DEVASTATING tribal violence has escalated in the remote highlands of Papua New Guinea, hampering Catholic relief efforts after earthquakes destroyed crops and displaced an estimated 35,000 villagers.
The February 26 earthquake and aftershocks that followed killed 125 people and some of the region’s most remote areas are still cut off from assistance.
Tremors have continued since the quake, causing distress for already grief-stricken families, while heavy rain and landslides have lashed the area.
Fighting has also claimed at least seven lives in Hela province, as aid agency Caritas Australia and church partners try to deliver food and medicines to communities.
Prowling gangs have terrorised towns killing people.
They have razed buildings and forced families to flee.
The United Nations has suspended relief efforts after an attack on one of its doctors, and several aid agencies have pulled out.
The provincial government of Hela has also suspended relief operations because of the escalating violence.
“I think this highlights the critical role the Catholic Church and its partner churches play in being first responders and being on the ground and in the community with humanitarian response and support,” Caritas Australia’s Pacific humanitarian co-ordinator Felicity McCullum said.
Caritas still has an earthquake disaster assessment centre operating in Hela, but Ms McCullum said activity had been reduced as the risks of violence had escalated.
“As the conflict is coming into the town centres, no one’s completely safe in this area,” she said.
Remaining doctors in the hospital in the town of Tari were operating under armed military protection.
Bishop Donald Lippert of Mendi diocese, which includes Hela Province, has taken to social media to describe escalating violent attacks during recent weeks.
“More armed men came to Tari secondary (school) checking classrooms for ‘enemy’ students to kill. At least three men killed in or near Tari town… who will stop this madness?” Bishop Lippert, a Capuchin, posted on Twitter on March 28.
Two days later, on Good Friday, Bishop Lippert posted: “They’ve come to the Mission primary school and burned down four staff houses. Most people have run away carrying their belongings on their backs and dragging their pigs behind them.
“When will people realise that the fighting in Tari is not traditional tribal fight, but rather conflicts between criminal gangs? Another question: Who is benefitting from this chaos, murder and terror?”
Ms McCullum said the effects of the earthquakes – food shortages and the movement of displaced villagers – had exacerbated “underlying tribal conflicts in the area”.
A massive magnitude-7.5 earthquake struck the remote highland provinces of Papua New Guinea on February 26.
Since then, many aftershocks and powerful tremors have added to the crisis, including a 6.3 tremor which triggered landslides on April 6.
The initial quake claimed more than 130 lives and injured more than 500.
Even though it occurred on Australia’s doorstep, the tremors and the violence have not generated widespread media coverage.
“Water sources are contaminated, their staple crop, sago, has been destroyed and their food gardens also destroyed,” Care Australia PNG director Justine McMahon said.
“Australia and PNG have a long and close relationship. I’m sure if the Australian people were more aware of the incredible hardship that these people are experiencing then they’d certainly be keen to provide assistance,” Ms McMahon said.
CARE Australia, working alongside Caritas Australia and its partner church agencies, is focusing aid efforts in Hela province.
“Most of the damage was from the initial quake. It occurred at night, and as you can imagine the community was quite traumatised. The earth continues to shake and whenever there’s a tremor people become nervous and agitated,” Ms McMahon said.
“Most of the people travel by foot, which can be a couple of days’ walk to the nearest town.
“For us, we are chartering light aircraft to get our relief supplies in. So far we have distributed food, hygiene kits and bed nets – needed to reduce the risk of malaria – and basic medical equipment.”
She said long term Care Australia would call on shelter experts to assist local communities build earthquake-resilient houses.
Ms McCullum said the displacement of villagers – due to both the earthquakes and violence – was exacerbating efforts to maintain basic health standards.
“We’re seeing increases in diarrhoea and dysentery, and, because the UN and the provincial government have suspended their response efforts, we know now there is an ever increasing need to get food and assistance for medical supplies in there as soon as possible,” she said.
“We know food and water and medical supplies are the most immediate issues right now as well as insuring the safety of those peoples who are displaced.”
Ms McCullum said an Australian Government $1.5 million grant would be used to send shelter and tool kits, water and sanitation kits to remote communities in Hela and Southern Highlands provinces.
“We are hoping to reach 37,500 individuals across 12 remote villages,” she said.
To help Caritas efforts in PNG visit Caritas Australia’s online Pacific Emergency Appeal at www.caritas.org.au/donate/online-donation?DonationCode=APAC