The old ways are gone: Papua New Guinea’s tribal wars become more destructive

The remains of a house set alight during an attack targeting a family accused of sorcery. In this case, six people, who were accused of causing the death of a local politician, were captured and tortured for several weeks in an effort to force confessions. Their village was burned to the ground. CC BY-NC-ND / ICRC / J. Boylan

The clan’s revenge came at night. Armed fighters slipped into Ragu, home of the Wombe, at 2 a.m. Three of their clansmen lay dead at Wombe hands, and they could not let the outrage go unanswered.

With machetes drawn, they approached the haus man, a community building meant only for men. Did the attackers know that Wombe women and children were inside? Perhaps not. After all, their presence in this male space broke tribal custom.

But then again the attackers may not have cared. What happened next reflects a worrying trend in Papua New Guinea: increasingly violent tribal attacks — including the use of rape and mutilation — against targets that include women and children.

Helen, about 60, was one of the Wombe women hiding in the haus man that night. Sitting on the same windswept hilltop more than three years later, surrounded by incinerated homes, charred wooden pillars, and her now-homeless clansmen, she recounted the deadly attack:

“I woke up and felt a strange heavy feeling in the house. 
We did not know we were already surrounded by our enemies.”

Then came the inferno. The haus man was set alight. There are disputed accusations that the attackers used a grenade. Either way, the wood and bush materials quickly erupted in flame with dozens of Wombe inside.

Panicking amid the mayhem, Helen froze. “I threw a blanket over my head and covered myself and just stood there in the middle of the fire. As I was standing, the blanket over my head started to burn. … I said,

“Father God, you help me, you help me.”

Helen, an elderly member of the conflict-affected Wombe clan in Southern Highlands Province, suffered severe burns after the house in which she was sheltering was bombed by an enemy tribe during a fight in 2013. “I’m unable to do anything,” she said. “I cannot work, walk around or eat properly.” CC BY-NC-ND / ICRC / J. Boylan

With her village destroyed, she remains displaced, and relies entirely on the goodwill of her host community to survive. “I’m like a child,” she said. “I wait for other people’s plates of food. When they give me food, I eat. When they don’t, I sleep without eating.”

Helen lived. Many others did not. The Wombe who managed to escape the burning structure were set upon by men with machetes. The whole village was torched. By dawn, some three dozen Wombe, mostly women and children, were dead.

What happened that night in November 2013 shocked Papua New Guinea and made headlines across the Pacific. The level of carnage in this Kagua District village in Southern Highlands Province was far greater than anything seen before in tribal conflict. But it echoed escalating violence and an erosion of the traditional limits to tribal conflict across Papua New Guinea.

A team from the International Committee of the Red Cross spent two weeks traveling through Hela and Southern Highlands, neighboring provinces in the island nation’s Highlands region, to document the humanitarian consequences of tribal fights.

The result: evidence that traditional rules limiting tribal warfare are breaking down, and dark warnings that money from a boom in resource extraction is being spent on high-powered guns.

In the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, towns nestle in valleys hemmed tightly by steep mountain ranges. The dramatic landscape is home to almost 40% of Papua New Guinea’s population, with communities living in villages that are often remote, poorly serviced, and difficult to access. CC BY-NC-ND / ICRC / J. Boylan

Flying into one of Papua New Guinea’s Highlands airstrips can be hair-raising. Towns nestle in valleys hemmed tightly by steep mountain ranges. With a straight approach impossible, aircraft must twist their way through lush green canyons, aligning themselves with the landing strip only at the last minute. To have notched a few thousand hours navigating this challenging terrain makes a pilot’s resume sparkle.

It’s this dramatic topography that gives Papua New Guinea its unique character and makes it the world’s most ethnically and linguistically diverse nation. Some 800 languages are spoken here, underscoring a startling diversity of culture and custom, as any tourist who has seen the myriad costumes on display at the world-famous Hagen and Goroka cultural shows will attest.

In this young nation, which lies due north of Australia, from which it gained independence in 1975, loyalty to tribe still trumps loyalty to country. And while tribal culture fosters a comforting sense of belonging, one of its consequences can be to amplify violence. In the mindset of many Highlanders, an attack on one clan member is an attack on all.


The ICRC team touched down on the thin landing strip of Tari, capital of Hela Province. It was an apt place to begin an investigation into tribal fighting, since the airport itself sits on disputed territory. The land is claimed by two clans: the Homori and Kobala, from the village of Kikita II.

