MELBOURNE – What follows is a story that fills me with mixed emotions.
Many thanks to the Papua New Guinea government and its Defence Force, particularly those members who responded so quickly to support the East Gippsland community with the recent bushfire crisis.
For several years I was the risk manager for the East Gippsland Shire Council which includes the Omeo area.
With its heavily forested areas bushfire risk and mitigation/response strategies were a high priority.
Whilst it is a number of years since I was there and I’m now retired, I regret that, with my former PNG experience of 13 years, I wasn’t there to assist with the liaison and integration of the PNGDF party into the local community.
However, I’m pleased to see my former work colleague and now Federal MP for East Gippsland, Darren Chester, thanking the party in a photograph in the news item below.
It is disappointing to see so much of the native forests, wildlife and livestock destroyed but well done to the men and women of the PNGDF who gave so much to this community.
Ross Wilkinson was a kiap in Papua New Guinea from 1968 to 1981. The Simbu bushfire appeal for Australia also ended this week, having raised the amazing sum of K400,000 for Australian bushfire victims.
PNG & Pacific troops thanked for deployment during Australia's bushfire crisis
HILDA WAYNE & RACHAEL LUCAS
| Pacific Beat | Australian Broadcasting Corporation
MELBOURNE - After lending a helping hand in the Victorian town of Omeo during the summer's bushfire crisis, Papua New Guinean troops are preparing to head home.
The month-long mission saw 99 troops deployed from Australia's northern neighbour, most of them engineers, to help clear roads of debris.
Australian authorities described their contribution as essential work to help reconnect isolated communities with schools and services after the blazes ripped through the mountain region and across East Gippsland.
Across Victoria, 1.5 million hectares were burnt and more than 400 homes lost. The Omeo community was also devasted by the loss of firefighter Bill Slade, who died trying to contain a blaze in the region.
PNG Defence Force Second Lieutenant Sherwin Pohonai said she wanted to give back after Australia's support for PNG during times of crisis.
"It strengthened the relationship that we have with the Australian Defence Force, by coming down and helping them in a small way," she said.
"Most of the time they are the first responders to any natural disaster, or any time of need when we need their support, they're always there."
She said she and the other troops were warmly welcomed by the Omeo community.
"A little smile on their face speaks a lot to us, the environment was welcoming to us. We are very happy and pleased to see the smiles on peoples' faces," Lieutenant Pohonai said.
"Omeo was a mission accomplished."
Victoria's Emergency Management Commissioner, Andrew Crisp, said the troops from PNG played a "critical role" in ensuring roads were open so school bus routes would be up and running, helping them get back to normal life.
"This is only the third time that the PNG Defence Force has actually deployed overseas, and this is the largest deployment ever," he said.
"I've just been talking to some of the Australian soldiers, and they were just saying that the integration has worked so well, and I think that's based on history over many, many years, with PNG being one of our closest and friendliest neighbours."
Before their departure from Omeo, members of the PNG community in Melbourne travelled to the region at the weekend, serving up a classic PNG meal and treating the troops to a farewell song and dance — as well as a spot of backyard cricket.
Among them was 13-year-old Joa Kinten Atagomo, who chose to celebrate her birthday by giving back to others.
Originally from Goroka, she now lives in Melbourne and was helping to slice up some crackling pork from the mumu — a traditional way of cooking meat and vegetables on hot stones.
"It's very emotional to be here, because there are some people that I recognise who are like my family, so it's a very special moment for me," she said.
The troops also helped to build a memorial at a school in the nearby community of Swifts Creek, and went into schools reading books to children.
Members of the Australian Defence Forces and PNG troops were also treated to a lively singsing, a traditional PNG song and dance.
Locals were also touched by PNG troops singing hymns, Lieutenant Sharon Coates said.
"One of the joys that the locals have liked the most is the fact that in the evening, the soldiers often do their devotions or sing several hymns, and people find it really beautiful to listen to and really relaxing," she said.
"It's lovely to see that culture brought to our country and here in Omeo, and even to the point that they've welcomed the locals to come in and sit while they've been doing devotion."
The PNG troops were also invited to attend a farewell service at the local church, filling the pews for the first time in decades, Omeo resident Leonie Pendergast said.
"I think our feeling after [the troops] leave Omeo is going to be one of very sincere reverence for the wonderful job [they] have done," she said.
"[They] have credited themselves as soldiers but also as wonderful human beings, and God bless."
Although Pacific nations regularly deploy to Australia for training and exercises, a Defence Ministry spokesperson said this was "the first time in recent history support on a large scale by Pacific countries has been provided to Australia in times of a natural disaster".
"The level of support provided to the current bushfire crisis in Australia by our Pacific neighbours is unprecedented," they said.
Many of the troops said they did so in a spirit of neighbours giving back.
East Gippsland Shire Mayor John White said his father had a connection to PNG, serving with the ADF during the Battle of Milne Bay in 1942.
He said the PNG military presence during the bushfire crisis had helped instil a sense of security and they would be missed by the community.
"The really big heavy lifting that they've done is the road clearances, and we never could have done it without them because we've just had such a massive area impact, and the roads were really, really badly affected," he said.
As the smoke begins to clear, we're seeing for the first time the unimaginable scale of Australia's worst bushfire season.
"The community was so pleased to see them — they made a huge difference, because they came virtually straight away in our darkest hour.
"The work they've done is unprecedented and we can't thank them enough."
Lieutenant Coates said they had made their mark on the community, and always greeted locals with a smile.
"We've seen real mateship together here, just like I guess we would have seen way back in World War II when the soldiers were in PNG on the Kokoda Track, and the Papuans helped out the Australian soldiers," she said.
"Here, the Papuans have been helping out not only Australian soldiers, but our community as a whole, and it's just wonderful."
Brigadier Matthew Burr said their support was like that of siblings helping each other in times of disaster.
"The relationship is a true partnership," he said.
"In the past, we've been asked to assist — and we've been very, very pleased and humbled to be able to assist.
"But on this occasion the support and the rapid response by the Papua New Guinean Defence Force has been critical to the success of this operation and also the rapid recovery … and relief to the Victorian community."