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The Kum River massacre - and truth & reconciliation

Kum River battleground not far from present day Mt Hagen
Kum River battleground not far from present day Mt Hagen


DUBLIN - After the end of apartheid  in South Africa a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to deal with much of the racial conflict in preceding years.

In this Commission, the emphasis was not on punishment of the guilty but on resolution of past hurts and grievances, even atrocities. Amnesty was granted to many participants. Most accounts say the Commission was successful.

Can there be ‘truth and reconciliation’ in the Papua New Guinean context? Perhaps we can we learn from traditional peace-making processes in the Highlands, such as that followed the Kum River massacre of 1942.

The massacre’ is described in Br Pat Howley’s book, 'The KomKui Who Made a Covenant with God', which was reviewed by Ben Jackson for PNG Attitude five years ago.

By late February 1942, miner Dan Leahy and kiap Dalkeith Chambers had already departed from Mt Hagen to join the wartime New Guinea administrative division, ANGAU. Chambers left a policeman named Burei from Mussau in charge of the government station. Burei had access to firearms.

After Chambers had gone, a fight that had been brewing between two groups in the large Mokei tribe erupted, not for the first time.

On 22 February, Mamp  the son of Kump who was living with the Mokei Nampakae. was killed by the Mokei Komunka.  Another Mokei Nampakae man was killed by the Mokei Komunka on the same day.

The Mokei Nampakae, knowing a full scale tribal battle was now unavoidable, was able to persuade the policeman Burei to join their side and assist with his firearms.

At first Burei objected, saying he would be recognised and later punished, but the Nampakae disguised him as a warrior and, without his police uniform, he went with his gun to the battlefield at Kum River.

The Komunka came forward thinking it would be a typical tribal battle with spears and bow and arrows. But on the Nampakae side, Burei and his gun was hiding behind a shield carrier from where, directed by the Nampakae, he targeted leaders of the Komunka.

His aim was good and as many as nine Komunka leaders were killed that day and more were injured. The Nampakae emerged victorious, but they were shocked at the extent of the killing. It is said that they were embarrassed and even ashamed.

The Komunka plotted retaliation against Burei the policeman but they were later assured that he had been killed on assignment in Madang District. However tensions remained between the Komunka and the Nampakae and for some decades the Nampakae would not venture into the Komunka area for fear of retaliation.

In the early 1970s, however, with national independence approaching, a Komunka leader, Yapi Ropa, and another Komunka, Koi Mamp, began to talk about peacemaking and restoring the unity of the Mokei tribe.

They invited Nampakae leaders to a feast and gave them gifts of pork. On the Nampakae side, Michael Poti, a son of the former leader Ninji, and Raphael Doa, a member of parliament, began urging their own Nampakae tribesmen to think about  a traditional compensation  payment to the Komunka.

Raphael Doa – Moke Nampakae man & former MP
Raphael Doa

In 1975, under the leadership of Raphael Doa and Wamp Wan, the Mokei Nampake held a ceremony at Gumats just outside Hagen on the road to Mendi and Wabag.

They gave as many as 200 pigs and other gifts in compensation to the Komunka. The Komunka accepted the offerings and peace prevailed.

It can be noted that while it was the Komunka who initiated the peace process, they did not specify what they expected by way of compensation. When the compensation was given they were satisfied with the payment as the Nampakae had endeavoured to make a generous payment.

The compensation sought by the Komunka and given by the Nampakae was effective in restoring peace and there has been no major tribal fighting in the Komunka area since 1942.

While more than 30 years passed between the Kum River killings in 1942 and the reconciliation in 1975, the peacemaking process can take place within a much shorter period of time.

About 14 years ago some Jika Milakamp men killed a Mokei Komunka man after a weekend fight at a Mt Hagen night club. The same weekend, some young Mokei Komunka men who had heard of the killing kidnapped two male Jika Milakamp students and held them hostage.

The late Andrew Dokta  Komunka leader  who died recently
Andrew Dokta

Within 24 hours the Mokei Komunka leaders, including Pius Tikili and the late Andrew Dokta, managed to get the hostages released and delivered safely to their parents. And less than a month later, the Jika Milakamp paid compensation in a major public ceremony at Pope’s Oval in Hagen Town. A serious conflict between the Jika and the Mokei had been avoided.

In brief, the traditional Hagen reconciliation process can be effective and it need not take too long to conclude.  In both these cases, reconciliation of the parties concerned was given a higher priority than punishment.

The word ‘compensation’ has gained something of a negative connotation in Papua New Guinea due in part to victims or their relatives sometimes demanding disproportionate reparation for deaths or injuries. However, it is helpful to examine the concept and legal processes more carefully.