Henry Timbiawi, Air Niugini’s agent at the airport, recounts how in December 2015, Kikita II erupted into violence. Two men married to women from the opposing clans got into a drunken brawl. Their in-laws got involved. Then came the killing: within days, 12 people had been shot dead and hundreds of houses had been incinerated. (In March 2016, the ICRC distributed relief kits to more than 300 families whose homes had been destroyed.)

“Women and children are very, very badly affected,” said Henry. “They have no involvement in this sort of fighting. They’ve been made to run and go live in other places. Children, they miss out on education. They miss out on good food, good rest in houses, and they don’t settle well there.”

It is a story we hear repeatedly. In the village of Yombi, in Southern Highlands, we met an extended family of 13 forced to share a charcoal-blackened hut with their pigs. We heard about the pressure refugees place on host communities, of simmering resentment and lives put on hold.

From its Highlands base in Mt. Hagen, the ICRC works to address the humanitarian consequences of tribal violence. With teams operating in Hela and Southern Highlands Province, as well as another province with similar troubles, Enga, it has access to dozens of affected communities where it delivers relief kits of essential tools and shelter items.

Though the ICRC provided relief kits to those who survived and supported their medical care, the victims of the Ragu attack saw their lives turned upside down. Helen, still homeless three years later, said she depends completely on the goodwill of others. “I had a peanut garden, I had coffee trees, I looked after pigs and my life then was good.” Now, she continued,

“I’m like a child. I wait for other people’s plates of food. When they give me food, I eat. When they don’t, I sleep without eating.”

The ICRC also works to ensure access to clean water and health care, which suffers gravely from the violence. It is difficult, for instance, to convince doctors to work at Tari Hospital, given the insecurity and volatility of the environment. Patients at times can’t access medical centres, since they might have to cross enemy territory.


A woman gathers corn in a garden in Southern Highlands Province. In tribal fights, women are often forced to venture into dangerous territory to gather food, putting them at risk of sexual attack or other forms of violence by enemy tribesmen. CC BY-NC-ND / ICRC / J. Boylan

The hospital’s Family Support Centre treats and counsels survivors of sexual violence. Inside we met Claire Limbo, a nurse who told us how tribal fighting makes women especially vulnerable to rape. Conflict forces entire clans off their land. It is left to women to return to their now-unguarded territory to find nourishment.

“Women go there to collect vegetables from their garden. The enemies run up to them, hold them, kidnap them and rape them,”

If survivors reach the centre — and most don’t even come — they get first aid, post-exposure prophylaxis, contraceptive pills and vaccinations. Nurses assess if they are traumatised and offer counselling. Some “cannot really care for themselves or think of hanging themselves. They are very angry,” Limbo said.

Robin Klaver, a young doctor from Holland, had been at the facility six months when we met him. Despite a certain medical stoicism, he seemed to be dismayed by what he had seen in Tari. Klaver had worked in other countries where tribal fighting was man against man. In Hela, “it also involves females, it also involves children. About a month ago, [we saw] two children, one seven and the other five, and they were just both shot.” And yet, Robin pointed out, there was a certain grim logic at play: In 10 years, children would be enemy fighters.

The wrecked rooms of a health care medical clinic, destroyed in the midst of a tribal conflict. The clinic has stood abandoned for more than a year, with health care workers too scared to stay in the village. Residents, including pregnant women and the elderly, are now forced to walk many kilometres to get treatment. CC BY-NC-ND / ICRC / J. Boylan

The same logic that makes it acceptable to shoot children also justifies attacks on health workers. Jessie Bluno, a health worker based in a rural community in Hela, told us he had been warned by fighters not to treat their enemies. Jessie’s clinic has been forced to prioritise the treatment of people from warring clans, just to get them out of the facility as quickly as possible. “If the enemy come around, then they will kill them right on the spot. So we usually ask the people out there, ‘Which one of you comes from one of the fighting tribes?’ If they say one of them, then we usually call them up and we treat them quickly.”

Such a threatening environment leads health workers to flee. One clinic we visited, in a place called Tukupangi in Southern Highlands Province, had stood abandoned for a year, forcing residents to walk many kilometres to get treatment.


