PORT MORESBY – The Covid-19 pandemic has had a serious impact on Papua New Guinea’s national security as the government heightens measures across land, air and sea borders.
There is a new focus on continuous enhancement of PNG Defence Force capabilities especially along the 720 kilometres land border.
Both the pandemic and other 21st century security threats have left doors open for organised crime including contraband traded across the many unprotected border areas.
And all this in a brutal landscape - an interior encrusted by rugged mountain ranges - requiring patrols with proper equipment and all the necessary capabilities.
Illegal traders, unlawful loggers and traditional border crossers roam freely in the absence of PNG’s border security agencies.
One rainy September afternoon in 2015 I witnessed a sortie of PNGDF special forces inserted into these rugged border jungles.
It struck me then of the need for a continuous presence of the PNGDF boosted by enhanced surveillance capabilities and logistical support.
At the centre of PNG’s western borderline with Indonesia lie the rugged mountain ranges of Telefomin.
Further to the south, precipitous terrain unfolds into the vast wetlands of Western Province, smeared with the floodplains of the Fly River and its tributaries, the Strickland and Ok Tedi rivers.
Through this untamed jungle, the patrol trails run along the Torasi River and the immense floodplains of Benchbach.
I visited the Benchbach wild life lodge back in 2012 and what I saw left me speechless.
It is an amazing ecosystem wrapped in an astounding natural beauty.
The Torasi River seemed to float motionless as it snaked its way downstream.
Over 250 species of resident and migratory water birds rule these wetlands - Curlew Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones which breed in Siberia and Yellow Wagtails from Eurasia are among the special visitors every year.
Deer, wallabies, monitor lizards, crocodiles, cassowaries and pygmy geese roamed freely.
This is wonderful, awe-inspiring country that poses massive security challenges along with its natural grandeur.
PNG needs to pay every attention to deliver the required security in these areas which the PNGDF is constitutionally mandated to protect since our country’s birth.
The harshness of the task involved is readily seen when it comes to coordinating troops and providing them with logistical support.
During recent Covid-19 operations, additional strength was deployed into these remote areas to build community awareness, secure border crossing points, maintain surveillance and regulate the movement of people and goods.
The PNGDF joint task force Covid-19 headquarters (JTFHQ) in Port Moresby had been coordinating all this as part of the government’s response against the pandemic.
JTFHQ is commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Raphael Yapu assisted by deputy commander Major Gabriel Gwaibo.
If you step inside JTFHQ, you find a small team of military specialists selected from across the PNGDF’s land, air and sea elements.
Most are young, energetic officers and soldiers from various operational areas.
They initially met behind closed doors in late March - four days after the first Covid case was reported.
Among them were four Australian defence staff who had seen their families depart for home as PNG prepared for lockdown.
I occasionally dragged myself to the building late at night for a hot cup of coffee as they were always there, 24 hours.
My eyes always caught the words on the JTFHQ logo – ‘Resilient and Agile’ - also embedded on their armbands.
Toughness and speed are certainly what this unit needs in its resistance to the perils posed by Covid-19.
Every time I asked about their mission, I was referred to a higher ranking officer who reported to another higher ranking officer so eventually I stopped asking.
That’s our PNGDF. It’s there to deliver operational answers, not deal with a pesky journalist’s questions.