Riding the train into Melbourne a couple of mornings ago, I check into Facebook and scroll through one of the Papua New Guinea discussion pages I visit most days.
I’m transported a long way from the Glen Waverley line, deep into the wild, random cyberstream of plugged-in PNG – gossip, news, activism and (frequently) prayers from a country that has become something of a fascination.
Around Kooyong, a dark-skinned young woman materializes in my palm. There’s something wrong with her face – her eyes, wide open, are too far apart, is she disfigured? I look closer.
Her head has been sliced open, a deep, pink gash running from the brow down to the chin – maybe with an axe, maybe with the full force of a bushknife (machete), the bushcraft accessory carried by every man and boy in the highlands.
Is she alive? No. She’s swathed in a pinkish shroud, turned down to take this photograph. Who would take such a picture, I wonder, and send it out to the world? Her killer – to gloat? Her mother or sister or father – to scream their protest?
Someone posts a demand to the site administrator to pull the image down.
The administrator insists it must stay – it is the reality of the violence being endured by women in PNG – the clamor for action is now dominating local social media conversation. The gang rape of a nurse in Lae has shut down the hospital and provoked sits-ins and street marches.
It’s true that the “chopping”, to use the local vernacular, of the woman now before me is no rare, random horror. Something like this happens to women in some parts of PNG every day, perhaps many times a day. I’d seen the fallout in hospitals in Tari and Kundiawa, Goroka and Minj. I’d sat in on morning triage, observed the casualties of the night before display their broken and butchered limbs and heads.
I’d written the story often enough, SOS messages tossed into the void. I’d come to the conclusion that many Australians aren’t much interested in PNG, our closest neighbour.
Certainly that’s the assumption of many editors and gatekeepers across the media. The most widely reported issues out of PNG turn on self-interest (think Manus Island, and its use as an Australian detention facility) and profiteering (the resources boom). The business pages are loaded with stories about PNG’s prospects, tempered by what is shorthanded as political or social “volatility” or some such nuisance, rarely explored or explained.
When a plane crashed at Kokoda airstrip in 2009, killing 13 people including 9 Australians, Channel 9’s morning show did a live cross to a PNG official, at one point reprimanding him for the appalling state of the bush runway – it was endangering the lives of tourists. Papua New Guineans take their lives in their hands on those pot-holed strips and crater-strewn roads and makeshift bridges every day because infrastructure is in terminal decline – not least because of the weight of the convoys commuting to and from mine sites.
Still on transport, on 2 February 2012 a heavily overloaded, unseaworthy ferry (as determined by a Commission of Inquiry) operated by an Australian-born shipping magnate set out from the island port of Rabaul en route to the mainland in appalling weather.
At least 140 people drowned, but the real toll of the Rabaul Queen will never be known. Many of the dead were babies not listed on the scrappy passenger manifest, and schoolchildren and women who couldn’t escape the inner cabin when she capsized. They’d been jammed in so tight they had to take turns sitting down. Lifejackets were locked in cages.
But the shipwreck dominating Australian news was still the Costa Concordia, the luxury vessel that foundered on the Italian coast three weeks earlier (32 lives lost).
I thought when Alan Jones made his infamous “destroy the joint” remark it might finally put the spotlight on the reality endured by our Pacific sisters – some of the most brutalized, marginalized, neglected (and resourceful, and spirited) citizens in the world – given that his slur was prompted by an announcement by Julia Gillard that Australia would invest $320 million over 10 years to “expand women’s leadership and economic and social opportunities”.
The Pacific has the lowest rate of female political participation in the world. There was one woman in the PNG Parliament until last year, and she was white (the extraordinary Queensland-born Dame Carol Kidu). Now there are 3 PNG women MPs – in a chamber of 111.
But the frenzy became all about us.
Recently the terrifying tuberculosis epidemic festering in parts of PNG, particularly around Daru – a dinghy-ride from Australian territory – gained some traction.
Much of it was couched in terms of the potential threat to Australia if multi-drug resistant (MDR-TB) and the new monster variation, extensively drug resistant (XDR -TB) find their way across Torres Strait.
But the nightmare already exists. Recent surveys have confirmed the World Health Organisation’s worst fears. Drug resistant TB is “off the charts” in Western Province and neighboring Gulf Province, the WHO PNG chief told me in December. “We need to be worried.”
Of course the other tales that resonate widely from PNG are those of the bizarre or the cruel. I have just contributed to this archive with a story at The Global Mail investigating sorcery-related violence in the highlands region.
It had been a months-long project, built around the eyewitness accounts and photographs of the torture of an accused witch. Its publication came on the heels of the burning alive of a young woman – and accused witch – on a rubbish dump in Mount Hagen, pictures of which reverberated through PNG and around the world.
Watching the outraged cyber engagement these stories have provoked, I’m torn between thankfulness that the curtain of disinterest has been torn, and apprehension about whether a little bit of knowledge might be an even more dangerous thing for PNG’s most vulnerable.
The pictures now coming out of PNG – courtesy of the digital towers seeded through jungles and the proliferation of cheap Facebook phones – are raw and real. A woman burning; a woman stripped and tortured; the woman in my lap now, her face cleaved.
But they are also only fragments of the story, meaningless and distorting unless seen in the context of geography, history, society, economy.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the past five years asking Papua New Guineans and outsiders with expertise about the roots of the endemic, epidemic violence suffered by women and girls particularly. Is it culture, the same-old; is it something new?
There are various theories but the boiled-down consensus is that the worst of old, brutal traditions have endured and spread, while the customs which once afforded some protection for women and the vulnerable have been lost.
It’s well documented in global health literature that a society in transition, where women break out of traditional roles – by choice or circumstance – is a perilous place for women, inciting the highest levels of violence even from intimate partners.
Meanwhile new jealousies, tensions and anxieties thrive. Many Papua New Guineans hope their nation’s immense natural wealth will ultimately build them a future in which basic services like health, education and roads are functional and reliable. But so far, as a recent study by the University of Otago (NZ) into the impacts of the evolving $16 billion Exxon Mobil-led PNG LNG (liquefied natural gas) project summarised, resources exploitation has seen “few long-term benefits being passed on to the wider population”. As a consequence, PNG “has suffered serious environmental and social harm”.
Why? Mostly because of failures of governance – “the absence of good institutions and sound economic policy”, and the fragility of vulnerable populations. It’s not as captivating as witch-burning, it’ll never make the headline, but it is very likely what sets the pyre.
I ponder, in more cynical moments, how much easier it is to write and broadcast the narrative of barbaric, lawless evildoers committing inexplicable atrocities. How convenient that it frightens away deeper exploration, and validates the notion that PNG is a lost cause, so why bother.
Torturers and thugs provide a smokescreen for the vilest criminals – the politicians and bureaucrats, police and tribal Big Men and ex-pat entrepreneurs who systematically, methodically, corruptly syphon off the profits of the resources boom. As one woman in Tari observes, throwing herself over the food she’s trying to sell on the roadside to protect it as another laden convoy thunders past: “All we get is the dust off the road”.
I shut down Facebook and look out the window. But the young woman’s face won’t go away. By the time I screw up the nerve, a few hours later, to go back and learn what I can of her, to see if I can see where in the landscape she fits, the administrator must have been prevailed upon to erase her.
I wish I could do the same.