When two tribes go to war
30 June 2014
PETER Hanagipo (pictured) never asked his clansmen to avenge his beating. Driving home from the assault and bleeding from the mouth, he pointedly avoided his village, knowing that the sight of his injuries would rile the men.
But while he recuperated at home, rumours began to swirl and it took less than three hours for a small militia to rally on his behalf. In the mid afternoon of February 16, about 300 men set out from Koimufa 1, a village in PNG's eastern highlands, with an arsenal of bush knives, axes and slingshots.
They proceeded uphill, over the two-kilometre distance, and just before they reached their destination - the similarly named Koimufa 2 village - they splintered off into two groups.
The first, comprising about 30 men, charged down a narrow dirt road at Koimufa 2's threshold, striking an abandoned bus to herald their approach. The second group tore down a steep incline, launching a volley of stones at the village.
Hanagipo, who had been tipped off about the fight, arrived at Koimufa 2 just after the police did. Through a smoky haze, he saw a group of adolescent boys yanking the roof off a grass hut and setting fire to the walls. When he bellowed at them to stop, they ran towards the epicentre of the fight.
Since quitting his job as a bank manager two years before and returning to his village, Hanagipo has given over his Sunday mornings to mediate disputes. Tribespeople approach him with minor disagreements, usually over money and property damage, and he helps broker a solution.
Hanagipo regards himself as a peacemaker. He had hoped, by example, to encourage non-violent dispute resolution. But back in February, through no fault of his own, he bore moral and financial responsibility for two seriously injured men and 11 burned out houses.
According to the conventions of highlands warfare, each fight has an owner, a man recently aggrieved in whose name combatants initiate hostilities. And in this instance, Hanagipo was it - whether he liked it or not.
Hanagipo's dilemma is that of a modern, professional Papua New Guinean closely connected to ancient networks. His predicament hints at fault lines between the two disparate and at times conflicting codes of conduct by which he, and many of his compatriots, live.
PNG is in the midst of a mining boom. It's home to one of the fastest growing economies in the world with GDP growth of 6%, thanks, in part, to a $20.5 billion gas project in the works. John Eggins, a Port Moresby-based documentary filmmaker, notes a shift in mindset brought on by prosperity.
''People get Western educations, they get connected to the internet. They see that PNG is part of the global world and they are the ones driving it.''
But kinship ties still run deep in PNG. The nation is made up of thousands of tribes, broad social divisions, encompassing clans and extended family units. And each one imposes on members a set of obligations. To live among wantoks is to follow their rules, even when they conflict with the law of the land.
Hanagipo's dispute with the residents of Koimufa 2 began over land. He held the title to a 0.8 hectare plot in the village, but the long-term squatters living on his property also claimed ownership. During his third visit to the village to negotiate rent, he was threatened with a bush knife and set upon by a crowd of men.
But as mediation teams began liaising with representatives of both villages, questions of ownership and blame were set aside. The priority was to break the cycle of payback and for that to be achieved, Koimufa 1, the instigators of the raid, would be required to pay for the rebuilding of Koimufa 2.
Of all of the families left destitute by the raid, none were quite as broken as the Jobby family.
The matriarch, Mickey Jobby (centre left), a slight woman in her early 40s, wept as she recalled standing beside her burning home. Everything was lost in the fire, including her woven bags, known as bilums, that she made to sell at the market.
''I am in trauma. We have no home. Since that day I have been left in total darkness,'' she says.
Jobby's husband and 26-year-old son were both rushed to Goroka General Hospital after the fight. The older man was slashed about the head with a bush knife and had used his bare hands to try to protect himself.
The younger man was bludgeoned with a rock and left with frontal lobe damage. After 40 days of treatment, he was sent home with a dent in his skull the size of a mandarin.
As the owner of the fight, Hanagipo bore moral responsibility for harm to the Jobby family and all the other victims in Koimufa 2. That meant that he would be required to foot the bill for compensation.
About a week before the first mediation session, I visit him at his compound, an expanse of gardens overlooking Koimufa 1. We speak in the lounge room of his two-storey brick house. Hanagipo, 52, is a stocky man and wears trousers and a polo T-shirt rather than more traditional attire. I ask him whether he was ever angry at his tribesmen for roping him into the fight. ''No, not angry,'' he says. ''They are village people, what else could they have done?''
Hanagipo left his village in 1987 to take a job at an international bank. He worked in six different cities and towns in PNG, before quitting his job in 2012 to return to Koimufa 2 in search of business opportunities. In the village of 1200, he is among only a handful of professionals.
He has long been generous to his tribe, paying dues such as compensation settlements, and bride prices and funding funerals and parties. And he regards the raid as a measure of tribesmen's gratitude. They would not, he believes, have risked their lives to avenge a non-benefactor.
''I have always been good to the community and people were looking out for me. I take what they did as a thank you, for what I have been doing for them.''
