In Papua New Guinea, tribal violence has been exacerbated by widespread access to firearms. Photograph: Kristina Steiner/The Guardian

PORT MORESBY (THE GUARDIAN) — At the height of the killing, women and children hid in the dense forests nearby or took shelter in homes in neighbouring villages.
More than 6,000 people sought refuge as murderous mobs rampaged across three villages in Papua New Guinea’s Hela province, seeking retribution over a land dispute.
At the end of weeks of indiscriminate, roiling violence last month, 21 people were dead, including a woman and two girls, and dozens were more wounded.
Bodies were left strewn in forests and rivers, some with limbs hacked off, others decapitated.
Inside PNG, such news is distressingly familiar, but law enforcement experts and political leaders argue the violence is growing worse, and more intractable, because of widespread access to high-powered weapons. Previous generations carried spears and bush knives, current ones bear longarms of significantly greater firepower than the police.
Also, the customary laws that governed tribal conflicts have been eroded, and the traditional communal authorities that once restrained violence have seen their power diminished.
In Hela, the United Nations offered to send in assistance, and pleaded with the warring factions to lay down their arms.
“This senseless violence must stop now before more innocent people are killed, wounded or displaced,” the UN’s resident coordinator in PNG, Gianluca Rampolla, said. “The United Nations stands by the Hela government and is already mobilised to provide for the immediate needs of those affected by the fighting.”
Rampolla appealed to the PNG defence force and police to assist the government’s mediation efforts – some police and soldiers refused to intervene until they were paid allowances – but the UN also said there must be consequences for those who commit crimes.
“Stopping the spiral of violence requires holding to account and bringing to justice the perpetrators of crimes and providing for the immediate needs of those affected, especially women and children.”
These are words Hela province, and Papua New Guinea, has heard before. But inter-communal violence is defiantly intractable in PNG, and community and government efforts to stem the tides of unrest and brutality have proven woefully ineffectual.
“Successive governments and police have tried to address the issue for years but it continues to this day,” national planning minister Rainbo Paita told the Guardian.
“And it’s not just in Hela, its happening nationwide but some don’t get reported. There has been tribal fighting in my district too over land; however, due to lack of police in rural areas, most of these go unreported.”
This month, four people were killed and two severely injured after they were ambushed and then massacred on the Maramuni Road in Enga province.
In New Hanover in New Ireland province, a familial land dispute has been running for 16 years, with police murdered, homes razed, schools closed and hundreds displaced from their homes for months, even years.
But there is little reportage, public outcry or political response.
Occasionally, however, the violence breaks into national, and international, public view.
In 2019, 24 people were massacred in the village of Karida. Photos of their bodies wrapped in nets and strung up on wooden poles circulated around the world.
Most tribal fighting has its genesis in ownership of land, 97 percent of which in PNG is customarily held, owned by its traditional familial owners.
Land remains the most crucial resource for subsistence and survival in rural PNG (the majority of the country), and with limited police presence or authority outside cities, disputes over territory quickly degenerate to confrontation, and then violence.
Rarely, however, are these resolved to belligerents’ satisfaction: uncommon is the negotiated resolution allowing both sides to save face.
So disputes fester and enmities harden. Grudges become inter-generational, with the sins of fathers passed to sons, through oral histories of bloodshed and retributive killings.
To address the widespread use of firearms in crimes and in tribal fights, PNG’s parliament passed tougher gun laws in 2018.
The penalties included fines of up to US$300,000 or five years’ jail for the use of unlicensed firearms or the misuse of licensed weapons. Manufacturing guns now attracts up to 10 years’ jail.
But the willingness to commit extreme violence remains, and is even increasing. Hela provincial governor Philip Undialu has said that in previous generations, tribal warfare was structured, ordered, and governed by customary laws.
Local authorities knew who was involved and with whom to negotiate to solve problems swiftly and to limit bloodshed.
But modern generations are caught between the old ways of solving conflict – through tribal fighting, violent but limited by customary controls – and a new more unrestrained violence, only ever endlessly escalating.
There is little “tumbuna pasin” – the ways of ancestors – remaining, and no authority with the power to intervene and de-escalate long-running feuds.
Undialu argues a modern Papua New Guinea must have no place for tribal violence.
“No amount of money or infrastructure will change Hela or any other place in PNG. It’s the mindset and attitude we need to change.
“If we can all say ‘no’ to tribal fights, bring back all guns, report all manner of crimes to police and allow rule of law to dictate, we can change our place for the better, said Undialu…. PACNEWS

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