A consummate storyteller brings to life the tale of a tree
Now it’s Dr Jane Awi – but the community service continues

M16s & no rules of engagement: Hela in grip of tribal warfare

Nicholas Yambu OFM CapFR NICHOLAS YAMBU | Parish Priest, Tari, Hela Province

THERE are three or four tribal fights going on now in Hela Province. Just last week I heard that two new fights started in the Koroba Kopiago electorates.

Two weeks ago the fighting zones involved only the electorates of Tari Pori and Komo Margarima, both now declared fighting zones by the government.

Tribal fights in Hela are a common thing. The recent fights have been different though, as traditional rules of fighting and engagement are not observed.

In the past, rival enemies were not allowed to burn houses when their enemies were inside. It was also a taboo to kill women and children or to hunt and kill an enemy in other people’s territory. Only people who are directly related to the fight were considered enemies.

But these rules of engagement have been broken and women and children have been killed in these fights. Ten years ago I didn’t see any factory made guns used in tribal fights. Now the M16 is a common weapon.

I don’t believe that the declaration of fighting zones will solve the problem because fights are mostly happening in the bush. Enemies are hunting each other and mobile phones make it easier to identify enemy targets. The culprits, or ‘owners of fights’ as they say here, can easily hide.

The fights have started over different things. People may fight over something like a pig, but then it easily connects with previous tribal rivalries or political differences.

I can’t say what these fights are really about. These people have fought over different things so frequently that it becomes complex to trace the cause.

Government services in towns and in no-fighting areas are still operating. People not related to the fight are free to go into towns and move around.

As far as Church work goes, things are not affected much. Church buildings are generally respected by warring tribes. But Church workers and Christians from warring tribes are affected and are in hiding.

Some have taken refuge in other areas and can’t gather for Church meetings and activities.

Declaring a state of emergency and pouring in more police and army or money is a short term solution.

Long term measures must to be taken if Hela is to stop these fights and move ahead with development. The leaders, starting with the elected politicians, must cooperate, work together and pour in resources to address these issues.

They must spend more time in their Hela electorates and be in regular contact with their people. Their people must see them as being on the ground with them to address the issues head-on instead of living in Port Moresby and coming into Tari only to distribute money or for important occasions.

Money allocated for development by the government must be used for the intended purposes so people can see real change happening and be happy.

M16 (Lowy Institute)When you have so many unhappy and frustrated people, it leads to tribal fights. Leaders must come down to the level of the people and empower them for their own development instead of making them wait around for cash-handouts.

Hela leaders must work in partnership with church groups like the Hela Council of Churches to address some of these issues.

Unless there is a real political will and a heart for the people, very little is going to be achieved. 


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Paul Oates

It will be interesting to see what a combined force of Mobile squads and a platoon of Defence Force will achieve. Former Defence Force Chief Singarok is correct in that Defence personnel are trained to use lethal force. This should be a police problem when the perpetrators of illegal actions in a civilian environment should be pursued and apprehended by the police who are supposed to use non lethal means wherever possible.

There is one problem is this situation. This has become a declared war zone. This is therefore not a usual situation when police are freely able to operate in an otherwise peaceful civilian environment.

Police claim they will be hunting those lawbreakers directly and not responding to any resistance with a show of force. With an armed and trained combined DF and Police unit, what happens when they are confronted by an equally determined and well armed war party who has obviously 'declared war'?

What are the rules of engagement one hesitates to ask? Mipla ino lukim em yet ya!

Mathias Kin

As in Bougainville in 1988/89, the area between Tari, Angore, Hides, Komo area and up the Spineline is big thick virgin forest going for miles and miles. The Hulis know their land well. I don't think any DF or Mobile would be any good in these conditions. The latest tactic employed by these tribes in fights now is to "seek, destroy and retreat". As in Bougainville, the very moment a Huli tribesman stops a government bullet, all hell will break loose. I hope somebody in authority will take heed of Commander Jerry Singorok's advice to government today (National Newspaper).

Paul Oates

Hi Peter,

I suggest that the situation in the SHP and elsewhere like Enga and the WHP is but an indication of a greater problem for PNG. Local MP's have taken over the role of 'bikmen' and have clearly assumed the role of 'gavaman'. It's great to have large lumps of taxpayer's money in your pocket and to hand it out as if it was your own money to whoever you like. Responsibility? What's that?

But then what happens when the very people who have been sidelined, i.e. the local police and authorities, are now no longer resourced or supported and therefore aren't able to maintain control and the rule of law?

And all those wonderful District Improvement funds that have been spent in the local trade stores only end up being channeled into buying overseas material goods and food stuffs.

Local farmers can't compete and are then likely to give up especially when their gardens are flattened, their coffee trees are cut down and they are terrorised by rival clans.

Eh ya! Tasol nogut bai me belhevi lo displa samting. Olgeta noken wori tumas. Yupla savi. Em mauswara blo ol lapun tasol.

Peter Pirape Anage

Anarchy and chaos breeds in societies where rule of law and government presence is absent. Tribal warfare raging across the Hela nation is an indicator of that leadership void and Hela & SHP MPs should be ashamed of themselves.

Gun related tribal warfare and criminal activities through gun culture is becoming a serious development threat to the country that needs to be arrested sooner rather than later.

Prime Minister, please get rid of guns and impose heavier penalties for people in possession of guns if we are to live in peace and harmony in this beautiful country that God gave us. God bless PNG.

Phil Fitzpatrick

A logical response would be to send the army in there. O'Neill did that during the elections.

The only problem, as was demonstrated in Bougainville, is that the army can be extremely brutal and will engage in the same tactics as the warring clansmen.

