Police in quake-hit Tari unable to stop lawlessness

10:57 am on 23 March 2018

Violence and lawlessness are surging again in the capital of Papua New Guinea's Hela province, Tari.

Tari, Papua New Guinea.

Tari, Papua New Guinea. Photo: RNZI / Johnny Blades

Hela communities have been reeling from last month's 7.5 magnitude earthquake in the province.

The quake killed at least 125 people in the region, while around 270,000 people are estimated to be in urgent need of aid.

With thousands of communities displaced and in need of basic supplies, many people have converged in Tari.

Several days ago a local ward councillor was shot dead in plain daylight in front of a large crowd in the town.

The same day, according to local media, a young woman was gang raped by armed men who had set-up a roadblock in Tigibi along the Highlands Highway outside Tari.

The acting provincial police commander Thomas Levongo said the violence, especially local fighting between different tribes, was an ongoing problem, unrelated to the quake.

Following on from heightened violence in the province since late 2016, including through last year's general elections, there was a build-up of firearms in Hela.

Mr Levongo said there was now renewed lawlessness, such as people trespassing on Tari's airport runway which has only just become operational again after being disrupted by the quake.

"So many people, crowded... and the police, we are short of manpower," he explained.

"The people always overcome us. They want to do what they want to do, they do it. So we try to stop them but they're not listening. Sometimes we just watch and the people start crossing the airport."

Tari airport in Papua New Guinea's Hela province.

Tari airport in Papua New Guinea's Hela province, seen here in more orderly times in 2011. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Mr Levongo said that while people remained traumatised by the quake and its many aftershocks, things were slowly returning to normal.

But normal business in PNG's Highlands often entailed roadblocks manned by armed men conducting searches or demanding money.

However, the main road link from Mt Hagen to Tari was now operational again, Air Niugini had resumed flights to Hela as well, and Tari's hospital was operating as normal.

"Yeah things are coming slowly to normal. Only there are people who are still causing problems and killing people at any hour in Tari area," said Mr Levongo who was hopeful that the incoming Hela police commander would

He said the current Western Highlands police commander, Martin Lakari, was due to take up office in Hela and would bring reinforcements in personnel and resources.

Mr Lakari had been quoted in local media this week saying Tari was a "battle field" where there was no respect for law and order.