The word ‘compensation’ is derived from the Latin ‘com’ meaning together and ‘pendere’ meaning to weigh. The original meaning was to ‘restore a balance’. The Pidgin phrase ‘skelim na stretim’ is a good parallel.

So compensation is not meant to be a type of extortion, but a careful weighing up of matters, a restoring of balance in a community, and evaluation and action to remedy harm done.

English common law, in dealing with disputes that involve killing or murder, usually end with a decision regarding guilt or innocence and the imposition of a sentence if the accused is found guilty. But common law does not explicitly concern itself with reconciliation.

In most customary Melanesian systems of justice, however, the process is directed towards achieving reconciliation between the parties and restoring harmony in the community. In other words, even after guilt and punishment has been clearly established, the parties try and reach reconciliation and harmony.

I have seen rival tribes await a judicial decision outside Mt Hagen court house and having heard the evidence and judgement come together to see how they can arrive at a reconciliation taking the court decision into account.

Historically, Saxon law and Germanic law were much closer to the Melanesian system.  If a person was killed the families of the criminal and the victim would meet and decide on amount of ‘bote’ (compensation) to be paid.

In ancient Anglo-Saxon and Germanic law, ‘wergeld’ was the price of a person's life on the basis of rank and it was paid as compensation by the murderer’s family to the kin or lord of a slain person. This would free the culprit of further punishment or obligation and prevent a blood feud.

Later, with the introduction of Roman law and in English common law, murder came to be seen as an offence against the state and the victims’ rights were overlooked and practically ignored.

These days many modern legal systems are returning to greater recognition of ‘victim compensation’. However, reconciliation with the offending party is not necessarily included in the process.

Can we learn from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and  also from PNG customary methods of achieving peace and reconciliation? Is English common law too focused on punishment and not enough on reconciliation?

Perhaps Papua New Guinea needs a Truth and Reconciliation Commission of some sort.


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Philip Kai Morre

Thank you Rev Andrew Ken Kola for acknowledging the work of the early missionaries and the Catholic church.

You were brave to mention and embrace the work of the Catholic church, other pastors never want to mention it. They must have some differences.

I need to make some corrections. The priest who was killed at Womate, Upper Simbu was Fr Karl Morschheuser, not Fr Schaeffer.

Fr Schaeffer died in Germany after he went for sick leave in 1958. Brother Eugene died some months later.

Philip Kai Morre

Traditional methods of solving problems and disputes are very effective and workable.

Collaboration is a difficult and time-consuming method. It is stressful, agonisingly slow and risky.

It requires clear ground rules, agreement as to who will participate and ample time to work through issues. The participation of all the key leaders, clarity of the process to be used and, hope that the community will be able to find a mutually satisfactory solution.

When collaboration fails, then we must use negotiation. The assumption here is that it is impossible to arrive at a mutually agreeable solution but each group might get something it wants.

It will be part of what the group hopes for. Negotiation can only occur when there is something that can be divided or exchanged.

Our cultural heritage of a peace treaty and compensation for the loss is the best means of lasting peace.

A clan or tribe is a nation of its own. It protects boundaries, fights wars, makes peace treaties and reconciles.

The methods and skills of negotiation and collaboration have to be taken on board to assist the court system and peace mediation.

Early missionaries and kiaps were aggressive at times but they were quick to reconcile using the cultural mode of peace treaty accepted by all people.

The death of Fr Karl Morschheuser in 1934 was compensated by the people of Kuglkane tribe of Womatne to the missionaries.

People felt sorry for what they done and embraced Christianity, preaching and carrying out the work of the prince of peace.

Rev Andrew Ken Kola

Hats off to the Catholic Church! I really admire and appreciate their great contribution toward the development of this nation.

Father William Ross' patrols were simultaneous to those of the Australian administrators and the Leahy brothers.

I was fascinated as I read 'Hagen Saga' by Mary Mennis. The deaths of Brother Eugene and Father Schaffer at Gogme (Gembogl) was so tragic and barbaric. It was so heart-piercing.

On one of our college sponsored trips to Gembogl we stopped at Father Schaffer's grave just on the roadside. I told our driver to stop.

We stood by his grave. Words encrypted on a piece of metal were weather-beaten but readable. I couldn't hold back my tears as I pondered deeply.

Why a Westerner from a well-to-do family and country should die in a far-flung primitive land?

As I stood there sobbing in my heart, memories and pictures that I had seen of Rev James Chalmers just flashed and illuminated my mind.

Once again, thank you Catholic Church for your matchless courage and bravery in a very hostile and uninhabitable land.

I am an Ordained Elder in the Church of the Nazarene.

