had worked in other countries where tribal fighting was man against man. In Hela, “it also involves females, it also involves children. About a month ago, [we saw] two children, one seven and the other five, and they were just both shot.” And yet, Klaver pointed out, there was a certain grim logic at play: In 10 years, children would be enemy fighters.
The same logic that makes it acceptable to shoot children also justifies attacks on health workers. Jessie Bluno, a health worker based in a rural community in Hela, had been warned by fighters not to treat their enemies. Jessie’s clinic has been forced to prioritize the treatment of people from warring clans, just to get them out of the facility as quickly as possible. “If the enemy comes around, then they will kill them right on the spot. So we usually ask the people out there, ‘Which one of you comes from one of the fighting tribes?’ If they say one of them, then we usually call them up and we treat them quickly.”
Such a threatening environment leads health workers to flee. One clinic visited by the Red Cross team, in a place called Tukupangi in Southern Highlands Province, had stood abandoned for a year, forcing residents to walk many kilometers to get treatment.
With faces daubed in mud, leafy branches twisted around their hats, and homemade rifles in hand, dozens of fighters, many just boys, gathered in a village in Hela’s Komo District to meet the Red Cross team. They performed military-style marches while laughing and joking. A longstanding land dispute between their clan and another had recently devolved into bloodletting here, and hundreds of families had fled and been forced to make the bush their home.
The rules governing tribal fighting had broken down, the men said. “Our traditional law has been forgotten and now we kill women and children like wild pigs,” one man said. Another fighter listed the old rules — and how each one was now being violated. “Our traditional law is we don’t burn people sleeping in houses. The other is we don’t use teargas. The third law is we don’t sleep with the women in times of fighting, we sleep in the men’s house. We don’t use bombs. We use guns, bows and arrows only.”
What was notable from these men was a certain ambivalence. They were well aware that these new tactics were wrong. But it was as if they saw themselves as driven to action by social and economic change, by the necessity of the times, rather than agents in control of their own behavior. What had changed in Hela?
“You used to have young boys growing up in the men’s house, young women growing up in the women’s house,” said Michael Main, an anthropologist and PhD candidate at the Australian National University conducting research in Hela.
In these structures, adults would teach children “their deep genealogies, the social expectations, the incredibly rich and complex cosmology.” That form of traditional education is gone now. “What we have now is sort of a pedagogical vacuum,” Main said.
The young were not absorbing the boundaries to behavior that used to hold sway. But they were getting hold of guns. “Most of the fighters you see are late teens, early 20s, walking around with military weapons that they don’t know how to use,” he said. What was previously unthinkable had become reality: “Pre-pubescent boys were beheaded a few months ago and that was a fight that started over a mobile phone.”
Tribal fighting continues to cause hundreds of deaths and thousands of displacements in the Highlands every year. Countless lives are on hold, and though efforts are being made, there is no assurance tribes will be able to restrain their fighters.