In the early morning hours of Holy Thursday 2018, chaos broke out. The Friars had just finished Morning Prayer and were making liturgical preparations for the day ahead when suddenly they heard a disturbing noise and commotion coming from the neighbouring village where the church is located. “Wah! Wah! Wah!” They noticed a group of clansmen chanting war songs while brandishing guns, bush knives and other lethal weapons. Given the experience of past conflicts in the Tari region, the friars immediately realized that Bilas tribesmen, adorned in their traditional battle dress, were on a mission to retaliate against a rival clan in revenge for the fatal shooting of some of their fellow tribesmen a few days before. Pandemonium reigned! Houses were being torched, farms and property were being destroyed, and everything belonging to the enemy clan was subject to plunder.
An American missionary who had lived in Tari for more than 50 years and understood the local language and culture, rushed to the scene, accompanied by a younger friar from Kenya. Wearing their Capuchin habits and carrying a large cross, they attempted to stop the killings and the destruction of property. Using the local language, the friars shouted to the angry tribesmen: “Tumbu! Tumbu!” – an appeal to their traditional values which do not allow revenge killings and destruction.
As a result of the friars’ appeal, the clansmen decided not to torch the church and the adjacent mission school, however, they did proceed to burn down the village of the other clan. All the villagers escaped for fear of their lives, and to date, very few have returned. Although the area is now largely deserted, the Capuchin friars have remained among the local community to bear witness to and to promote the values of peace, reconciliation, faith and hope.
It was not until 50 to 70 years ago when the missionaries penetrated the Highlands that the number of inter-tribal conflicts significantly subsided. For more than 60 years, the Capuchin friars of the Pennsylvania Province in the USA have evangelized and contributed much to the human development efforts and peace-building in the Diocese of Mendi and the surrounding areas in Papua New Guinea’s Southern Highlands Province and Hela Province.
Nonetheless, in certain areas of the Highlands, such as Enga and Tari in the new Hela Province, inter-tribal clashes are still common. I witnessed the effects of several of them during my visit to Tigibi and Kupari in the Tari region. Especially along the Mendi-Tari highway, rampant crime has given rise to a great deal of insecurity. No one is exempt from being hijacked or robbed of their valuables, including the bishop, missionaries, United Nations staff personnel, etc.
Inter-tribal rivalry and fear for one’s personal safety are not the only concerns affecting the Southern Highlands region of PNG. On Monday, February 26, 2018, a massive earthquake of 7.5 magnitude struck the area, followed by a number of aftershocks, killing more than 200 people and affecting an estimated 465,000 more. The epicenter of the quake was located in the Diocese of Mendi where our Capuchin missionaries live and work. Every structure shook violently for almost five minutes, causing landslides, toppling towers, knocking buildings off their moorings, and splitting homes in two. The effects of the earthquake can still be seen and felt in Mendi, Tari, Hela and the surrounding area. Several of our Capuchin houses, churches and schools were also destroyed in the quake.
The Diocese of Mendi and the Capuchin Mission continue to support the victims of the earthquake, both spiritually and materially. One missionary friar remarked, “Our friary is destroyed, but we have to help our people first and only then can we begin to think about rebuilding the friary.” More recently UNICEF has started educational- and other disaster- management activities in the region, especially aimed at women and children. It’s astonishing how little attention has been given by the international media outlets to this natural disaster that has caused so much human suffering in PNG.
Towards the end of my visit to the region, I took the opportunity to share my experiences and reflections with the Capuchin friars, with other missionaries serving in the Mendi Diocese, and with the UNICEF staff working in the region. Since Capuchins have served in the region for so long and are well-respected by the local community, I believe that they could do several things to help ameliorate the conflict and violence occurring in the Southern Highlands.
I was indeed privileged to meet and share my experiences and reflections with Mr. Gianluca Rampolla, the UN Resident Coordinator in PNG and with Mr. David McLoughlin, the UNICEF Representative for PNG. Both expressed their appreciation for the great work accomplished over many years by the Capuchins and the Catholic Church in general in the Southern Highlands of PNG. They, too, expressed the urgent need for coordination, collaboration and networking in the areas of peace-building, disaster management, and other social justice issues. In coordination with the UN mission in Mendi, we hope to provide a capacity building workshop for our friars, missionaries and social workers.
Br. Benedict Ayodi, OFMCap