But he also regards his tribesmen as liabilities. After the raid, he said, he kept replaying in his mind a worst-case scenario. ''What would I have done if one of the men had been killed? I would have been responsible for the death.''
Hanagipo is also fretting over the financial costs. A representative from Koimufa 2 says the village would demand K70,000 in compensation. But rumours were circulating that the actual figure would exceed K270,000.
With the mediation pending, the two villages remain on war footing. Despite the similarities in name, they share little in common. Koimufa 2 is comprised mainly of squatters - men and women from disparate clans and regions who migrated to Goroka in search of opportunity. Koimufa 1, by contrast, is comprised of members of Koimufa, one of seven tribes indigenous to Goroka.
The latter has cohesion and a shared history on its side and as it prepared for a counter-attack, it exploited both these advantages.
ON a rainy Wednesday afternoon, I accompany mediators from the provincial government into Koimufa 2 for a briefing.
A crowd of men are assembled on a grassy clearing and as they listen to the progress report on peace negotiations, many whittle sticks of black palm with the metre-long blades of bush knives. A target for compensation has been set for the village; 54 bows and a thousand arrows, and most of the village was chipping in to meet it.
The tribe's children grow up hearing stories of Avisa, the Koimufa warrior fathered by a black arrow tree, who never missed his target, even when firing from kilometres away. The tribe has a long tradition of archery, and as it unified under a common threat, young folk are encouraged to reclaim it.
In the wake of the raid, a shooting range has opened, where men can try out their made-to-measure bows under the eye of watchful elders.
A prize of K100 and a 20 kilogram bag of rice is offered the archer who can hit the bull's eye.
Aside from the bow and arrow reserve, Koimufa 2 has more serious weaponry at its disposal. Harold Arbori, a village leader and spokesperson, says some households own AK-47 assault rifles and grenades, the latter traded with Australian troops on Thursday Island.
But when I ask to see the weapons, he refuses. ''People like to keep those sorts of things private,'' he says.
Arbori was inspecting a sewage recycling plant when his clan raided Koimufa 2 . His day job is town manager of Goroka. When I speak to him, it is in his spacious second-floor office of the the municipal building. He too had been whittling and had raw, splintered hands to show for it.
I ask Arbori about the rationale behind pay-back. Would it not have been a better option to report Hanagipo's beating to police? ''That way of solving things, there is no satisfaction in it,'' he replies. ''The person who did the beating would be seen as going free, even if the police have them. So generally the culture of the people is 'if I bleed, the person has to bleed too'.''
Arbori had done his bit for the cause by felling four black palms from his own garden and handing them over for the production of bows and arrows.
I ask him if he feels conflicted, holding down a senior position in local government while throwing his support behind a violent land dispute.
''I did. Since this thing erupted, I thought 'I don't want to be party to this and that'. That was my thinking … but these are my tribesmen. I move with them, I'm emotionally affected. I'm in it,'' he says.
Allegiances aside, Arbori says it would not have been shrewd to bow out of the conflict. As a senior tribesman, he feels under threat from the opposition and relies on Koimufa men for protection. Outside in the parking lot, beside his four-wheel-drive, sit two bodyguards, who have been trailing him since the raid.
''People would not be happy with me, they would see me as betraying them. And if something happened to me in the future there would be no tribe there. I would be alone. For the sake of my security, for my belonging to the community, I have to be with the community. These things I can't escape.''
It took four mediation sessions, held over the course of three weeks, for Koimufa 1 and Koimufa 2 to reach a settlement. I was long gone by then, but I heard that the compensation amounted to K10,000 and a pig - compensation far lower than anyone had anticipated.
Over the phone, Hanagipo tells me that the debt has already been paid - and not so much as a kina had come from his own pocket.
Once again, the tribe had rallied around to help him out. A public collection in Koimufa 2 had reaped K9,200 and Hanagipo's friends and immediate family contributed a further 12,000 kina to the fund. After the purchase of the pig, just over K10,000 was left over.
Hanagipo says he considered handing the excess over to Koimufa 2, but then thought better of it; such benevolence would deprive his own tribesmen, to whom he felt he owed a debt.
Almost two months after the raid, Koimufa 2 descended on Koimufa 1 - to eat, not fight. Hanagipo spent the money on four cows, which he had slaughtered, and served up to residents of the two villages to celebrate reconciliation. At the party, he embraced the men who had beaten him; he no longer begrudged them the assault and they, in turn, had lost the urge to quibble over land.
The dispute over the 0.8 hectare property that triggered hostilities never went to mediation - there was no need for third-party intervention. Of their own volition, the squatters left Hanagipo's land and fenced it off. The property now stands idle, 0.8 hectares of prime hilltop real estate waiting to be developed.
Alana Rosenbaum is a Melbourne-based video journalist and writer
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