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Papua New Guinea: Caught in the middle of clan fighting

07-02-2014 Feature

An outbreak of clan fighting between the Wambea and the Kombia clans in the Southern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea last October forced many families to flee their homes. Some, like Helen Pewi, were badly injured and needed help from the ICRC to survive.


The ICRC and the Papua New Guinea Red Cross provided aid to 2,000 people, among them Helen Pewi (right), displaced by clan fighting. © ICRC / Vincent Meyer


"Both times, they came in the night," explains Helen softly, "first when they burned down my house, and then when they killed my husband."

Helen is just one of the many people caught in the middle of fighting between the warring clans in the Papua New Guinea district of Kagua Erave. When enemy fighters burnt down the home where she lived with her husband and two sons, she was lucky enough to flee to the safety of the neighbouring Haus Man, along with dozens of her displaced neighbours.

"Both times, they came in the night," explains Helen softly, "first when they burned down my house, and then when they killed my husband."

Two weeks later, however, Helen was not so lucky when gunmen struck again with grenades and high-powered assault rifles. Her husband was shot dead and in the process of shielding her three year-old son Ezekiel from the burning roof as they escaped into the bush, she suffered third-degree burns to her back, head and arms. Her heroic efforts saved little Ezekiel from all but minor injuries. Thirty-four people, many of them women and children, are thought to have died that night.

Carried most of the way by her father, Helen barely made it the next day to Sumbura Health Centre, where she received basic care.

"In Sumbura, we are not equipped to treat such serious injuries," lamented Sister Deborah, who has been tirelessly running the facility for the last 27 years. She added, "The water has not been working since 1987 and we have no surgical capacity. We were able to clean and dress her burns but we could not find anyone to transport her to hospital because the fighting was still going on in the area. Anyway, she did not have enough money to pay for the cost of treatment.”

A long journey for medical treatment

Helen Pewi, with her father and son, back in their homeland in the Kagua Erave District of the Southern Highlands. 

Helen Pewi, with her father and son, back in their homeland in the Kagua Erave District of the Southern Highlands.
© ICRC / Gauthier Lefèvre

The ICRC finally took Helen and her father on the four-hour drive to Mount Hagen and supported her treatment there at the Provincial Hospital. The ICRC also delivered much-needed medical supplies such as dressing kits and first aid equipment to Kagua and Sumbura Health Centres, where many of the injured have sought medical treatment.

Happily, Helen survived, and in early January the ICRC drove her back to her father's home in Wakipanda to complete her convalescence with her two sons. Helen knows her recovery will be long and her future uncertain. "I have lost everything," she says, "my husband, my house, my health, and I can no longer look after my sons or my father."

The villagers of Wakipanda kindly give her kau kau (sweet potatoes) and greens for them to live on, but they lack clothes and other basic necessities.

Helen’s situation improved a little on 23 January when she and 2000 others displaced by the fighting were given emergency relief supplies by the ICRC in partnership with the PNG Red Cross Society. She received blankets, mats, tarpaulins, pots and pans, soap and other hygiene items to help her restart her life.

"There have been many clan fights here in the last few years, but this is the first time that people have come from outside to help those who are caught in the middle. Maybe some good will come of it in the end," concludes Helen thoughtfully.