I Got Caught Up in Tribal Warfare in Papua New Guinea

The hills I lived in have seen countless battles over the last few thousand years. With weapons made of stone and wood, victory relied on skill, but didn't always result in the death of the enemy. Assault rifles will change everything.

Sep 22 2014, 7:45pm

Miyana, the village shaman, firing an arrow

Last year I became the first Brit to live among the Baruya tribe, a people from the remote highlands of Papua New Guinea. Meals up there consisted overwhelmingly of sweet potato, so within a month my body had started to ache from lack of protein. The solution, I realized, was to shoot one of the wild pigs scurrying about nearby. Unfortunately, I had no idea how to go about doing that, so I asked my neighbor—Miyana, the village shaman—to teach me the warrior-hunter skills of the tribe.

My first exposure to this traditional form of archery came when Miyana’s ten-year-old son attempted to shoot an arrow at me through a hole in our hut. After his father had disciplined him for that semi-worrying prank, he returned—bow in hand—and we began.

Considering myself to be in good shape, and being markedly larger than the aging Papuan shaman, I smugly took the bow off him, placed the arrow on the reed, pulled back with force and shot. Nothing happened. People started laughing. I had failed to release the arrow from my grip. Hauling the cord back again, I forced my fingers open and allowed the spia to drop into the mud a couple of yards away. Sparing me any further embarrassment, Miyana collected the arrow and brought the session to a close.

For the next couple of months, every time I asked for another shot the locals would mumble “behind,” a word that can be translated to something between “later” and “never.” I even tried to bribe children, offering a ball to whomever would let me practice with them, but to no avail. Finally, I found a young man, Raiwin, who agreed to teach me traditional archery—using six-foot bows made out of black palm—if I helped him learn English.

Everything went well for the first four months. Then war broke out with the neighboring tribe, and archery practice shifted focus toward shooting humans rather than animals. The village elders had all been dented by enemy arrows in the past, and some had lost body parts during a seven-year war in the 1980s. In light of this development, Miyana began teaching me to move like a fighter, showing me subtle side-steps to help avoid enemy fire, and an acrobatic method of stealth shooting, which involved positioning the bow horizontally while taking cover in the undergrowth.

One night, a man in his sixties came up to our village to share his story. As Miyana kept the fire alight and his son dissected a block of taro with a machete, Birimaniye outlined how he had personally ended the first war—which had erupted over a land dispute—back in his youth.

“Bows and arrows can only do so much damage, so I managed to get hold of a rifle and some bullets, and decided to kill their most fearsome warrior, Taviwei. I knew that would bring an end to the conflict,” he said. “I crept down the valley and placed myself in some bushes near the frontier, before popping a bullet into the chamber and taking aim. Taviwei spotted me, grabbed a machete and sprinted towards my position. I pulled the trigger, looked up and saw blood all over Taviwe's torso. The bullet had hit him directly in the throat, and killed him shortly afterwards.”

Relations had been tense ever since, but the two tribes had manage to coexist in relative peace since the shooting. However, the rape of Taviwei’s granddaughter by a youth from our village put an end to this in the summer of 2013. Yamarai, Taviwei’s son, vowed revenge.

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As I improved my archery, men came to our hut with a variety of firearms they had acquired through selling marijuana to criminal gangs operating in the lawless hills nearby. Birimaniye had demonstrated that guns win wars, and so, wherever possible, the fighters in our tribe were trading in their bows for rifles. A man from a neighboring village had even managed to get hold of a block of plastic explosives and was keen to try it out on the enemy, much to my dismay.

I attempted to convey my feelings about the rules of war, but quickly realized that my ideas weren’t only misunderstood, but that I had no right to try to influence the tribe’s behavior. Before long, I became acutely aware that my presence alone appeared to be mustering a peculiar gun fever among almost everyone.

Sporadic gunshots rang out throughout the valley, and every evening Miyana would delay the latest tales of blood and body parts from the front line. Injured tribesmen started turning up with a variety of wounds, and we would attempt to restore them to fighting form with a combination of antibiotic spray and painkillers. Heavy rain exacerbated everything, and I started sleeping with my machete within arm's length of my bed.

Amid the fighting, I remained hungry, and clung onto the dream of log-fire roasted pork. One day we wandered down towards another village to cut some sugar cane. The place was not only incredibly close to the border with the enemy tribe, but also home to clusters of venomous, fist-sized spiders and knots of the legendary highland death adders.

After collecting the goods, we ascended back up the craggy slopes with Miyana at the helm. The two of us shot at various targets en route until, near the village, we spotted a wild pig feasting away in a private garden. “Shoot him!” Miyana ordered. From that distance there was absolutely no way I could kill the little creature, so I took out a flat-faced ama arrow and shot. The poor beast let out a cry as the arrow hit his side and ran for it. But he didn't get far—a weighty middle-aged woman with an ax was waiting at the other end of the field.

We scraped away the fur as the pig baked on a mount of hot rocks, cut out its innards, and cooked the appropriate parts before huddling around the fire. Conversation turned to the war, and I mentioned my concern over the pointless loss of life.

“I have a story to tell you,” Miyana's brother began as we divided the pork between us. “After Taviwei was killed by our tribe, Yamarai—his son—became friends with an American missionary who used to fly planes near the north coast. Robert, the pilot, wanted to help his friend, and so the two of them traveled to the black markets of the Sepik. Late one night we saw Robert's Cessna fly into the airfield on the other side of the valley, which was risky, as it’s extremely dangerous to fly out here after dark. A few weeks later we traveled to Yamarai's village, and he confronted us armed with a Kalashnikov rifle—the sort I remember seeing in films when I lived in town. We ran, and—thanks to the powers of our shamans—the gun didn't fire.”

A local with a homemade gun

Miyana nodded, proud that his tribe's magic could trump modern tools of war. “So, no matter what happens, we will not be defeated by them. Nonetheless, it is good you are here, as now you can help us buy more guns to fight back.”

The hills I lived in have seen countless battles over the last few thousand years. For my tribe, war gave meaning to its men, and conquest provided an opportunity to mingle genetically and avoid incest. With weapons made of stone and wood, victory relied on skill, but didn't always result in the death of the enemy. Assault rifles will change everything.

While missionaries in Papua New Guinea appear to have gone out of their way to demolish indigenous culture, the introduction of sophisticated firearms ensures the destruction not just of that culture and tradition, but perhaps of entire peoples. I left my tribe in a state of war against another, both sides increasingly arming themselves with AK-47s and M16s.

Out of government eyes, the complete eradication of the people I lived with would go unreported, and the bow and arrows hanging in my flat would, perhaps, be some of the only physical remnants of an entire way of life.

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