Keeping watch over the road


Sappers from Igam Barracks in Lae maintain the peace along the Okuk Highway between Nadzab in Morobe and Kagamuga in Western Highlands
Kagamuga in Western Highlands.

I HAVE never come across the term sapper until I met a squad of elite soldiers based at Kainantu township in Eastern Highlands three weeks ago.
As per my boss’s instructions, I was there on a news gathering mission when I had the privilege of being introduced to the men by the Kainantu district administration’s procurement officer Rhoda Selan. The men had been stationed in the capital of Kainantu for over two months and were to be rotated to Goroka in a fortnight’s time.
My boss, by the way, is the local MP for Kainantu, Johnson Tuke, and his idea to gather other human interest stories apart from the development projects he has initiated in his last two terms was a step in the right direction. The local MP also works closely with the PNG Defence Force (PNGDF) and the Royal PNG Constabulary (RPNGC) via his district administration and CEO Francis Javati and Selan as part of his usual community obligation activities across the district.
“As you may have already noticed my district plays host to so many people from within Kainanatu and those who come in from outside and it is my duty to ensure peace and security for business houses and government services to flourish.
“The people of Kainantu place high expectations on me to maintain goodwill and order and I am very pleased that the PNGDF and the RPNGC are able to play their roles here without fear and favour and the assistance of the community leaders and youths,” said Tuke.
Kainantu is the gateway to the Highlands and Momase regions and has a population of over 70,000 people which can swell to additional thousands in a day as people from the other seven Eastern Highlands districts and the other six Highlands provinces, including Madang and Morobe provinces commute back and forth for business and government services.
Kainantu has four local level government areas, extensive landmass and has a historical town with early European settlement and infiltration of religious sects dating as far back as the Second World War.
Back to our military story, I discovered that a sapper, also known as an elite combat engineer, military engineer, or pioneer is a combatant skilled in a variety of military engineering duties such as minefield placement, clearing bridge-building, demolitions, field defences, and road and airfield construction. They are also responsible for tasks facilitating movement of allied forces and impeding those of their enemies and execute additional tasks such as the disarming and disposal of mines and unexploded ordnance
The name is derived from the French word sappe (“spade work” or “trench”) and became connected with military engineering during the 17th Century, when attackers dug covered trenches to approach the walls of a besieged fort. These trenches and tunnels were called “saps,” and their diggers came to be called “sappers”.
For one to become a sapper you have to undergo very intense training which requires a lot of mental discipline and these guys from the PNGDF’s Igam Barracks are no exception. The barracks is also popularly known as the Igam Engineering Battalion and all these men have not seen their families for almost six months now.
According to their platoon commander Second Lieutenant Chris Tumun who travelled in from Goroka, his platoon patrols the highway from Nadzab in Morobe to Kagamuga in Western Highlands under Operation Big Road. This exercise comes under the auspices of the Department of Works’ (DOW) rehabilitation programme called the Sustainable Highlands Highway Rehabilitation Project which has a 10-year tenure and is funded by the Asian Development Bank.
Tumun said that each platoon of 36 soldiers is required to serve for three to four month, however, due to Covid-19 and other logistics issues his men have been in the region for five months now without a break.
As is the busy nature of their operations, I was able to interview Tumun in the evening when he and his men returned from their usual patrols. The men are stationed at Kainantu, Goroka, Chimbu and Western Highlands.
“This is a project by DOW and they requested the PNGDF to assist in the rehabilitation programme that is being done on the road called the Sustainable Highlands Highway Rehabilitation Project.
“It’s a 10-year project so they requested the PNGDF to assist and we’re just helping secure the contractors. That is, we are starting at Nadzab and all the way to Kagamuga in Hagen. The project covers that length of the highway and so what we’re doing is we’re here for security purposes for the contractors and workers, DOW personnel, engineers and other staff that are being employed in fixing this road.”
He said the PNGDF’s sapper platoon’s task was to maintain safety and quell any misunderstanding that may arise with the people living along the corridor of the Highlands Highway.
He said they were there to assist the RPNGC conduct awareness especially on the issue of the 20-metre roadside boundary that belongs to the Government.
“We are not here to chase the people away but to assist the community leaders conduct awareness who act as a go between landowners and the contracting companies. When they go out we go with them to do awareness and educate the people,” explained Second Lieutenant Tumun.
Retracing our steps back to the squad at Kainantu, they are a bunch of hard yakka men in every sense of the phrase because their duties keep them on their feet and on alert mode especially in this volatile region of the country where tribal altercations are known to erupt unpredictably. Sleep basically comes to them in two hourly intervals and call outs are monitored frequently.
The squad of 11 men patrol the Nadzab (Morobe) to Henganofi (Eastern Highlands) stretch of the national highway.
According to Section Commander Sapper David Wanama he and his men have been through intense tribal fights and brute force is only used as a last resort when it comes to dealing with such conflicts.
“When the first arrow is shot or the first weapon is fired we are called in, when the women and children are attacked we are the ones that rescue them and bring them to safety and we do not fire our weapons at any given time.
“We are wearing the uniform of the people and our weapon in the initial stages of a conflict is our ability to speak and negotiate peace. Although the warriors may be very aggressive and flash their weapons in an intimidating manner or the spears and bows and arrows are fired all around us, we maintain our cool and keep talking and shouting out to them to lay down their weapons,” Wanama explained.
He said that once they assess that the conflict has quietened down, which can take days, they move in to collect the troublemakers.
In the recent conflict at Yonki where state property was destroyed they assisted the police force to arrest 152 men including one woman and an old man in his 80s. Using women in the frontline during warfare is a cultural thing and they believe it affects the fighting abilities of their opponents.
I asked Wanama if he and his men ever have time to relax and he said it was difficult because the region they serve in does not allow them to even think about resting.
I also found out that despite the men not being paid their allowances for five to seven months now, they do not let that affect them from executing their duties with diligence and persistence. They depend on the goodwill of friends and good citizens who live along the Highlands Highway.
“My men Sapper Simeon Morris, Sapper Joachim Yake, Sapper Elias Kepas, Sapper Basil Aria, Sapper Leslie Rami, Lance Corporal Isaac Buru, Private John Tapi, Sapper Gerryson Kamgal, Sapper John Danga and Sapper Iniak Sibilap and I don’t have that luxury of proper rest and relaxation because we are on constant patrol duties but otherwise, we enjoy the work we do for our country,” Wanama said.
One interesting fact is that sappers are the only members of the military who wear beards and moustaches, according to military tradition, as an obligation to historical military culture related to the French gendarmes (paramilitary police officers), hence their nickname “les moustaches”.
Growing up a tomboy in nature just like Selan, I had met good friends and brothers, people who are willing to lay down their lives for their country. I walked away that day feeling blessed and with greater understanding of who serves, why they serve and how they serve this great nation we call Papua New Guinea.
God bless the PNGDF servicemen and women and their counterparts in the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary.

  • Melanie Vari is press secretary to the Member for Kainantu and Mining Minister Johnson Tuke.