Posts Tagged 'security'

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.

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The Wantoks from klostu Goroka.

A helicopter goes overhead and the air shudders between the walls inside. The kids downstairs cease their racket, but only for a moment as the aircraft rumbles its way through the sky. When it is gone from earshot the children resume their bickering and moaning from where they had left off, interminable and frustrating. Otherwise the only close noise is the prattle of my fingers on the keyboad and the short, pointless bark of some dog on the road. There is always the rush of automobile traffic downhill and the rustle of leaves and plastic bags in the breeze, but they form a mere backdrop of noise. An audible wallpaper, curtain, or woven grass mat.

Outside the gardener is making his rounds, as he does every few hours. This is mostly what he does: makes the rounds. Also he sleeps but this takes up only a few of his working hours on the most lugubrious of afternoons. His work from time to time also involves swinging at protruding blades of grass, twigs or weeds with his short, crude bush knife. I do not see him do this often but I hear it if I am home. When he hacks at the grass or weeds sticking from the earth the resulting noise is like a scattering of hailstones on concrete and tin roofs – except they are not chunks of ice but actual rocks that he sends through the air with the sharp blows he delivers to the errant vegetation. Later I pick these stones up and take them in my pocket when I walk down the road, as my status in relation to the antisocial dog named Sexi has not been fully resolved.

The gardener has a fantastic habit of wearing a once-colourful sarong instead of trousers or shorts on the hot afternoons. This garment, along with a floppy fishing hat and a stained old t shirt, comprises his work uniform. It is not unfair to say his appearance is cartoonish as a result – although the extent of his actual sense of humour or actual comical nature will probably never be known to me. The gardener is mostly deaf and I believe mostly speechless also. He nods, waves and usully smiles when I greet him, but that is all. Sometimes when I venture onto our balcony during the day I see him sitting by himself in the shade looking downhill at the busy road and the PMV stop, the purest image of stillness. At these times I try to fathom the thoughts that nestle in his brain, and sometimes I find myself almost crushed by loneliness for his sake.

The other Papua New Guineans (ie ‘nationals’ or as I would prefer to say ‘locals’) who work here are the guard squad who man the huge swinging steel-bar gate at the entrance to the compound. During the day there is usually only one or two on duty, I guess two or three at night. By day they avoid the sun’s ferocity by keeping watch from their guardhouse next to the steep driveway. This structure is simple, made of large undecorated concrete bricks, and it is furnished with a refridgerator, one or two chairs, and a bench that they doze on. There is an antechamber with a shower, and behind the guardhouse is a clothes line and a few other oddments the they deploy in an effort to make their work less difficult. I do not envy the tedium of their work but I am thankful. After all they are the men who remain awake at night so we may sleep unmolested.

I haven’t etched all their names into my memory but the eldest is named Pokaro, the youngest-looking is called Nasun, some of the others are called Fal, Tylan and Keko. All speak little or no English, and as my Tok Pisin is also limited we communicate only the briefest and most basic phrases: “Apinun Nasun, yu olrait?” or “Mi amamas tru long lukim yu”. I frequently make reference to the “bigpela sun” by way of chit chat. The talk typically tapers out before too long but old Pokaro never seems bothered, be repeatedly asks “nem blong yu?” and grasps my arm or hand without any of the shyness his younger colleagues. His expressions are great to behold – at once as kindly as a generous and benevolent grandfather but sometimes as savage as an old Highlands fighter. His speech is often open-mouthed, and always stained a virulent red from chewing buai. His teeth are in a dreadful state, but his craggy old smile is reassuring.

For old Pokaro’s sake alone I hope to grasp Tok Pisin more competently, but until I get some regularity in my speech – with someone equally adept at English to shunt my learning along – I doubt this will happen. The other day my conversation with Nasun and Pokaro was enough to glean that all the guards, the gardener and many others besides were all wantoks, from the same village ‘klostu Goroka’. I haven’t been able to find out how many of Pokaro’s wantoks work here – ‘planti planti’ was the best answer so far.

It’s easy to regard the security arrangements sceptically. The boys aren’t too vigilant when it comes to visitors during the day, having no interest in interrogating anyone walking through the gate. I asked myself what exactly they would repel intruders with if it came to it? Silly question. Three bows and a collection of arrows nestle in racks in the guardhouse, and Pokaro was more than pleased to demonstrate his technique with the bush knife. ‘Sapos raskol cam’ he said, ‘mi katim!’ This was accompanied by a few mock blows against forearms and legs. Like many other places PNG grants the bush knife a special place in the pantheon of useful items. They are readily available and a sharp one is great for hacking back vegetation, harvesting certain crops, opening boxes, splitting coconuts, removing human limbs – and probably opening bottles of SP too. I’m happy with my bottle-opener though, thanks.