PNG earthquake: Women and children facing 'double trauma' from quake and tribal fighting

Report
from Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Published on 02 Apr 2018 View Original

By Papua New Guinea correspondent Eric Tlozek

The victims of a devastating earthquake in the Papua New Guinea highlands say the disaster has compounded the impacts of deadly tribal fighting that had already displaced thousands of people.

Made homeless by tribal enemies who kidnapped and gang-raped her last year, *Mary fled to a neighbouring village in Papua New Guinea's highlands to seek shelter.

"I was raped and severely beaten on my face," she said.

"My insides and my private parts were really broken up. More than 24 men raped me so I could hardly walk."

Now she's had to move again, this time because of the magnitude 7.5 earthquake on February 26.

The quake damaged the small "bush material" house she and fellow refugees from tribal fighting were staying in and now Mary and nine other people are sleeping in an outdoor kitchen until they can find more permanent shelter.

Because she can't return to her own food gardens, Mary said she has to help farm other people's land and hope they give her something to eat.

"If people give me food, feel sorry for me, I eat," she said.

Rape and attacks on women and children — previously taboo — are now part of tribal conflicts.

But community leader Marilyn Tabagua said the earthquake has now put the victims of such attacks at a greater risk of exploitation, this time from those they are begging food and shelter from.

"This (earthquake) is like a double trauma for their lives," she said.

"So women who come into the villages and live here, I see that they have to work extra hard, because they have to live with the custodians of their land and they're prone to rapes, they're prone to abuses and forced labour."

*Name has been changed to protect the woman's identity.

Thousands already displaced by tribal fighting

Bessie Peyabe is still dressed in the black robes of a highlands widow.

Her husband was killed in tribal fighting just before the earthquake, leaving her and her five children without protection and support.

"When we were at the funeral, the earthquake happened," she said.

"It's really complicated being a woman alone, looking after five kids, and when the earthquake happened it got worse."

Highlands tribal fights are a modern, deadlier form of an ancient tradition where grievances were settled with violence, or rival tribes raided each other's villages.

The introduction of firearms and a breakdown of law and order in some highlands provinces has increased the intensity of the violence and the number of people being killed.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and the International Committee of the Red Cross both estimate thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes because of tribal fighting, many in areas now affected by the quake.

The PNG Government estimates the earthquake has displaced a further 35,000 people in the highlands.

Ms Peyabe is one of 400 women and children who have sought refuge from conflict in Hoiebia village, near the capital of Hela Province, Tari.

She said she and other tribal fighting victims are struggling to find housing, because the quake damaged the homes they were staying in.

"In one house, because of the earthquake, now we have 10 people," she said.

The president of the Hoiebia United Church women's committee, Agnes Havalu, said the tribal fighting refugees did not have access to enough food in the aftermath of the quake.

"If things from the earthquake get worse and the fighting doesn't stop there will be a famine here," she said.

"A lot of men and women will die because already some children have died here."

Earthquake has not eased tribal fighting

Alena Potape has few relatives left, after most were killed in a long-running tribal fight.

"My father and two uncles were killed, two sisters were killed, plus my grandmother because she was worried and she died," she said.

"So I have lost all of my father's family, only I ran away with my three kids and I am sleeping out in a tent and having a hard time."

The earthquake has made things even harder for the young mother, who said the tremor collapsed the rough tarpaulin shelter she was staying in.

"When the earthquake came, I was sleeping in a tent and the tent broke," she said.

"I was afraid and I held onto the grass and held onto my children and the tent was destroyed."

Local and international aid agencies are trying to set up temporary accommodation for women like Ms Potape, but village councillor Moreen Mokai said ongoing fighting made it risky to gather people in one place.

"We can't make a care centre, because men are still holding guns and finding all their enemies," she said.

More people have been killed in tribal fighting since the quake and the conflicts have also disrupted the distribution of aid supplies from Tari.

The Australian Government is funding the setup of "safe spaces" for women and children as part of earthquake relief.

They will provide basic counselling and healthcare services.

The PNG country director for UN Women, Susan Ferguson, said there needed to be long-term "peace building", led by local people, to stop the tribal fighting.

"It's really hard to untangle the earthquake from some of the existing challenges that women face," she said.

"I think the response to the earthquake is going to be really important in longer-term development because it's highlighting some of these issues that are very hard to uncover because it's such a remote place."

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