FEBRUARY 11, 2002 | NO.5
In the old days, the "time before," justice in Papua New Guinea's Highlands usually meant war. Tribesmen with a score to settle would launch a payback raid, firing off insults and arrows, and yelling as they clubbed wounded enemies to death. Eventually a truce would be called and compensation negotiated. Fighting was a form of arbitration-a solution, not a problem.
Not anymore. Since mid December, the mountainsides around Mendi, in the Southern Highlands, have echoed not with taunts and whizzing arrows but with the rat-tat of machine guns and semiautomatic rifles. "Guns have become more common in tribal fighting in recent years," says local Catholic Bishop Stephen Reichert. "Butthey were mostly homemade shotguns. This is the first time a war has been fought almost exclusively with high-powered guns." In a traditional inter-clan payback fight, five or six people might have been killed. The six-week-old Mendi conflict has left 50 people dead and hundreds injured.
In a culture where fighting is part of traditional law-and many clans have longstanding mutual grievances-one gun can quickly become an arsenal, according to former Highlands Police Commander Tony Wagambie: "The mentality is, If you have one M16, I want to make sure I have two." Guns are expensive: in an area where most people earn less than the national average of $700 a year, a semiautomatic can cost $2,000. To arm themselves, tribesmen may commit robbery, grow and sell marijuana, or "put pressure on their politicians," says Southern Highlander John Higumu, an oral historian at the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies. "They may say, If you want to be an M.P., you have to give us guns, or money to buy guns. Some politicians may feel they have no choice."
With national elections due in June, many Highlanders fear that guns and politics will fuse further. "Ordinary people are afraid of what will happen when campaigning begins in April," says a Mendi resident who asked not to be named. "They fear threats and intimidation." Bishop Reichert worries that tribesmen will become hooked on firepower. "How do you stop this?" he says. "The guns are here now. If the authorities can't get them back, this is how tribal fighting is going to be." For Mendi-its schools closed, its hospital empty, its outlying villages burned down or deserted-that's no future at all.
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