Posts Tagged 'guns'

Origin fever / Badass cops

The third State of Origin game is only about eight minutes old, but I’m already satisfied with the spectacle. Hulking giants heaving each other and indulging in many cringe-worthy ‘eat my shoulder’ moments. Shoulder of ham perhaps, shoulder of brute – I’ll leave that to the professionals.

The popularity of rugby league in PNG is one of the quintessestial facts of this country. The fact that PNG is the only country worldwide where league is the national sport is usually mentioned in the same breath that informs PNG has roughly one third of the world’s known languages and tends to have law and order issues. You can reiterate such details to the extent that they become close to meaningless, just like the Wikipedia entries you only half bother reading. It’s when you delve into the anecdotal that things get interesting again and you get a better idea of how (if not always why) something like a football game is significant.

A few people I’ve spoken to about the crazy popularity of the State of Origin games usually append an anecdote describing the sounds of loud splashing in Koki and Hanuabada – the noise of television sets hitting the water, of course. More scientific-minded types will assure you television sales rise sharply after Origin games thanks to enraged spectators trying to intervene directly in the game’s outcome via their own screens. More dour types (and of course the newspapers) will tell you about husbands venting violent frustrations on wives, or a footy-crazed young men murdering their own brothers for the eminent crime of supporting the other team. I was struck by the silence in our own neighbourhood after the second game, and wondered if it was all a beat-up. Then two days later reports of the brutal murder of three young guys at the hands of a wild mob in the Five-Mile area after the game surfaced. Who knows what they said and why an entire mob had cause (if any) to chop them to pieces. The point is it happened on Origin night, and hence became part of the gory folklore. Why such murderous reputations seem to be reinforced by actual events is beyond many Papua New Guineans. To be fair most people I meet are absolutely perplexed as to why any of their countryfolk would get so worked up over an Australian sporting match. It’s not that they don’t like the game – they invariably do – but they know it’s a game involving Queenslanders and New South Welshmen. Not a Papua New Guinean on the field (except Kumuls player Neville Costigan – depending on how one defines nationality).

Despite the lack of geographical relevance the ‘blues or maroons’? question is a common one this time of year. It’s sometimes hard to explain why, despite being born in NSW and having grown up in NSW, the maroons are my team of choice. It’s a bit technical explaining that the home town was only twenty minutes from the border, that Brisbane was a bigger feature of my youth than Sydney, and I was just going for the same team my mates did. But for some reason I persist. It also helps to weave a ‘conflict with the missus’ aspect into my explanation – ‘missus blo mi em laik blues, tasol mi laik maroons. Mi gat bigpla hevi.’ What I never, NEVER admit is that since I was about 12 years old I haven’t really given a toss about footy. That would be criminal. Besides PNG does funny things to longlong dimdims and I have found myself enjoying the Friday Night Football in a non-ironic fashion from time to time, and as for the game tonight it is good to see the Blues have reclaimed their spirit, I expect that if this had been the second game the series would have been a NSW win, the opening was fierce as you would expect from a real Origin match and GOOD GOD there goes that bastard in the pink shoes again, SMASH HIM!

The police reaction to the aforementioned post-Origin murders was predictable, and yet another ho-hum horror that seems to reflect a standard ‘truth’ about PNG – the cops are badasses. Without going into specifics the police reacted with a mix of burned houses, evicted squatters and beaten heads – and probably a few more murders, who knows. The heavy handedness was because one of the murdered men was in fact the son of an MP. Cops don’t like losing face over here. They don’t mind being off their faces, typically at road blocks, but losing face thanks to a high profile murder or robbery really ticks them off. The so-called millennium bank robbery in Moresby a few years ago involving a brash helicopter escape is a good example. Somehow, mysteriously, none of the robbers survived arrest after their helicopter was shot from the sky – eyewitnesses did report they were quite alive at time of apprehension however. Another great example is an anecdote I heard last night from a guest who lives in the East Sepik bush. He described a local policeman’s solution to a stray dog wandering on an airport runway – unload a full clip from his M-16 in the dog’s general direction. The scene seems so ludicrous when I imagine it, I can’t help but wonder how the dog felt about it all. Yes, the canine survived, but was probably very confused afterwards.

More security, less secure?