Maybe mercenaries?

What's Julius Chan up to these days?

Paul Oates

As a case in point, an article in today's PNG media highlights the issue.

After people in Enga were chopped to pieces in front of others and tribal fighting broke out, a local Councillor said:

'.... a few soldiers and police came up to the fighting area but they could not do anything to stop it so they retreated because high-powered guns were visible.'

And the PNG government and the authorities are prepared to sit back and just allow this to happen?

Emi bikpla sem bilo ol oa wanem samting?

Paul Oates

Sorry Keith but I do agree with Phil on this question.

Church leaders are in danger of crossing the line between the ethics of their message and the reality of the situation. Unless someone is prepared to meet force with force, turning the other cheek with only get you a six by two plot if you're lucky.

The laws are there but not being followed. Why not? Because those whose responsibility it is to enforce the law are either not resourced to do so or cannot or will not take the necessary action.

Certainly church leadership is very important in supporting any government leadership however this is the Highlands, 'as ples bilo PM' Olsem wanem emi nogat tingting gut lo ol pipol bilo en?

What ever happened to the recommendations of the Investigations into Firearm ownership? Left to moulder on the shelf like all the other well intentioned, expensive but useless and subsequently moribund reports?

Phil Fitzpatrick

Having had the unpleasant experience of being shot at in the Southern Highlands I might add that the confiscation of all firearms in all of PNG would be a good start - worked well in Bougainville even if they didn't get them all.

Phil Fitzpatrick

The involvement of the church in issues like this might be a cleft stick because it runs the danger of upsetting the separation of the church and state. Ipso fact: 'Hela leaders' are invariably politicians or aspiring politicians.

We've seen what happens when this separation of powers is not adhered to in the idiotic actions of the Parliamentary Speaker and the destruction of national cultural assets.

The churches have role, to proselytise belief in their god and care for one's fellow human beings, but it shouldn't get involved in law and order issues.

The ball for this one is fairly in the government's court.

Government useless. People's court must prevail. Get on with it Fr Nicholas - KJ

Paul Oates

Eh truya Mista Kit, tasol bai olinap lo mekim displa kain pasin oa nogat?

Ah kiap, dispela askim blong yu i stretpela tru - KJ

Chris Overland

At the moment, it seems that a certain level of anarchy prevails in Hela Province.

I spent an all too short time at Koroba in 1971 (as a kiap) and was able to see Hela society in pretty much its traditional form. What a wonderful place it was for any young kiap.

The administration had imposed the rule of law (sometimes by force majeure) and the previous endemic level of tribal fighting had subsided to the odd sporadic outbreak.

When it came to fighting, the use of arrows (some dipped in dog faeces) and the Koroba Pick resulted in some nasty wounds for a small number but, generally speaking, things were pretty peaceful.

As tradition demanded, the warriors were still able to carry their weapons when outside of the precincts of Koroba station, but had to leave them at home for things like market day or other events where crowds gathered.

Everyone knew that this system was aimed at preserving the peace and compliance was virtually total.

Now, with modern warriors armed with M16s and no longer respecting the traditional rules of combat, I wonder how long it will be before some enterprising warrior leader realises that it may be possible to actually displace the government's tenuous grip and assume effective control over parts of the Province by a combination of force and carefully cultivating the population?

This is not unprecedented in PNG: just think about Bougainville, a topic upon which Leonard Fong Roka has been exceedingly eloquent.

To use an historic analogy, in medieval Europe, allowing anarchy to go unchecked in any part of a Kingdom or Duchy or Barony was inviting disaster. An emboldened warrior would soon come to see himself as the next logical choice as King or Duke or Baron.

In Europe, only the crushing of this sort of behaviour and the emergence of powerful nation states ensured the eventual imposition of the rule of law and allowed nations to prosper, mostly in peace.

We seem to now have a situation developing across the world where the incipient ethnic and sectarian tensions long buried within many nation states are now reasserting themselves. Think of the Scottish, Catalonian and Ukrainian separatist movements in Europe, as well as recent events in Africa and the Middle East.

It is no longer inconceivable (to me at least) that, as a result of the apparent neglect of its Provinces, the PNG government could find itself confronted by one or more well armed and well led separatist movements, bent on securing their share of the national wealth, if necessary by force.

There is also the potential for covert funding, training and arms supply for an incipient separatist movement by interested foreign parties, for whom exclusive and guaranteed future access to resources or development opportunities might be an attractive inducement.

This is no flight of fancy on my part: there have been many examples of this across the world.

Hopefully, I will be proved wrong but by neglecting to deal comprehensively with tribal fighting where ever it occurs, the PNG government is creating fertile ground for exactly the scenario I have described.

Paul Oates

Yet another good description of the problem rather than targeting the solution. It's just easier to to say: 'Oh well. That's the way things are and you can't stop it. May as well join what we can't change.'

I've heard this weak response all my life from people who aren't prepared to stand up for a better life. If the so called leaders of these areas aren't prepared to stop the violence and carnage, who can?

In another age, a very small number of 'outside men' did for a short time stop the tribal warfare albeit with at times a heavy hand. Maybe that's what it might take again only this time it must be PNG people who make the difference. It must be a 'Fair but Firm response' however. The example in the film 'Mr Pip' gives a very good illustration of not what to do and how the PNGDF reportedly did it.

'When the going gets tough, the tough get going.'

I would have thought "Hela leaders must work in partnership with church groups like the Hela Council of Churches to address some of these issues" was a reasonable starting point for developing a solution from the local church's standpoint- KJ

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)