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The turbulent story of Enga

Cr Paul  Kiap Kurai with his father's last wife Kipaukwan and some of his children at Kaiap village_
Cr Paul Kiap Kurai with his father's last wife, Kipaukwan, and some of his children at Kaiap village


WABAG - One of the greatest feats Kurai Tapus accomplished occurred in World War II when he accompanied Daniel Leahy and a group of men to rescue eight missionaries including five Catholic nuns hiding from the Japanese in the jungles of Wewak.

What is intriguing about this story is whether Kurai recognised Leahy as the other white man who had come to Tole on that dark day of the mass killing some nine years previously.

And did Leahy know that this imposing young man he would rely on during the trip was married to Tukim, the daughter of Pingeta, the man his brother Michael shot dead as he led the charge towards the white men, ready to plunge his spear into one of them.

It appears both men probably didn’t know and remained so till they died. But there they were walking side by side to go on a dangerous mission to save lives, at great risk to their own. They were ready to meet the same fate if caught by the Japanese.

Leahy had joined the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles in May 1942 and transferred to ANGAU (the Australia New Guinea Administrative Unit) as an acting sergeant class two in 1943.

This was about the time Captain John Clarke re-established Wabag Patrol Post and local ‘bosbois’ had been appointed to assist him.

Once Leahy and his team located the missionaries, the five sisters were asked to wear army trousers to make it easy for them to trek the deep jungles, cross rivers and climb over the mountain ranges on the way to safety in what is now Enga Province.

The sisters made the arduous walk to Mt Hagen and finally were evacuated to Brisbane in Australia. There they were joined by 18 other sisters from many parts of the world, the survivors of Japanese prison camps and death ships. Fifty-four other nuns had died tragically.

The Catholic Archbishop of Brisbane, James Duhig invited them to stay in Australia and gave them land where the sisters started the first Holy Spirit Convent.

A book about their daring escape has been written by Pat Studdy-Clift based on a diary kept by one of the nuns, Sr Vinciana.

Timothy Kakuri Kurai says his father told him and other family members that he had been involved in a rescue mission to bring back some Catholic sisters from Wewak during the war.

Timothy listed this information as one of many tasks his father accomplished when he helped the Administration pacify parts of his sub-district not yet under government control.

On 13 March 1990 the Department of Provincial Affairs requested him to provide a list of his accomplishments. He thought the government would finally recognise his dad’s efforts.

He signed his name as beneficiary and submitted the application form. He still has a copy which has the endorsement of the provincial secretary, assistant secretary local government planning and assistant secretary for Wabag district.

There were three spaces on the form to list the names of three others who had worked with him. He wrote down Karapen’s name from Ambum only. He was the only one alive. Everybody else had died.

Timothy attached a brief summary of the type of work his father had done. He took extra care to list everything done to help the colonial government to pacify uncontrolled people in far reaches of the sub district.

But he had wasted his time. He got no response from the Department of Provincial Affairs. No compensation was paid.

“The government should respect and recognise our early local leaders,” Timothy said. “Some sort of entitlement or payment should be made to compensate them. They contributed immensely towards the development of PNG.”

According to Timothy, Jim Taylor had befriended his father and told him to keep peace and order in the area until his return. He gave him tins of meat, steel knives and axes. Taylor told him he would receive more gifts if Kurai did his work.

“On his return Jim Taylor sought Kurai Tapus and requested him to help build Wabag township. He was given the title ‘bosboi’ and to show his authority a ring was given to him. It was tied to his forehead with strings.”

From then on Kurai worked with the colonial administration under many kiaps doing all sorts of work including building the airstrip, roads, arresting criminals and stropping tribal fights.

Timothy didn’t think his father would ever be paid but hoped future Kurai children would appreciate the work their great ancestor had done so he kept a copy of the completed form for them to see.

“They will be proud to know that their great ‘bubu’ did a lot of work. He had travelled to Wewak on foot to bring back missionaries overland to Mt Hagen,” he said.