Security-related paranoia is the number one expat hobby in Port Moresby. We were therefore intrigued by the revelation the other week that the contingent of wantoks who maintained the security situation in our compound were about to get the proverbial ‘arse’ and be replaced by a high-powered security firm complete with black uniforms, a bloodthirsty guard dog, and a name to make raskols lose sleep at night – THE CORPS. The changing of the guard occurred on Sunday morning and (at time of writing) I have yet to lay eyes on our new sentinels. I am not sure if the wantoks from the Eastern Highlands carried out their promise to depart with a dramatic ceremonial gesture – apparently they were going to break their bows and arrows in front of the new guards and burn them in a heap before stalking off into the unknown. It would have been a great thing to witness if it did happen – but Sundays are for sleeping in after all.

Over the past few weeks I have had vivid and terrible images playing through my mind of how the changing of the guard would ensue. My fear was that our former guards would be ousted in a brutal and tactless manner, with THE CORPS arriving promptly in half a dozen armour-plated Land Cruisers at 0600 hours and duly informing the previous incumbents that their services were no longer required, and that if they had a problem they would have to contend with the formidable ranks (and high-powered arsenal, and ferocious hounds, and uniforms) of THE CORPS. Of course the previous incumbents would have no problem whatsoever with the idea of tackling the might and power (and arsenal, dogs, uniforms) of THE CORPS and probably would be happy to render a few of THE CORPS into corpses. The ensuing bloodbath engulfs all of North Waigani, Morata and Gerehu and we are evacuated amidst a hail of bullets, arrows and buai shells with the assistance of helicopters manned by Australian commandos (a crack squad are of course kept on 24-hour stand-by in the cellar of the High Commission here for situations like these).

Of course this was all idiotic nonsense (it is common knowledge that the commandos are kept in a suite on the top floor of the High Comm, not the cellar). The Highlanders were informed some time ago that their tenure was drawing to a close and were prepared to exit without too much fuss (although not without disgruntlement, as their talk of burning their bows and arrows would indicate). Now, instead of our guard-house being occupied by an extended family of tribesmen wielding bows, arrows and bush knives we get a disciplined paramilitary force with the expertise and firepower to wipe out entire battalions of raskols without batting an eyelid.

That also is of course idiotic nonsense. Some people may feel safer in the presence of uniforms, firearms and berserk German Shepherds – but I have never been one of those people. There is also no question that a band of well-organised raskols (and yes, they ARE organised) would be able to overpower whatever paltry resistance offered by employees of a security firm. If indeed resistance was offered – as I have said before, the wages of a security guard are pathetic in PNG, and some major crimes in PNG (an example being the total destruction by fire of the Western Highlands provincial administration building, ie Mount Hagen’s version of Macquarie Tower in Sydney) are achieved with the complicity of those supposedly protecting the place. So I am immediately disinclined to trust the professionals. The wantoks may have been slack, they may have left the gate open, they may never shown interest in questioning strange people trying to enter the compound – but they had worked there for years, and that was their place. This certainly does not indicate unwavering loyalty, but it is a long-standing relationship, and in PNG you are far more likely to get what you need from those who you’re familiar with – whether it be the guy you know in the bureacracy or the guards who have been minding your place at night for years. I’d be very surprised if a bunch of poorly paid guys in uniforms would begin to care as much as our former guards, as unorthodox as they were by the usual professional measures.

The real protection offered by the wantoks was not immediately discernible. Companies like the Corps rely on overt and ridiculous methods as deterrents – huge vehicles, guns and batons, uniforms and dogs. But their jobs finishes when the roster says it finishes. Our former security however were always on the job, in the sense that their reputation as a group never slept. Suppose a group of raskols stormed the compound, injured one of the wantoks and robbed a few of our houses at gunpoint. That would not be the end of the issue. The wantoks were bound by the palpable tradition of payback – you mess with us, we mess with you. And their connections were not limited to the five or six who regularly manned the guard house. The aforementioned ridiculous situation involving violence spreading through north Waigani, Morata and Gerehu suddenly becomes more plausible. Whoever wanted to assail us here once would have had to ask themselves – is this a good day to start a small war? As of Sunday morning, that question is not so pertinent.

