By DAVID TERRY
WHEN good-hearted people volunteer in the role of crime prevention, it brings out a sense of appreciation into the neighbourhood but it is also a risk to the person or people involved.
Residents in a community are more grateful when crime and violence are eradicated and their society becomes more conducive and liveable. To be more emphatic, the job of a law enforcement officer is always fraught with a lot of hardship, hostilities and resentment from certain quarters of society.
The risks are always high because those who profit from the proceeds of dubious activities or crime have and will continue to oppose any vigilant attempt aimed at disrupting their earnings.
Preventing crime and violence is a noble gesture, one often applauded by society but it is sad when people get hurt while doing it out of passion.
On Saturday August 20, a man who volunteered to become a community-based law enforcement officer was brutally attacked with a rock inside a Port Moresby settlement.
Ben Gasi aged 38, of Tufi in Oro was left in a coma after attempting to break up a fight. He was hit with a rock and sustained a deep gash, resulting in a fractured skull.
Although he has recovered, he is still physically weak and unable to speak. It is indeed a sad story because Ben and a few others like him are ordinary people who work without a salary. Ben’s predicament is a story of its own but let me shed light on the activities of his group.
This group of peace loving and brave young men call themselves the Oro Community Policing and Youth Rehabilitation project.
The acronym A.T.S refers to the Air Transport Squadron of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force, located on the other side of Jackson’s Airport terminal. The settlement located adjacent to it is commonly referred to as the ATS Oro Settlement, because it is mostly inhabited by people from Northern. Although predominantly domiciled by people from the Northern in the early 90s, some small parcels of land in this settlement were later preoccupied by other ethnicities. Like every other community in PNG, the ATS Oro community once teemed with life.
In the early 90s settlers gleefully acquired blocks of land, but due to the high unemployment rate, many of these residents began to venture into the informal trade. They sold betel nut, barbecued lamb flaps, biscuits, can drinks, and were even involved in bootlegging and gambling just to pass time or make ends meet. It was and is still a dubious lifestyle you get to see just about everywhere in the PNG society. But coupled with all these survival schemes, criminal gangs also operated, invoking fear on innocent law abiding citizens.
The residents there despised crime and many were once too scared to be vigilant in fear of their own safety. Residents there will attest to being threatened by crime. In fact many saw it happening but they ignored the need to report crime because they were too scared. In order to dwell and co-exist in a crime- infested environment, many of them adopted the rule of being silent – They believed that by being ignorant, the perpetrators would not harm them. The settlers lived with this norm for many years but in 1998 a group of young men opted to break this vicious cycle. In fact 10 former gangsters met up with Joe Evari, a Reserve Senior Constable attached to Gordon Police and together they conceived the idea of forming a youth program aimed at combating crime.
Back then, the ATS Oro settlement was literally considered a crime-haven, littered with stolen cars, gang activities and a high rate of violence associated to home brewed liquor and illicit drugs.
When Evari proposed the idea, Alex Kelly in his 20s then, was among the group of volunteers. Alex, from Oro, is now in his 40s but for him there is no sign of his quitting in the near future. The interest quickly bloomed and soon several more youths gave up their bad ways to embrace the idea.
The Royal PNG Constabulary’s Community Policing Directorate initially endorsed the project with the promise of recruiting youths under the auspices of the Constabulary’s Auxiliary Policing concept but that proposition was later shelved due to lack of funding.
Despite this hurdle, Alex and a few of his friends held the concept together and after 18 years they have now increased their manpower from 10 to 45 active members. Alex said the idea of having ex-gangsters involved in law enforcement worked, because the society knew them well enough to respect their about-turn in life. The members conduct random foot patrols across the length and width of the settlement, even stretching their operations as far as Eight Mile and towards the fringes of Port Moresby city, near Faraya, Bush Wara and Dogura. In their quest to uphold law and order, these men, and women, have dodged missiles hurled by violent mobs during ethnic clashes, and were even threatened by criminal elements. For them, it is a daring responsibility they have learnt to live with. In fact Ben’s predicament is a stark reminder of the dangers that lurk inside the settlement. Although disheartened over this unfortunate incident, Alex said they remain committed in their obligations.
Forty five year old Human Resource Officer, Yuanes Petrus of mixed Sepik and Oro parentage, settled there in 2014 and was quickly drawn into the program. He offered his residence as the meeting place and was quickly elevated and recognized as the Coordinator of the Oro Community Policing Rehabilitation Project.
In fact the project has helped to greatly reduce crime in this part of Port Moresby city. All they want is for the NCD Commission, the leaders and the RPNGC management to formalize their engagement, so they can serve with a sense of gratitude.
The group has assisted members of the nearby Gordon Police station in the recovery of several stolen vehicles, that have been taken there to be hidden, and has also assisted in the arrest of known crime suspects who have sought refuge inside the settlement.
The group now has eight women volunteers who are involved in dispute resolution and counselling services especially for distraught female victims of crime. Alex said they have provided counselling for countless victims of crime and referred them to the hospital or the nearby Gordon Police Station.
In essence, the Oro Community Policing and Youth Rehabilitation Project was conceived and abandoned by the Constabulary but the members are passionately committed to this cause because they want mothers and children to live in a crime free and harmonious community.
Like many Community Policing programs around the nation, many of these volunteers want to be formally trained so they can better serve their community.
For them, it’s been a daunting journey, one characterized by a mixture of hope and uncertainty. Indeed, courage and determination has kept them going this far.
Alex said their biggest dream is to attain formal recognition and to see authorities refurbish and convert the community centre at ATS into a mini police post. He said it would help a lot if the post is equipped with amenities including office computers. The station can be staffed by a regular member of the constabulary as supervisor and a police vehicle and other necessities be installed as well.
“It is our dream,” Alex said, “but if it doesn’t happen, we will still be here doing our best to keep our community safe from crime and violence.”
By DAVID TERRY