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The challenge of tribal conflict in PNG

Tribal fighters with home made gun (Caitlin Welch ICRC)
Tribal fighters with home made gun (Caitlin Welch ICRC)

| Australian Institute of International Affairs

CANBERRA - It is often said that tribal fighting in the Papua New Guinea Highlands is part and parcel of the socio-cultural fabric of the region.

With a history stretching back hundreds of years (if not more), it can be seen simply as an indivisible feature of the Highlands way of life.

While to some extent true, tribal fighting in the last 30 years has become more akin to conventional warfare on the battlefields of the Middle East or sub-Saharan Africa than the pitched battles using the bows and arrows that characterised pre-colonial confrontations in the Highlands.

In the last 30 years, modern weapons, along with other accoutrements of modern technology, have made their way into PNG.

They have disrupted the traditional rules of tribal fighting that had historically limited the effects and consequences of the fighting and restrained fighters from going too far.

While in the past, a decision to go to war with an opposing clan or tribe would have been taken collectively, now young and disillusioned men with access to modern weapons can unleash devastation on their enemies and their own communities almost single-handedly.

The presence of these modern weapons and their destructive firepower has also meant that the number of casualties is much higher, making it harder for opposing sides to reconcile (and the traditional exchange of compensation prohibitive) and leading to completely unprecedented tribal fighting dynamics.

Instead of pre-arranged battles between warriors in designated areas as in the past, villages are now attacked under cover of darkness as part of a scorched earth policy to kill and destroy with abandon.

And while previously fighting was restricted to the geography of the tribes’ involved, targeted killings can now occur against random members of either side almost anywhere.

Schools and clinics are frequently attacked and destroyed, and most recently in Hela pregnant women and children were killed and some burned alive.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been present in PNG since 2007 and opened its offices in Mount Hagen and Bougainville in 2012. Since then, we have progressively grown our presence. 

Today, most of our staff and resources are focused on protecting and assisting people affected by the tribal fighting in the provinces of Enga, Hela and the Southern Highlands.

First-aid-training Magarema (Caitlin Welch  ICRC)
First aid training, Magarema (Caitlin Welch ICRC)

Our teams are consistently in the field working with and supporting affected communities and local authorities to rebuild or rehabilitate schools (sometimes working hand in hand with previously warring tribes) and clinics, to install rainwater harvesting systems, storage tanks, and  sanitation facilities.

The ICRC has provided cash grants to women or orphan-headed households whose previous main breadwinners were killed in tribal fights, with one such beneficiary telling a colleague of mine how she was now no longer “invisible in her community” and part of the communal fabric once again.

Such cash grants are complemented with training on keeping livestock and agricultural techniques as well as on financial literacy. ICRC experts also carry out training for health professionals on emergency room trauma care and emergency management of victims of sexual violence.

They are also looking to provide mental health and psychosocial support to victims of violence.

As we have a unique relationship with weapon bearers, we also conduct training on international policing standards for the Royal PNG Constabulary and officers of PNG Defence Forces involved in law enforcement operations.

Moreover, we conduct training on international humanitarian law for legal advisors and senior officers from the PNG Defence Forces.  In Bougainville, in addition to the first aid training, we support our partner the PNG Red Cross Society to deliver to some of the most remote and disadvantaged communities.

We also organise an annual basic forensics workshop  for policymakers and stakeholders directly involved in the exhumation and remains of those who tragically went missing during the Bougainville Crisis (1989-98). This is to protect the dignity of the dead and ensure that international standards are not compromised.

Because those deprived of their freedom can be amongst the most vulnerable, the ICRC also visits correctional institutions and Police lock-ups across the nation. There, we engage in confidential dialogue with the authorities that aims to improve conditions of detention and the judicial guarantees of detainees on remand or who have been charged and sentenced.

Having worked with the ICRC in Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and South Sudan before Papua New Guinea, I cannot claim that the violence in the country, both past and present, shocks or surprises me, and that is unfortunate in its own way.

What complicates our work in PNG is that where it concerns tribal fighting groups, unlike an armed force of the state or non-state armed group, there is no established hierarchy to have a dialogue with who can issue orders to its soldiers.

Bouts of tribal fighting to the outside observer are as unpredictable as the weather, some with roots going back many generations.

Our teams spend countless hours listening, conversing with and persuading widows and community leaders, policemen and tribal fighters, provincial bureaucrats and church leaders to become partners in an age-old struggle to lessen the inevitable human suffering arising from conflict.

Ahmad Hallak is the head of mission of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Papua New Guinea


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Dr Albert Schram

Why is the ICRC (Red Cross) office in Hagen and not in Southern Highlands or Hela province?

As Vice Chancellor, and a reserve officer of the Royal Dutch Air Force, in 2015 I visited ICRC offices and Hagen, and invited them to talk to our students.

Many UNITECH students whom are from SHP and Hela, regions where as we know there is a civil war.

Maybe some awareness raising and support would have prevented the tribal conflict on the University campus. Regrettably the ICRC never came, but it is not too late.

Porap Gai

Ahmad, thanks for the update. This tribal warfare is one of the issues that confronts the highlands region and we are working towards to help find out the causes.

David Kitchnoge

The PNG government needs to pull out the Jerry Singirok guns control report from many years ago, dust it off and see which of its recommendations are still implementable given that some may now be dated.

The highlands, and indeed the nation as a whole, must be disarmed. The costs, both direct and indirect, of not disarming runs into tens and hundreds of millions of kina every year.

For example, the lost opportunities from the tourism industry which stubbornly refuses to thrive in a country blessed with so many tourist attractions is a tragedy.

It is given that PNG needs to build its tourism infrastructure which is one reason that holds back the industry. But that’s not the main reason.

Who would come here if they perceive us to be a dangerous place to go to even if we had the best infrastructure? Something as fundamental as safety, whether perceived or real, must be addressed.

When Peter O’Neill was still PM, he made a terrible joke in a business forum in Brisbane trying to sell PNG as a tourism destination by comparing us with Fiji.

He said tourists only get a bed, beach and beer in Fiji but they would get much more if they came to PNG.

I was sitting between two Fijian colleagues when he said that and I just went red from embarrassment.

Do we ever wonder why tourists are happy to pay for a bed, beach and beer in Fiji and not bother about the ‘much more’ from PNG?

Lawlessness inhibits growth, prosperity and ultimately our happiness and guns ensure its existence.

Francis Nii

As a highlander, I totally agree with the evolution of tribal warfare in the highlands as reported here.

With the presence of high powered firearms, many of the traditional rituals and rules that guided the tribal fight were rendered irrelevant.

There is no ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] presence in Simbu so I can't comment on that.

Garry Roche

Very interesting, and a recent item in The Guardian on tribal warfare is also interesting.....


I wonder how Daniel Kumbon would evaluate this report. Is it exaggerating ?

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