Violence in Tari
Jan 18, 2012
I have just arrived back in Port Moresby from Tari. It has certainly been an eye-opening couple of days. Last night, a patient who had been admitted to the hospital on Saturday because of machete wounds to the head and the arm (when he was brought in, his hand was practically dangling off his wrist) died. He had not stirred from unconsciousness since he was first brought in, and despite the best efforts of the MSF team at Tari, he could not be saved. From what I gathered, he had sought retribution from a man of a rival clan who had killed his sister. The two men ended up fighting with bush knives, and whilst both were badly injured from the fight, it was the brother of the murdered woman who sustained a fatal head injury. Last night, whilst lying in bed in the MSF house, I heard what I initially thought was the howling of nocturnal animals – I realized soon after that what I was hearing was in fact the wailing of the deceased’s family and clan. I departed this morning from Tari with a sense of foreboding. Given the innate violence of the culture, it appears likely that revenge bloodshed will take place unless the two clans manage to come to an agreement where the survivor’s family will pay a large compensation to the deceased’s family. Incidents like this are common in Tari. Another case that came in during the weekend horrified me: In Tari, when a man takes a wife, he is expected to pay a ‘bride price’ to the woman’s family (normally a certain number of pigs). A man had apparently reneged on the agreed sum after marrying his wife, so his wife’s clansmen hunted down the couple, and chopped them with bush knives – both the husband, and the wife who was their own kin. Yesterday morning, I was able to follow an old MSF veteran from India as she conducted her work in the MSF-run Family Support Centre (which makes medical interventions and conducts psychosocial counseling to victims of domestic and sexual violence). I met a woman who had a deep laceration across her skull as well as wounds to the shoulder and leg. When we asked her how she came about those wounds, I listened with stunned disbelief as the patient explained how she was a primary school teacher, and how her sister-in-law had attacked her out of jealousy when she hadn’t gotten a position at the school herself. What struck me most about most of the patients I met was their stoicism, and above all, their strength. The primary school teacher was still sitting upright, and talking avidly despite her injuries – injuries which would have most of us in Hong Kong either crying in pain or passed out. I also met a young woman who had been admitted to hospital after a suicide attempt following an all-night-long beating by her husband. Despite her deep and obvious sadness, and the rope marks around her neck, she was still able to smile at the MSF staff as we bid her good morning. I admit, seeing some of these cases, and hearing about some others, made me deeply angry. I spoke to several national MSF staff who were themselves beneficiaries of MSF’s medical services. One told me how she herself had been abused by her husband. She finally left him after a kick intended for her accidentally connected with her two-year old son instead…. her son died as a result. I was told that many of the patients seen by MSF were sexual abused or beaten by their own husbands – this is because after paying a ‘bride price’, a woman is considered the ‘property’ of her husband. Unlike the MSF local staff member I spoke to, many women are unable to leave their husbands because their husbands’ clans would demand their bride prices back, and if this was not paid, violent retaliation against the woman’s family would follow. One thing that everyone I spoke to had common was their respect for MSF’s work in Tari. One man told me that before MSF came, victims of the fighting would just die – unless they were the select rich few who could arrange a medical evacuation. Now, he says, most people are saved. This sentiment was expressed by numerous others – and not just by words. On Sunday, I followed a few of my field colleagues for a long walk through some local villages. Everywhere we went people greeted us with big smiles and came up to shake the team’s hands – cheesy, but it is true. Local ladies offered to guide us and young children with big brown eyes and long lashes, and even bigger giggles followed us – those who were brave slapped us high fives and jumped at the chance to be in photographs with us, and others who were more shy chanted from a distance “MSF! MSF!” These children are not exempted from the violence and abuse. I learned that the majority of the sexual violence cases treated by MSF are teenagers and children. Girls as young as 3 years old are victims. MSF is doing great work here, but the team is faced by massive difficulties – difficulties that lead to tough choices having to be made. In many other projects around the world, MSF is able to collaborate with other players – if a child is being abused for example, we can refer the case to social services, to the police or to a child protection NGO. However, in Tari, MSF has to rely upon itself. Tari’s remoteness and the fact that the problems faced by the local population is not widely known outside of PNG, means that there are no other service providers here other than a few local churches whose scope is limited. Whilst there is a police, the tiny police force itself is often powerless against the larger, armed tribal gangs. I will not forget Tari, despite the short duration of my visit. Nor will I forget how several members of the local community, including national MSF staff came up to me, asking about Hong Kong and thanking the people of Hong Kong for supporting MSF after I described my role as a fundraiser. I have witnessed – if only to a small extent – the violence faced by the people of Tari and the determination of the MSF team there to help those people, and I really hope that those who read this blog will spread the word and draw more attention to this neglected part of Papua New Guinea.