With faces daubed in mud, leafy branches twisted around their hats, and homemade rifles in hand, dozens of fighters, many just boys, gathered in a village in Hela’s Komo District to meet us. They performed military-style marches while laughing and joking. A longstanding land dispute between their clan and another had recently devolved into bloodletting here, and hundreds of families had fled and been forced to make the bush their home.

We sat down with four fighters. With the casual air of men discussing a day at the office, they recounted what in any other setting would be considered heinous crimes. Asked what they did with captured enemies, one man wearing an army jacket spared no details.

“When we catch them, we chop them into pieces using bush knives. We chop them beyond recognition.”

The rules governing tribal fighting had broken down, the men said. “Our traditional law has been forgotten and now we kill women and children like wild pigs,” one man said. Another fighter listed the old rules — and how each one was now being violated. “Our traditional law is we don’t burn people sleeping in houses. The other is we don’t use teargas. The third law is we don’t sleep with the women in times of fighting, we sleep in the men’s house. We don’t use bombs. We use guns, bows and arrows only.”

Those laws, he explained, no longer applied. “Some groups have broken four or five of our traditional laws already. They used teargas in another village in a recent fight. They sprayed bullets inside and outside a house where people were sleeping.”

What was notable from these men was a certain ambivalence. They were well aware that these new tactics were wrong. But it was as if they saw themselves as driven to action by social and economic change, by the necessity of the times, rather than agents in control of their own behaviour. We had to wonder: What had changed in Hela?


Naki Wala and his 14 year old son Senny from the Wombe tribe in sSouthern Highlands Province. The pair was displaced after their village was destroyed during a brutal tribal fight in 2013 that left dozens dead and made rare headlines around the Pacific. Senny suffered severe burns in the attack. Naki’s wife was also burned. CC BY-NC-ND / ICRC / J. Boylan

We sought out Michael Main, an anthropologist and PhD candidate at the Australian National University conducting research in Hela, to seek answers. Michael described the traditional method of educating the young, what locals refer to, tongue-in-cheek, as “Hela University”.

“You used to have young boys growing up in the men’s house, young women growing up in the women’s house,” he said. In these structures, adults would teach children “their deep genealogies, the social expectations, the incredibly rich and complex cosmology.” That form of traditional education is gone now. “What we have now is sort of a pedagogical vacuum,” said Main, who we met in a gated property surrounded by the charred remains of homes torched in another tribal conflict.

The young were not absorbing the boundaries to behaviour that used to hold sway. But they were getting hold of guns. “Most of the fighters you see are late teens, early 20s, walking around with military weapons that they don’t know how to use,” he said. What was previously unthinkable had become reality:

“Pre-pubescent boys were beheaded a few months ago and that was a fight that started over a mobile phone.”

“Priests are gunned down in church grounds, and that type of thing is not what you would have found decades ago.”

Communications technology also influences the dynamics. Mobile phones have made it easier to coordinate attacks, and for violence to spread. In the past, Michael explained, people knew when a tribal fight was afoot and had time to flee. These days, violence travels fast — even to cities far from the origins of the dispute:

“There’s a quick phone call and within minutes you could be shot dead — and you won’t know the reason.”

The ICRC is working in Papua New Guinea to try to make tribal fights less deadly, by talking with clan leaders about a return to the traditional rules that limit who can be targeted. Interactive theatre, a medium that resonates in a culture where oral storytelling retains its importance, sees local actors playing tribal fighters. At certain points of the performance, the crowd is asked to explain what the fighters are doing wrong. The messages promoted are simple humanitarian principles: don’t target women and children; don’t target health facilities and workers; don’t destroy public infrastructure.

It’s also necessary to address the causes of fighting and look at ways to prevent it. One programme in Hela, the United Church’s Young Ambassadors for Peace, is working on youth advocacy, mediation and programs for youth, including sports and music. Moses and James Komengi, say the major problem is the prevalence of guns and what they call a “generation of traumatised young people” who need support. “When young people are armed, they do anything they want,” says Moses.

Tribal fighting continues to cause hundreds of deaths and thousands of displacements in the Highlands every year. Countless lives are on hold, and though efforts are being made, there is no assurance tribes will be able to restrain their fighters. In our meeting with YAP, Moses left us with a chilling warning.

“I have been saying all the time… if we continue to live like that for the next five, ten years, we will hear that one clan will wipe out another clan with arms,” Moses said. “And that will happen. That will really happen.”
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