The irony is fantastic – with greater security, we are possibly less secure. We are also the only place in the neighbourhood with a snarling guard dog out the front during the night. As if living on the top of the hill in bright white buildings (not to mention the bright white skin!) wasn’t conspicuous enough. Now we live in the place with the guard dog. We might as well request the relocation of that commando squad too while we’re at it. New neighbours are always fun.

Postscript – have met one of the new guards, the uniforms are truly dashing. You can tell when the new guards are wandering the compound at night because you can hear the robotic chirrup of their walkie-talkies. I was told that they had plans to relocate the dog to the far corner of the compound where in the past intruders had gained entrance. That would be the far corner just underneath our window. Great place for a slavering, barking brute to reside every night. Can’t wait.

A Waste of a Day.

It was a waste of a day. Aside from running into Peter the moustachio’d Sepik man and wondering when the rubbish would be collected (it’s been a week) there wasn’t much to it. Stayed inside away from the heat. Close to zero output, even though there’s a bit to do and heaps on my mind. Started a letter – for the third time. That was it.

At about three our guest from Melbourne came home and we went to the market for dinner supplies. I only went to clear my head and also to fulfil the vague kind of responsibility one has to one’s friends, ie watch their back. A pumpkin, some carrots and some greens later we’re ready to go. There is a commotion. A guy is greeting us at close proximity, with about eight or ten other young guys behind him watching with keen amused interest. He introduces himself as Jason No Violence, he wanted to know where we were – I wasn’t sure if he was being cryptic or if his English was messed up. The question is repeated. Where are you people. I’m doing volunteer work, I offered, and my friend is working for a university in Melbourne. The usual outwardly confident, inwardly shitscared mode of behaviour kicks in. University? he exclaims. I have attended the University of PNG for twenty years! I notice the older women waving us on, urging us to disengage from this guy’s insistent conversation. He’s not wearing a shirt but wears pristine clean white tracksuit pants and a hat of the same colour. I smoke MARIJUANA, Pee-En-Gee WEED he says proudly. It’s busy at the market, kids and dogs are everywhere, and our exchange is still the object of intense curiosity. Time to go. Of course Mister No Violence wants my phone number. Conveniently I have left my phone at home and I don’t remember the number itself – mainly so I don’t have to lie to people’s faces in situations such as these. He’s only slightly fazed. You know they say sharing is caring, he says, so have you got some coins for me for a drink? This time I’m pleased to lie. No, my missus keeps all my money. He persists, insisting he asks my companion. We leave. You ask the lady! Mr No Violence shouts after us. No was the best I could come up with. People seemed to laugh, at what I wasn’t sure. I didn’t care. Mister No Violence didn’t follow us. That’s what I cared about.

Our bemusement kicked in once we were up the street a bit and we reflected how funny it was that even the most eventless day can be turned on its head just by a random encounter. PNG! Land of the unexpected. All those cliches. We were happy enough to be crossing Waigani Drive, finally out of reach of the eyes of the young guys at the market. We were stepping onto the dusty median strip when two packs of school kids started to riot directly in front of us. Sticks and a few rocks were flying and the women selling the buai started scurrying. I had seen the kids fighting from the balcony at about the same time the day before – surprisingly (or in hindsight, predictably?), they were at it again. Yesterday the cops had broken the mob of kids up after a few minutes – for some reason the youngsters chose the PMV stop just outside the Waigani police station to rumble at. Although the finer points of the event were not evident the day before thanks to a couple of trees the general narrative wasn’t hard to discern – the kids fight, the cops come, the kids run away. Where are the cops? I wondered as we stood amidst four lanes of slowing traffic and a scattered crowd of stick-wielding youngsters in school uniforms.

Dumb question. They were right behind us. A siren. We spun around. A big fella in blue had emerged from his four wheel drive with a shotgun, a few metres away. Bang-bang, in the air, and the collective taste for violence dissipated rapidly with the crowd. I recalled a story a friend told me when he was at the footy and had heard gunfire. He’d suggested aloud that it was rubber bullets but a guy next to him had corrected him quickly: make no mistake, the guy had said to my friend, we do not have rubber bullets in PNG. This anecdote seemed prescient as we crossed the road, now unhindered by the pugnacious kids that had stalled us only twenty seconds or so before.

Beardy Dave introduces: ‘My First Gunfire’.

