Wapenamanda massacre: ‘Pregnant mothers fled for their lives’

PNG Defence Force and police officers patrolling near the town of Wabag
PNG Defence Force and police officers patrolling near the town of Wabag, capital of Enga, in Papua New Guinea's Highlands yesterday. Image: Royal PNG Constabulary

By Lydia Lewis, RNZ Pacific journalist

A man housing people who fled a massacre in Papua New Guinea’s Enga province yesterday says pregnant mothers and children are displaced.

More than 50 bodies have been retrieved, with police still searching as intertribal tension continues.

Prime Minister James Marape said he was “deeply moved” and “very, very angry” and will give arrest powers to the military to contain the violence.

Aquila Kunza, who lives in Wapenamanda, told RNZ Pacific the situation was “disheartening.

“They are below 10-years-old [the people staying with him],” Kunza said.

“Some of them are pregnant mothers, they fled for their lives. [Those who are] 10-years above, they fight.”

Kunza said boys as young as 10 have been left traumatised from fighting on the battlefield.

Veteran PNG journalist and RNZ Pacific correspondent, Scott Waide, said it “is one of the worst instances of killings” that he has seen in the past decade.

In 2022, there was a massacre on Kiriwina Island, northeast of capital Port Moresby with a death toll of more than 20 — violence that was triggered by a feud after a death at a football match a few weeks earlier.

The incident in Enga province highlands this week has been fuelled by a long standing feud between different clans — Sikin and Kaikin tribes and the Ambulin tribe, according to national public broadcaster NBC.

The clans were aided by guns from the black market, Waide explained.

According to his sources on the ground, the weapons used were not homemade, but rather military grade, including “Israeli-made Galil, US-made M16s”.

“There’s a huge black market attached to this tribal fighting that’s happening,” he said.

“One assault rifle costs upwards of K30,000 [about NZ$13,000]. So it’s a very complex web of people who benefit from this tribal fighting as well.”

‘Businessmen and educated elites supplying guns’
Acting Enga provincial police commander Inspector Patrick Peka has condemned the actions of leaders and “educated elites” from both warring factions for supplying guns and ammunition, and hiring “tribal warlords” and “gunmen” from other districts to come and fight as their incentives are lucrative.

An MP in an electoral district within Enga province, Wapenamanda Open, has called for a state of emergency (in Enga) in an effort to curb lawlessness.

In a statement, Miki Kaeok, who is a Pangu Pati member of Marape’s government, appealed to Enga governor Sir Peter Ipatas and all MPs from the province to rally behind his call.

Kaeok said the tribal fighting had turned into a “guerilla type of warfare” with parties from all parts of the province directly involved.

“Businessmen leaders and educated elites are supplying guns, bullets and financing the engagement of gunmen,” he said.

“They must be identified and their business accounts thoroughly checked to substantiate their direct involvement.”

‘People have given up’
There are 18 or so tribes scattered around mountains and rivers fighting in the highlands.

In a nearby town, Wapenamanda it is almost business as usual, Kunza said.

He said elders had stopped at nothing to try and ease tensions.

“We have tried every means [to stop this]. Churches have taken a collective stand to try stop them. Elders sat the men with guns down and told them to stop and listen. They were told they will be supported and relocated,” he said.

However, their attempts to convince the men did not work, who defied all advice “to our surprise and disappointment”, Kunza said, before violence escalated again.

“People have given up, people are exhausted” from the ongoing tribal fighting.

“Please all men and put down your guns” for the sake of the women and children, he is pleading with the fighters.

Tribal politics
Peka said a lot of the people killed in this violent incident were hired from other parts of the province to kill.

“Most dead bodies identified are men believed to be from Laiagam, Kandep and Wabag plus other parts of the province,” Peka said.

Waide said it was not a secret that people have offered their services as “mercenaries” in tribal fighting.

“It’s a sad situation and unfortunate turn of events and it’s escalating by the year,” Waide said.

He said it was always difficult to understand the reasons behind the ongoing violence without understanding the cultural context and tribal politics.

Meanwhile, the Pacific Islands Forum said it stood ready to support PNG after some of the worst tribal fighting the country has ever seen.

In a statement, Forum Secretary-General Henry Puna expressed his sincerest sympathies to the government and people of the country.

Puna urged all parties involved to seek peaceful resolutions to this conflict.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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