Women bring warring clansmen to the polling booth
Humari and Yowindali clansmen put differences aside to vote. Picture and words by Alexander Nara.
The Humari and Yowindali clans in the Papua New Guinea (PNG) Highlands province of Hela are still at war.
The deaths of five men in recent months from clashes between the two clans in Hela’s Tari local level government area attest to the ferocity of these ancient battles in one of PNG’s Highlands provinces.
On Saturday 23 June the Humari and Yowindali clansmen faced their enemies again, though this time separated by blue tapes that cordoned polling tables, PNG electoral officials and a single ballot box that appeared to be at the centre of everyone’s attention. It was the start of the 2012 PNG general election and Hela was one of two Highlands provinces to conduct polling.
The Humari and Yowindali clansmen have never been this close nor looked into each other’s eyes since the death of the five men. Around the polling booth, women and children from both sides could be seen whispering with looks of uneasiness mixed with fear.
The clansmen appeared alert and seemed to be watching their opponents’ every move as they kept a watchful eye over their womenfolk and siblings, who queued on both sides of the polling circle behind the blue taped lines.
In the background women could be heard screaming in their local language to their playing children in a bid to maintain some order, whilst polling officials and heavily armed security forces struggled to control the long queue of voters which had begun to squeeze into the polling arena.
Three days before the general election Prime Minister Peter O’Neill raised the flag of Hela province to mark the entry of PNG’s newest province and its first ever general election. The Humari and Yowindali clans were now playing a part in the province’s own history.
The clash that triggered a full-scale tribal fight between these two isolated communities was the consequence of an infrastructure royalty payment scheme gone wrong. At the centre of the dispute were royalty payments for the development of Tari airport, which the villagers charged was not distributed equally and led to the Humari killing two Yowindali clansmen. The Yowindali retaliated and killed two men from the Humari, further escalating the conflict.
With the two clans technically in a state of war, there were fears that it could impact on the conduct of voting within the two affected communities and compelling an intervention by an unlikely party – women and mothers.
According to a number of councillors who spoke to the PNG Defence Force (PNGDF) team who accompanied electoral officials to the area, it was vocal women and mothers who managed to get their menfolk to restrain themselves and allow voting to be completed peacefully. There was a consensus, following the negotiations led by women and mothers that the clash between the two clans should remain on the battlefield and away from the polling booth.
PNGDF Lt Colonel Tony Aseavu, the commander of the soldiers stationed in the area, said his men were high alert and would work tirelessly to ensure trouble-free polling.
While the battle between the Humari and Yowindali clansmen could be fought another day after voting, the election could have sowed the first seeds of peace with electoral officials simultaneously calling members of the warring clans to walk up together, face each other and then publicly cast their votes in front of the community.
- Alexander Nara is the PNGDF public relations officer and is currently on tour of duty with the PNG general election security force in the Highlands.