From the balcony here the sounds from the intersection and markets downhill drift up to us, the noise does not stop at night. On Fridays and Saturdays especially we always marvel at the throngs beneath us. When dark encroaches they show no signs of dispersing, instead an overhead street lamp gets switched on and someone somewhere invariably starts a fire. We’ll probably never see much of Moresby’s night life, but from up on the balcony we can hear it. People milling around and yelling, the engines and horns, animals fighting on the streets, sudden and unexplainable sounds of things smashing or shattering.

Last night at about eight a sound came up to us that was a kind of part popping, part cracking sound.

‘Hear that?’ Beardy Dave from Cape York broke off his story – I think it was something about a meal of crayfish in coconut cream he’d had cooked for him by a nun somewhere near Popondetta. He’d come up from his shack downhill at our invitation, no doubt happy enough to accept company over another Saturday night in self-imposed hiding. For our part we also craved some company and I knew for a fact that Dave was not only keen enough on the SP brownies but a talented and clownish raconteur.

‘The popping noise?’ I replied, thinking of an aerosol can bursting in a fire or an inflated milk carton being stomped on.

‘That was a pistol ay’ Dave informed me in an unflappable tone. Like many up here he’s got all sorts of good information and advice for us, but unlike some others he seems confident we’ll survive relatively unscathed. He always delivers his advice punctuated by a clipped ‘ay’. 

‘Yeah. That’s the police ay. They fire a few shots early on in the night, just to remind people they’ve got the guns. Most of the time they just fire pistols but you hear a shotgun or an SLR every now and then. Remind everyone who’se boss ay.’

As if on cue an identical popping-cracking noise was heard. It seemed to be distant but I knew the gun couldn’t be fired very far away: we can see the police station in the daylight on the other side of Waigani Drive. I said it sounded like a can bursting under heat.

‘You can tell when it’s gunfire, there’s a sharp sound in the report ay, nothing like a can in a fire or anything like that. The bigger guns are a bit deeper, the shotguns and that.’

‘Why would they bother with that?’ I asked. ‘I mean everyone here knows the cops have guns, everyone knows they’re mean bastards too. What would firing a round for the heck of it achieve?’

I didn’t really get an answer, but I found myself thinking what it would be like at the cop station below, with the crowds churning in the night and with most people out there regarding the cops with suspicion and contempt. I remembered what our minder Greg had said of the people at independence day – when crowds get together it’s the police who are enemy number one.

Dave returned to his stories. 186 days with only cows, chooks and a three-legged dog for company somewhere a long way north of Cooktown. Rice cooked in coconuts on open fires. The ghastly atmosphere of Moresby Town after dark when the prostitutes young and old come onto the streets. I was by then only half listening. The SP’s were stilling my brain a bit and I was contemplaing what Dave had told me earlier. He’d heard all about Kate and I every day. The locals who work with him update him on our movements on a daily basis – why they told him was beyond him – but thanks to a small network of eyes and ears he knew when we walked to the PMV stop, when Kate got her bus to work, what days I stayed a few minutes and crouched to talk with someone I recognised next to a buai stand and when I just trundled home. It was both reassuring and unnerving to think of. A small network of people, most of whom I had never met, not only knew who we were and where we lived but kept watch for our comings and goings and dutifully reported back to Dave.

Despite the Queenslander’s story I wondered if he had a hand in it. He’s a lot older than most of the locals who he works with and he’s spent a lot of time in PNG, both recently and before independence. The nationals who he works with seem to be unworried about him, but he couldn’t live the way he does without commanding respect. His wisdom is the kind of unsanitised stuff that could only come from a guy used to so-called ‘improvised’ living, with the concomitatant levels of ‘improvised’ management of human relations. He told us, unworried, about the guy whose wrist he broke last year when he tried something stroppy, or the good amount of corporal punishment he dished out when he managed an island plantation in 1973.

Today over lunch Kate and I mused on Dave’s up-front admissions. We weren’t bothered, but I guess we shared a curiosity about the outlook of a guy who lives proverbially both with and above the people here. In the end we shrugged – his methods were probably effective enough in Port Moresby. Which left the unspoken thought, that is how ineffective our friendly, open and sometimes clumsy attitude could prove to be.