'Spears to semi-automatics': Papua New Guinea's tribal conflicts become more violent

'Spears to semi-automatics': Papua New Guinea's tribal conflicts become more violent

'Spears to semi-automatics': Papua New Guinea's tribal conflicts become more violent

Updated 3 June 2017, 8:20 AEST

There are growing calls in Papua New Guinea for officials to put the issue of tribal fighting on the agenda, amid warnings the humanitarian and economic costs are damaging the country's development potential.

There are growing calls in Papua New Guinea for officials to put the issue of tribal fighting on the agenda, amid warnings the humanitarian and economic costs are damaging the country's ability to develop.

Key points:

  • High-powered weapons are making the conflicts more dangerous, the International Committee of the Red Cross' head of mission in Papua New Guinea says
  • Traditional rules have eroded, and women and children are targeted, he says
  • There is a lack of funding for mediation and prevention programs

Thousands of people, particularly in the country's mountainous highlands, are displaced from their homes each year as a result of violence breaking out between different tribal groups.

Both humanitarian groups and locals themselves say the situation has become more dangerous in recent years, with high-powered weapons taking over from traditional bows and arrows.

The International Committee of the Red Cross' head of mission in Papua New Guinea, Mark Kessler, said the impacts of these tribal fights were comparable to those seen in conflict zones across the world, and their frequency was increasing.

The organisation has been providing relief to communities, and has produced a new documentary on the issue called Spears to semi-automatics: the human cost of tribal conflict in PNG.

"Kids and women get targeted — actively targeted," Mr Kessler said.

"Their [food] gardens are destroyed, schools are destroyed, teachers and health workers don't go back to work ... health posts are closed or destroyed, and don't reopen for years."

"All our houses are burnt down, and everything has been destroyed," said Murris Wesley, who fled his village in the Southern Highlands along with the rest of his community last year.

That incident of tribal violence broke out during a compensation ceremony for the family of a man who died in a car crash.

One of the man's relatives brought a gun with him, and decided to use it.

Retaliation saw more than 50 houses torched and many more destroyed and looted, with 600 people displaced.

'Bows and arrows are already gone'

Mr Kessler said the way the fights were conducted had changed, becoming increasingly brutal.

"There used to be more rules — more standards to abide to among the fighters. And even the fighters and tribal leaders lament this fact," he said.

Not only are the rules of engagement changing, the weapons are too.

"Bow and arrows are already gone, they were used by our ancestors," Mr Wesley said.

"Today, we use very powerful firearms, weapons, like machine guns."

Grenades have also been used to devastating effect, marking an unprecedented escalation in violence.

Mr Wesley openly admitted his community had weapons of their own — which he said were intended to protect them against enemies — and were relatively easy to buy.

"Some [guns] came from Irian-Jaya, the Indonesian border with Papua New Guinea ... others, they're bought from some policemen and defence," he said.

Some weapons were left over from the Bougainville crisis, a violent decade-long civil conflict that ended in 1999.

Lack of funding for interventions

Moses Komengi coordinates the volunteer-run Youth Ambassadors for Peace (YAP) group, one of the very few local NGOs on the ground trying to not only mediate tribal conflicts but also prevent them.

He said weak law and order in the region was a large part of the problem.

"The young people of this generation, who are drop-outs and have been involved in conflict in past years, who are just roaming around and doing nothing — when there's a conflict, they join up," he said.

His group has tried introducing sport and gardening to communities as a way of changing the mindset of the young people and local leaders, but a lack of financial support has limited what the organisation can do on a larger scale.

Mr Kessler said more attention and funding was needed, and said he was hoping any new government elected after this year's election might be the fresh start PNG needs.

If not, he warned the longer term consequences would be significant for the entire country.

"It very much hinders development in the highlands, and it's going to be difficult to develop PNG in terms of education policies, health infrastructure, if the highlands is always basically non-accessible," he said.

"It's something that has to be at one point tackled, and it needs a multitude of players to do so."