Papua New Guinea – In the Hela Province in the Papua New Guinea Highlands, is the site of extraordinary levels of armed conflict, which is a problem that has become progressively worse over the past years. Hela made international headlines when an Australian archaeologist and members of his research team were kidnapped and held for ransom by a gang from Komo in the southern part of the province.
Although represented as a new and emerging crime by the PNG authorities, in reality these acts of kidnapping for ransom and the terrorising of local communities have been occurring in this part of PNG for the past several years. It was the kidnapping of a white, male academic from an Australian University that finally gave this urgent issue the attention it deserves. The ransom demand was fuelled by the payment of previous ransoms following the kidnapping of logging company workers in that same area. It is also the case that violent landowner disruptions to the nearby Kutubu oil project have resulted in the meeting of various funding promises that had been outstanding.
All in all, this heady mix of resource wealth in the midst of severe poverty and lack of services and the payment of ransom demands by the logging company have resulted in the emergence of a kidnap economy that is booming. Add to this the remote location and extremely difficult terrain that the kidnappers know and are able to navigate with relative ease, the fact that they are heavily armed with military assault weapons and that neither the PNG police nor army have the capacity to pursue these locals in their own territory. These kidnappers were again paid a ransom, only this time it was paid by the state, which then failed to apprehend these criminals who are still at large and still terrorising local communities. This same group kidnapped and raped 17 school age girls from a community that the kidnappers accused of supporting the police that had been sent to apprehend them.
James Komengi, a development practitioner from Tari, the capital of Hela Province, has for the past 25 years dedicated himself to peacebuilding efforts between warring parties in his home province. He is working on a report that will outline how development agencies can best intervene and assist in issues of armed conflict in the province.
In the remote northern part of Hela, the severe and urgent problem of sorcery and related violence is currently being addressed by a group of young local activists who are working to save the lives of those accused of sorcery. Safe houses are being constructed out of local materials, and this is occurring within the affected community itself. Even pregnant women are accused of sorcery practices and their newborn babies are also accused and killed.
Hela’s considerable issues with violent conflict are not intractable and a Hela without violent conflict is possible.
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