TUMBY BAY – ABC journalist Eric Tlozek filed a story on Saturday about Velma Ninjipa who was held up by gunmen outside a motel in Port Moresby and blasted in the face with a shotgun.
Tlozek was pointing out how dangerous Port Moresby has become and how money and resources are being thrown into security for the upcoming APEC meeting in November.
The ferocity of the attack on the woman and the patent disregard for human life by her attacker reminded me of an incident in which I was involved in the Southern Highlands in 2003.
In that case we were victims of a set up. A company helicopter was supposed to meet us at a remote airstrip to pick up a payroll and whisk it away to safety. But workers on a seismic line had engineered a fake medical emergency to divert the aircraft to another location.
The inexperienced chief of the seismic camp fell for the ruse, sent the chopper elsewhere and left us on the airstrip with the payroll and no alternative but to make a run for it in our truck.
A few kilometres from the airstrip, in a planned attack, a gunman stepped out of the bush onto the road in front of the truck and without hesitation shot at the driver, Peter Mantilla.
I was sitting beside him in the truck cab. He had seen the gunman and ducked. The shotgun blast raked across the top of his head blowing a hole in the partition at the back of the cab.
Thinking clearly despite the situation, the driver drove straight at the gunman who was busily reloading. The man jumped to one side and we powered past him up the hill and around a bend. There was a tree felled across the road.
By that stage the gunman and his mates, armed with bush knives, were running along the road after us.
We slammed into the tree, pushed it aside and continued up the hill, hoping none of the workers we had picked up at the airstrip had fallen from the back of the truck.
I pulled off my tee shirt and wrapped it around the driver’s head to try and stop the bleeding and between us, me steering because he was blinded by blood and him changing the gears, we managed to get away.
When we were far enough along the road, we stopped while I got the driver out and managed to contact the seismic camp on a hand-held radio. A helicopter was sent to help us.
There were several things about that incident that remain in my mind.
The first was the bravery of Peter Mantilla from Mount Hagen, who ended up with 27 stitches in his scalp.
The second was the way we had both remained calm during the whole incident and did what was required to remove ourselves from further harm. I think that appropriate reaction surprised both of us.
The third was how dumb the gunman had been; he had stepped from the bush on the wrong side of the road and fired diagonally at us. If he had come from the other side he would have been able to fire straight at Peter and kill him.
The fourth and most significant thing was how the gunman had fired at Peter with absolute intent to kill him. There was no hesitation whatsoever and no attempt to just hold us up.
The same thing struck me about the recent incident in Port Moresby. A man with a shotgun who deliberately intended to kill someone.
In both cases it was lucky the gunmen didn’t have more deadly high powered weapons.
What I have a great deal of trouble comprehending is how one human being can point a gun at someone deliberately with the intent of killing them. I don’t understand this in war let alone in peacetime.
I know it happens the world over but I never expected to see it in a place like Papua New Guinea. Unlike the hotheads who injure and kill each other in tribal wars these characters are simply vicious killers and murderers. I don’t think that was common in Papua New Guinea twenty or thirty years ago.
The gunman who tried to hold us up was tracked down by Mendi police but ‘unfortunately’ drowned while they were trying to arrest him. The inspector who led the hunt told me in a quiet aside that they had to hold him under water for quite a while before he gave up.
The man who shot the woman in Port Moresby has not been caught and it doesn’t look like the police are in a hurry to catch him.
I still have a handful of flattened, razor sharp shotgun pellets I collected from the floor of the truck that are spattered with Peter’s blood. They are a reminder of how much Papua New Guinea has changed.