Paulus Ripa

Garry, The events that took place in that battle are consistent with what I have heard from Dad and from others who were witnesses or took part in the battles.

I once had a discussion with late Komunka leader Yapi Ropa who jokingly told the other Komunkas, "I have many wives and I will breed sons to replace all those killed. We need to make peace with the Nambugas."

Such events are told repeatedly and by in the many hausmans so that the main events are largely consistent whilst the details vary according to the witnesses perspectives or with repeated variations.

In 1939 a government contingent went into what is Jiwaka and killed several Andakelkanam tribesman (the current Anglimp South Whaghi MP's Joe Kuli's tribe).

My father was sent as a catechist to Kuli which is adjacent in 1947 when the incident was still fresh in people's minds so that he often told the story as he heard it.

I also heard from several Kuli who had been part of it (they had connived with the administration to retaliate against the killing of a Kuli man).

Many years later with the advent of internet I was able to read Greathead's report which was at variance with popular recountings by the local people.

When I mentioned Greathead's report that the police contingent was met with a hail of arrows the general consensus from the eyewitnesses (who have since died) was that this was erroneous and that it was a surprise ambush.

Since oral history is rather unreliable I am not sure as to how to judge the differences in the whole saga according to the various parties.

However I am of the view that, though a written version is more reliable than oral version, if the single version was written without the basic facts being true, the body of evidence as told by many eyewitnesses cannot be dismissed out of hand as being unreliable; at least in the basic overall outline of events that took place.

Mathias Kin

Fr Garry - Truly sorry, but my comment should not disturb you. I contacted Keith Jackson offline so he will fill you in.
I couldn't go public here to what I said to KJ because it could raise new battlegrounds. OK you, great man.

And, to our readers - all is well, as always! We have some great people writing for us here. A constant source of wonder to me - KJ

Garry Roche

Matthias, I am not sure how to interpret your comment. Mi go lapun yah!

Concerning the date I gave for the death of Mamp (22 February 1942), I relied on the Rebiamul baptismal records. According to Catholic custom, after Mamp was struck and dying, he was baptised in danger of death and his baptism and death were recorded in the Rebiamul baptismal records. (I have an electronic copy).

Other sources also specify Febraury 1942 as the time of the battle at Kum River. One would hope that all early Church records are preserved as sometimes they contain valuable information.

On the other hand, sometimes that information may be too sensitive to release. Kundiawa diocese may have similar archives.

Both sides in the Kum river incident gave very similar reports of what happened. The Nampakae did not try and deny that they had used a policeman.

The book by Pat Howley contains interviews with several people from both sides who were involved or who were onlookers. The names of the dead are given in the book.

Thomas Webster’s father, Pius Pi, would have been a witness to some of the action and Webster’s brother Jeffry helped Pat Howley with many of the interviews.

Of course I was not there in 1942, but I did witness the 1975 compensation payment and I knew several of the people mentioned in the review.

Mattthias, keep up your research, it is important.

Mathias Kin

Fr Garry, I read your article with another pair of reading glasses. Tingting blong mi igo longwe na igo back 70 years. Is such possible? Mi tingting aloud tasol.

Garry Roche

Kela and Phil, I should have mentioned the peace and good order committee which has been quite effective in the Hagen area. At a higher level nn PNG Law there has been an effort at using “mediation” instead of adversarial procedures in dealing with non-criminal cases by using the National Court’s Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) process. This process is not without its critics, but at least it is an effort to look at alternatives to the normal English common law process that presumes a ‘winner’ and a ‘loser’. Judge Kandakasi has promoted this ADR process. However as stated, this process is only for non-criminal cases. The 'peace and good order' committee whose members are usually neutral to the case being examined can of course deal also with cases that may be criminal.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I can see that working, Garry, if the courts had the power to order a reconciliation following a conviction. The court could appoint reconciliators and set the parameters, timelines and penalties for non-compliance.

A conviction would have to be the deciding factor. That would cover Sil's concern about the clan or tribe carrying the can instead of the troublemaker.

I wonder whether it would work in some of these horrendous sorcery cases.

If the people doing the torturing and killing of alleged witches were charged and convicted and then a mandatory reconciliation process, including compensation, ordered it might change the dynamics.

If people knew that sorcery accusations carried a penalty and a financial burden they might think twice about it.

Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin

Garry, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission can bring about lasting peace and that is something that reliable national government authorities need to explore.

Simbu has a Peace and Good Order Committee that mediates and help broker peace and reconciliation among opposing tribes and it has done a lot of good.

The downside of communal involvement is that individuals who make trouble do not feel any pain and responsibility because the tribe serves as a safety net and shoulders the burden brought about by irresponsible individuals.

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