Joseph Kurai Tapus also travelled to many places in PNG. He was given an opportunity to visit areas considered far advanced than Wabag sub district.

He went to Port Moresby, Lae and Rabaul and marvelled at the development that was taking place. He knew Enga had a lot of catching up to do.

The kiaps also helped Kurai to broaden his view of the world. He went to see Queen Elizabeth II when she came to PNG for the first time. He is said to have taken yar [casuarina] tree seedlings from Wabag to plant along Ela Beach in Port Moresby.

Only a few of these historic trees remain after most were cut down to prepare road improvements on the seafront. Kurai is also said to have been given the chance to travel to Sydney in Australia where he saw the harbour bridge, skyscrapers and lots of people concentrated in one place. Women freely walked around alone.

Back home, he never felt too tired to assist the kiaps build Wabag township, the airstrip, roads from Wabag to Kompiam, from Wabag to Londol, from Wabag to Sirunki, from Wabag to Rakamanda, from Wabag to Kepsanta, and from Wabag to Kaiap - where giant hardwood trees were harvested to build houses. It is said some of timber was shipped to Australia. 

Kurai Tapus did a lot of travelling on foot with the kiaps on regular government patrols. They walked over steep mountains and down treacherous gullies to contact people in the far reaches of the province.

“Broke camp at 6:30,” Assistant District Officer Peter K Moloney wrote in his diary on 26 May 1949. “Very steep climb for one hour. Gradual descent to Sau river, 1 hour 10 minutes. Through forests to gardens and houses of IGIGIS (Yengis?).

“Camped at RAP playground. 1 hour 20 minutes. Sent to Wabag for more salt as cowrie shell useless. Built shelter and bought food with beads.”

Moloney’s patrol left Wabag on 20 May, trekking up the Lai River valley to Kupalis before they crossed the central ridge, the Wabag Kompiam Divide, into the Ambum Valley and further north to the Sau and Talua valleys.

The patrol ended on 9 June 1949. Some of the policeman and carriers had to return to Wabag to bring more salt to buy food for as long as the patrol lasted. They took nothing from the people by force.

The names of patrol officers, police, interpreters, health and education officials who went on these trips were mentioned in some patrol reports, but not the auxiliary staff like cooks, carriers or local leaders like Kurai Tapus who accompanied such patrols.

Kurai went to the area mentioned in Moloney’s report since he was the bosboi in charge of the people living in that locality.

On this patrol, Moloney and his team witnessed a tribal fight in progress between people living on opposite sides of the Wali River. The fight had been in progress for some time and siege tactics were being employed. Armed escorts accompanied the women when they went to the gardens.

Moloney said people of the upper Sau valley visited Wabag for ceremonies and work but very little movement occurred between east and west. This was because the boundary between the different groups were usually tributaries of the Sau River.

Tapus Kurai went on patrols to the salt ponds at Yokonda in the south just over the mountain range on the other side of Sopas.

Near the salt ponds is Kepsanta where some remnants of his Neneo clan had escaped to after they were defeated at Yambis village years before.

He felt emotional about, and perhaps cried, when he realised how ruthless the tribal warfare was. It divided people and brought pain and suffering.

In many parts of the province people kept fighting and destroying government infrastructure that had been painstakingly established with assistance from local leaders like Kurai for no payment.

He dissuaded his own people at Kaiap from fighting as long as he lived among them. Only one fight involving his people occurred but this was after he died in 1980. The warriors on both sides agreed to stop fighting soon after it started.

Three years later in 1983, Kurai’s last surviving wife Kipaukwan appealed to the Enga people not to destroy what her husband and other influential local leaders had accomplished when they helped the kiaps and missionaries bring change and development to the province.

She saw infrastructure that had been established in the 1960s crumbling due to lack of maintenance and deliberate destruction during tribal warfare.

The happy peaceful times she had enjoyed playing sport as a young girl seemed to have been in some other country. Some mission stations were in ruins.

