By MALUM NALU
Tari in Hela is a town under sentence of death or so it seems, if the events of this past week are any indication.
The town is still reeling from the massive 7.5 earthquake that rattled the Highlands on Feb 26.
One would have thought that the earthquake would have been a wake-up call for the people of Tari, notorious for its law-and-order problems, to have laid down their arms and join the relief effort.
Help is coming in from all over the country and around the world to help the people of Tari.
International relief agencies are based in Tari helping to distribute food, water, medicine and shelter to the affected people.
The Hela government led by Governor Philip Undialu and provincial administrator William Bando are doing a commendable job in working with international relief agencies, and major PNG LNG Project players Exxon Mobil and Oil Search, in helping the affected people.
Last Saturday, I travelled to Tari via Moro with Undialu, Bando and Komo-Margarima MP Manasseh Makiba purposely to check up relief work in Hela.
When we arrive we find out, much to our dismay, that relief operations and Air Niugini flights have been temporarily suspended.
This is because of the assassination-style killing of well-known Tari councillor Hebe Yaparia at the busy Tari Market last Friday.
Hela police and leaders fear a collapse into anarchy with a manpower of less than 20 in the province and opportunists taking advantage of the confusion caused by the earthquake.
Many people in Tari tell me they are more scared of this “man-made disaster” than the earthquake.
Acting provincial police commander Martin Lakari and Undialu express their concerns to me last Saturday.
Lakari says the councillor was shot at about 2pm last Friday at point-blank at a spot at Tari Market where people gamble.
The situation remained tense last weekend.
“We tried to apprehend the suspects but it was very difficult because people were not cooperative,” Lakari says.
“I’ve issued an official order to do a clean-up of Tari town.
“I will source all available manpower I have to make sure that Tari town is clean in terms of removing high-low (gambling) machines, removing street vendors such as cigarette and betel nut sellers.
“We will try to put them in an appropriate place so that such killings in Tari Town are not repeated.
“I have a manpower of less than 20, both regulars and reservists, which is inadequate in terms of the population of Hela.
“We need to beef up our manpower to combat the law-and-order situation in the province.”
Lakari says tribes at war with each other had not taken a break despite the earthquake disaster.
“The overall law-and-order situation in the province is a bit out of hand,” he says.
“There are displaced people always out on the road to get something from travellers.
“They set up roadblocks to conduct armed robbery and all that.
“We police in Hela are handicapped.
“We have a capacity problem here in terms of manpower and logistics.
“The law-and-order situation in the province is out of control.”
Undialu says police engaged by the PNG LNG Project are not allowed to do other duties outside of that.
“That’s one difficulty,” he says.
“It’s government negligence, I would say, of security of the general population of Hela.
“Why should PNG LNG Project be given preference over the lives of ordinary people?
“Although I value the significance of the project, you can’t provide security to the project at the expense of our people.
“I’m talking about policemen who have already been assigned to provide security in Hela, which is MS (Mobile Squad) 9.
“MS9 was deployed to Wabag for election duties last April, which was prolonged due to the security situation, and from there they’ve gone straight to the LNG Project.
“I’ve been asking the police commissioner to return MS9 or give us additional manpower, which has fallen on deaf ears.
“The PNG Defence Force are here specifically for disaster relief work and have not been given any prosecution powers, which are supposed to have given before the deployment.
“Seriously speaking, we’ve got 20 men with the PPC, and it’s a helpless situation here.”
We are told that there will be a demonstration by family members and tribesmen of the late Yaparia on Monday and we brace ourselves for the worst.
Tari comes to a standstill on Monday as hundreds of knife-wielding family members and fellow tribe members of the murdered councillor gather to show their sorrow and frustration.
Relatives and tribesmen and women of the councillor converge on Tari with their faces painted in mud and brandishing bush knives.
They, however, do not cause any trouble as Lakari promises them that there will be zero-tolerance on law-and-order issues in Tari.
The elder brother of the deceased, Jepe Yaparia, tells me his brother is known as a peace-maker and non-violent person in Tari.
The presence of Bando and Makiba also helps to ease the very tense situation.
Lakari, police officers and Bando and Makiba later accompany the late councillor’s relatives and tribesmen and women to Tari Hospital to pick up his body and take it for a drive around town before going to his home village.
Lakari, a well-respected veteran policeman in the Highlands, lays down the law as relatives and fellow villagers of Yaparia cheer.
He tells them that the late councillor was a champion of peace in Tari who spoke against violence.
“I have a serious concern to work with national leaders here, provincial administrator and provincial leaders,” Lakari says.
“I was only one week into this job when I heard that a councillor and peace-maker lost his life at Tari Market.
“People are saying that this is a normal occurrence in Tari, however, I as PPC say this is not normal.
“This is a very serious crime.
“I have directed my CID officers to look into the matter and have the persons responsible arrested.”
Lakari also vows to clean up Tari of all its ongoing law-and-order problems.
“I also want the market to be scattered instead of having everyone congregate at one central place,” he says.
“All gambling and high-low machines in the market must stop immediately.
“All dart and board games in the market must stop.
“There is no guarantee of the safety of the public at this place so I will get tough.
“Some of you may not like my actions but I will go ahead and enforce the law.
“Past provincial police commanders have not done their job properly here.
“Police in the past have not done their job to serve the people of Hela.”
Lakari also urges the people to hand in all their guns to police.
“If the rest of the country can do this (hand in guns), why not Hela?” he says.
Lakari says he has already discussed with Bando about the urgent need for police reinforcements.
“I am pleased to announce that 11 policemen from Laiagam (Enga) will come here and I will carry out a major operation here,” he says
“I want you to give me names of all trouble-makers and we will arrest them and take them to court.”
Hela police were beefed up with the arrival of Mobile Squad 11 from Laiagam in Enga on Wednesday, the day which Air Niugini resumed flights to Tari.
This follows the controversial loss of MS9, which was sent to Wabag last year for election operations, and was never sent back to Hela but to the PNG LNG Project.
The loss of MS9, and subsequent loss of other officers, has seen the Hela police force reduced to a skeleton crew of only 20 officers.
Crime has since spiralled out of control since, including at this time of earthquake relief work, as exemplified by last Friday’s killing of Yaparia.
MS11 is known as one of the toughest police units in the Highlands.
There is still a sense of insecurity in Tari as I board my plane on Wednesday.
Give peace a chance in this time of earthquake relief.
Anything less would be a reversion to total anarchy in Tari.