The National

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (Oct. 5) – Very few readers could have failed to be moved by The National’s front-page picture yesterday.

It was not the amalgam of emotions on the part of the young men marching in Lae that shook us; it was the tiny boy leading these young men.

He was the son of the man allegedly killed for not paying a paltry 50 toea [US 17 cents) bus fare.

The expression on that child’s face might well serve as a symbol for the chaos that is Lae today.

There is confusion, the eyes wide with fear, with determination and with sorrow.

They are not the happy eyes of a young boy. They are the sad world-weary eyes of a one who has already experienced too much grief.

How will that small boy grow up?

Will he always be the symbol of an outraged Enga?

He would seem to have little chance now of a normal childhood, teenage or adult years.

His world changed forever in the moment when his father died for not paying his bus fare.

Where the victim comes from is completely immaterial. He could have been a Tolai, or a Gogodala, or a man from Ambunti.

To his small son, he was father, and now he is no more.

The identity of the aggressors is also of no consequence.

They could have come from the ghettoes of Lae, the open plains of the Western province, or a remote island in Milne Bay.

The point is only that they killed, and a small boy with wide confused eyes is now fatherless.

The rights and wrongs of this situation are no more important than sand grains on the beach.

They are simply symbols of a national malaise.

We no longer trust each other.

We can no longer live side by side in amity.

A generation of youths long ago learned to hate others, not on the basis of their wrongful acts, but simply because of their province or district of origin.

Against such a background, we cannot construct the unified nation that is a necessity if Papua New Guinea is to survive.

It is not economics that threatens to ultimately defeat PNG, nor unemployment, nor poverty, nor politics.

It is the burgeoning hatred of one tribal group for another, the fast-receding dream of "one people, one nation," and the growth of an "us and them" mentality of fearful proportions.

Are we prepared to see PNG nailed to a cross made of tribal hatred?

Lae today is a tattered remnant of the Garden City of yesterday. Urban infrastructure verges on the non-existent.

Settlements mushroom daily. Squatters increasingly dictate the pattern of city life.

Assaults, rape, murder, incest – all of these are so familiar to Lae residents that new cases scarcely raise more than a weary acknowledgement.

Life in the squatter settlements is not only a squalid battle for survival; today it is fraught with danger, and orchestrated by cold fear.

Nobody is safe.

Sexual assaults on young children are a matter of regular report.

Murder frequently passes without comment.

Rape and incest no longer stir more than a passing recognition, unless there’s a chance of organising substantial financial "compensation" out of the circumstances.

The courts are rarely seen as a viable option, and more and more serious crimes are hidden from police because they can be "solved" and a substantial profit made if they are handled quietly behind the scenes.

The victim, if alive, scarcely benefits from these arrangements, being simply the centre piece in an ongoing series of negotiations designed to benefit only the relatives and friends.

The latest ingredient, and perhaps the most ironic, is a large body of university students who have decided to abandon all the precepts of several years of education, and revert to traditional warfare to solve their grievances.

Descending upon Lae like some latter day band of Visigoths, these supposed leaders of tomorrow – God help us – have added immeasurably to the tinder box that is currently Lae.

The time for verbal grandstanding and grandiose promises has long since passed.

Only genuine local leadership can salvage the Lae situation.

Do such focused and committed leaders exist within the provincial government?

For the sake of that small boy, we pray that they do.

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