PNG a land of contradictions: Stunning, dangerous, unpredictable

Eoin Blackwell on assignment in PNG

With AAP announcing it has closed its Port Moresby office, the news wire’s last PNG correspondent Eoin Blackwell looks back on his journey covering one of Australia’s closest neighbours. 

It’s July 2012 and I’m standing in a field in Tari, in Papua New Guinea’s Hela province, with a crowd of about 500 people and some heavily armed soldiers.

It’s election time in PNG. A round of gunshots from a football field drew me and ABC reporter, Firmin Nanol to the polling booth like suicidal moths to a flame.

The soldiers, it turned out, fired the shots into the air because some tribal groups in the crowd didn’t like how the voting was being done and, in true PNG fashion, had “arced up”.

Some in the crowd, unable to read or write, had elected a few among their number to fill out the ballots, following a meeting to decide which candidate to back in the electorate.

What’s undemocratic about that?

“No, they have to line up. One by one,” the soldier said, hoisting his machine gun and flicking a fly off the ammo belt on his shoulder.

Earlier, he told me he had fired the shots to calm people down.

It seemed to work. When we left everyone was sitting on the grass, listening to the election officials explain things.

See, PNG is known as “the land of the unexpected”.

Really it’s a land of contradictions.

Being a reporter in this environment from July 2011 to October 2013 was both enormously stressful and hugely rewarding. Actually it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.

During 2012’s attempted mutiny by supporters of ousted prime minister Sir Michael Somare, I signed off a story to my boss saying “I’ve got a soldier pointing a gun at me and he’s saying I’m under his operational control. I have to go.”

Just after after I’d hung up the soldier relaxed his gun hand and let me wander into Murray Barracks to try and talk to the mutiny leader, Yarra Sasa.

The same guard later locked me out of the barracks, but was kind enough to show me a hole in the fence I could get through to get back in.

At the time, everyone I knew told me there’d be blood on the streets during this intense period.

It’s hard not to imagine it given the frequent, random and horrific violence associated with Papua New Guinea.

But during this crisis there was none. There were plenty of protests urging politicians to just sort it out amongst themselves and not stuff up their democracy.

In another incident in June 2012, a group of rogue PNG police tried to blockade the parliament, promising to banish politicians from the chamber.

Heavily armed police turned up around the corner, machine guns cocked and ready to challenge their fired-up colleagues.

You know how it ended?

A policeman – Commander Peter Guinness armed with a bag of betel nut – walked down the long stretch of road leading to Parliament.

A solid chew and some handshakes later and it was over. Everyone went home.

Em Tasol, or that’s it, in Pigin.

Eoin Blackwell was AAP’s last PNG correspondent and will be returning to the national reporting desk in Sydney. 


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