Kipaukwan saw fear and suffering on the faces of women and children. Tribal warfare was fought with more intensity and vengeance and people were dying in their hundreds.

What about people in the Sau Tarua river basins where Moloney’s patrol had witnessed a tribal fight 34 years before? Was there a road built into that area now? Definitely not, perhaps living very much the same way as Moloney saw.

Kipaukwan saw Enga disintegrating as she travelled around the province with Bill Wormsley, Michael Thoke and Nancy Lutkehaus, all involved in the Enga law and order project aptly named ‘Enga Yaka Laseaman’ [Enga Awake] funded by the World Bank.

It was hoped Enga would be given a kick-start in its development efforts but the people kept fighting even after the million-kina project ended. The situation continued to deteriorate. The situation in the province was like water receding after high tide like when you see trampled grass, trees and property along the bank.

People had to change their attitudes, appreciate the work of the kiaps and missionaries, take ownership of government projects and move forward.

They also had to learn to respect each other.

“We must always think of our children’s future,” Kipaukwan said. “If we keep destroying our province, we will destroy the future of our children.

“People must not destroy what the kiaps and missionaries established for us. We must respect and appreciate the work of people like my husband Kurai Tapus, my uncle, Karapen Kalum and others who helped bring change to this province from our primitive back ground.”

Kipaukwan stood for election in the 1982 provincial elections hoping to make a difference but came second and never stood again.

She lost hope altogether when the main provincial headquarters office complex in Wabag was gutted by fire in broad daylight on Friday 26 March 1993.

In the late 1990s, even though there was still tribal warfare, things started to change when a new crop of leaders took control and local businesses began to invest to rebuild the province.

They include Governor Sir Peter Ipatas and Cr Paul Kiap Kurai, Kipaukwan’s half son who decided to invest in the province and rebuild it from scratch.


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Jamey Dye

The article I read said their habits were cut so many times they became mini-skirts.

Does anyone know if Chu Leong was on this same trip? He walked on foot from Maprik at about the same time. He was a Chinese carpenter turned businessman stationed at Angoram at the time.

He sunk his boat near his wife's village and then walked to Mt Hagen according to his daughter, Anna Chu, in her book 'Kapiak Tree'.

Jamey Dye - [email protected]

Garry Roche

Daniel, you are right in saying that after the escape from Sepik, Sr. Vinciana did go on to Australia. However she later returned to PNG and she was definitely in Rebiamul, Mt. Hagen in the early seventies. I remember her well, she was a cheerful lady.

Daniel Kumbon

Fr Gary Roche, it appears that Sr Vinciana did not remain at Rabiamul catholic mission but went all the way to Australia.

Then after two years she was among a few others who returned to PNG. This is according to a text sent to me by Sr Ursula Julich from a manuscript one of the five sisters has written:

Daniel Kumbon

Thanks Fr Roche for the comment. If Sr Vinciana stayed back wonder where the other four went? Who could those five that went first to Brisbane joined by 18 others who started a convent.

I have been trying to have access to Pat Studdy-Clift’s book but could not. Covid-19 stopped me going to the library.

Information is not readily available in PNG and it is a problem future generations will find.

I am beginning to think our children will be telling stories of happenings today like they tell legends with no factual information available or references to refer to.

Except for stories published by the papers and information broadcast by radio and TV, PNG is losing a lot of information. We are not recording them. And nobody is reading recorded information.

I will try and find out what happened to the five sisters after they arrived in Mt Hagen.

Garry Roche

Daniel, you mentioned a Sr Vinciana - she was still living at Rebiamul in the early 1970's when I was there and every year she used present Danny Leahy with some gift to remember their trek.

On their journey from Sepik to Hagen the Sisters wore 'soldiers trousers'. Danny Leahy had realised that it would have been very difficult for the Sisters to travel through the bush and the streams in their normal long habits, and he had brought enough 'soldiers trousers' with him to outfit the Sisters.

You also mention the author Pat Studdy-Clift, I knew her son Billy Clift who was working in Hagen for a trucking company.

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