Tribal conflict and trauma hamper disaster relief in Papua New Guinea

More than 180 people were killed after the initial earthquake on February 26, according to the Oil Search Foundation, a not-for-profit working in health and education. The PNG Government estimates 270,000 people are in need of urgent assistance. Of this, 125,000 are children.

However, a combination of landslides, flooded roads, and tribal fighting has made reaching remote communities difficult. Local journalist Scott Waide said the fights were the result of a long-running feud between tribes, but few details were known about the nature of the conflict.

“They’re payback killings, payback for other deaths,” he said.tribal conflict papua new guinea2

Waide said the latest fight erupted last week in Tari, where UNICEF was caring for the children. Five locals were killed, two were minors. Hela Governor Philip Undialu said the fights were a direct result of the earthquakes.

“The enemy tries to move to safer places. They come across one another and attack,” he said.

Undialu said 100 military personnel had been mobilised to help secure public safety in Tari. Monash University politics and international relations lecturer Aleks Deejay said natural disasters often spurred conflict in developing countries.

“A big natural disaster can be such a sudden, disruptive event that if they strike in certain areas that are already experiencing vulnerabilities related to security they can ignite more serious conflict,” he said, attributing conflict to the depletion of resources, disruption of public institutions and infrastructure, and migration.

Secretary General of the PNG Red Cross Uvenama Rova said tribal fights in the region were a constant ongoing issue, and had disrupted the communities’ ability to help one another.

“The PNG way is to help your neighbour, but with tribal conflict, it is difficult to reach out to those affected,” he said.

The Red Cross will on Monday assist the Koma, Tawa, and Denaria communities close to the earthquake’s epi-centre which have not yet received aid, delivering non-food items including mosquito nets, jerry cans, hygiene kits, medications and other necessities. Amid the continuing aftershocks, the violence, overcrowded conditions and lack of necessities in temporary shelters, humanitarian organisations say they are concerned about the impact of disease and trauma in the wake of the destruction.

Before the earthquakes, children in PNG were already at high risk of violence and physical and emotional abuse, UNICEF reported.

“The behaviour of children has definitely changed [since the earthquake]. Kids are withdrawn, they don’t like to go out. The toxic stress affects them not only now, but also later in life,” Molendijk said.

UNICEF PNG representative Karen Allen said in a statement the organisation’s main concern was the psychological health of the children.

“Psychological damage among children should not be overlooked. It can have a negative impact on children’s brain development, mental health and overall wellbeing in the long run,” she said, adding children who have suffered from trauma have an increased risk of delayed development, mental health disorders, depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide.


In conjunction with Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Papua New Guinean government, Oil Search has established care centres for women and “waiting villages” for expectant mothers to give birth. It has also deployed two counsellors trained in trauma counselling. The organisation had turned its attention from physical injuries to disease and psychological trauma in the wake of the destruction.

“We first assisted in injuries, but now it’s cases of disease. There’s diarrhoea, respiratory conditions, crowded situations,” Copus-Campbell said.

UNICEF PNG is currently setting up 26 child-friendly spaces to provide psycho-social support services for more than 14,000 children in the severely-affected provinces of Hela and Southern Highlands. The organisation is in need of $17 million to continue its relief effort, providing clean water and sanitation in temporary shelters, as well as vaccinations, malnutrition treatment, and support for children to return to school




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