Jungle justice: tribes in PNG highlands have fought for centuries – but now they have machine guns
- Tribal arms race has led to an influx of American M16s, AR-15s and Belgian FNs – all brutally effective rifles designed for the military – and of roving mercenaries and arms dealers willing to work for cash, pigs or women
- Military intelligence suggests the guns come from nearby Bougainville Island – where a civil war raged until 1998 – or from across the porous Indonesian border, or even from within the security services themselves
Tribes in Papua New Guinea’s rough and rugged highlands have fought each other for centuries, but a recent influx of automatic weapons risks turning minor beefs into all-out war.
Israel Laki misses the old days – just a few years ago – when clansmen would settle fights in what he deems the proper way: with bows, arrows, axes and spears. It was honourable, he insists, even if an arrow once thumped within millimetres of his heart as he tried to axe a rival tribal fighter to death.
The wiry 69-year-old still carries the scars and spirit of the old ways from this picturesque part of central Papua New Guinea, which Westerners only reached in the 1930s. Even today, the modern state is little more than an abstract concept in the isolated region, where few respect the government.
Old rivalries persist, as do fights over rape, theft and tribal boundaries. But tradition is increasingly melding with modernity, to devastating effect.
Locals now speak darkly of an influx of American M16s, AR-15s and Belgian FNs – all brutally effective rifles designed for the military – and of roving mercenaries and arms dealers willing to work for cash, pigs or women.
Papua New Guinea’s population has more than doubled since 1980, placing increasing strain on land and resources and deepening tribal rivalries.
Elsewhere in the country however, tribal fights have become rare or ritualistic, thanks, in part, to urbanisation and the fear of firearms igniting an ever escalating conflict. But in Enga province, regional police commander Joseph Tondop has already seen dozens die during the three months that he has been on the job.
“I was surprised to see people armed with very high-powered weapons and they are just killing each other by the side of the road,” he said.
The surge in violence has prompted a company of about 100 government soldiers under the command of a Sandhurst-trained major to establish a makeshift garrison at a hotel in the main town of Wabag.
“They decide to take the law into their own hands and apply justice among themselves. Jungle justice,” Tondop said. “One person’s problem becomes everyone’s problem”.
Military intelligence suggests the guns come from nearby Bougainville Island – where a civil war raged until 1998 – or from across the porous Indonesian border, or even from within the security services themselves. The police commander likens it to a tribal arms race.
“When one clan knows that the other opposing clan has some weapons, they have to also acquire some weapons somehow,” he said. “It’s like warfare now.”
Tondop hopes to introduce a gun amnesty next year, with rewards of up to US$6,000 for turning in rifles. But he admitted the real answer is better policing and a criminal justice system seen as fair and efficient.
Outside the modest police headquarters at Wabag, the urgency of his task is clear. On a dusty patch of waste ground, a crowd of around 300 stern-faced Epok men gathered to demand justice for 16-year-old tribesman Chris Solomon.
The teenager was recently shot dead and hacked to pieces by a rival clan as he returned home from his school. The school had become a flashpoint for tribal violence and effectively been closed for months. But students were forced to return when they were told they would fail the year for non-attendance.
After receiving assurances that Tondop would arrest the perpetrators, the tribesmen carried the schoolboy’s body on a convoy of more than a dozen buses, flatbed trucks, and 4x4s back to their land.
In the village of Pilikambi, almost a thousand people took part in a “Haus Krai” ceremony – the entire tribe circling the boy’s coffin weeping, howling and chanting for more than an hour in the rain.
Such ceremonies are ostentatious shows of grief, with each member of the tribe trying to outdo the sadness of the other. But there was also palpable anger.
Around the edges of the Haus Krai, tribesmen whispered to each other, axes and sword-length machetes slung by their sides as they eyed outsiders warily. Heavily armed police and soldiers stood at a distance, watching for any potential outbreak of violence.
If police are to contain the anger they will have to act fast: to identify, find and apprehend suspects in this unforgiving terrain before the tribe’s patience wears out. They know that with guns, the actions of young men looking for revenge, status or honour can quickly spiral into tit-for-tat murders.
“I thought he was going to come back home,” Amgal Solomon said, insisting his son was innocent. “They shot him down.”
“The government must take action,” he said, making clear that if they don’t, the tribe will choose another path. “If the government doesn’t take any action, the violence will continue. It will go big.”