This story is based on a true story my Anthropology professor, Regina Knapp, told to me, but many facts were changed by me to a point that makes it impossible to tell anymore if it is fiction or a true story.
I turned on the recorder and asked her, “How did the war start?”
“Mmmm,” she stared vacantly and took a sip of her ginger tea. “I’ll tell you, but you have to keep the names of the people involved off the record.”
Half of the people of the village did not show up for Aiva’s 32nd birthday party. It was odd, since everyone in the community cared for her, and an event like that would be at the center of the tribe’s social life. The celebration took place on her adoptive father’s grounds. From the hill where his bamboo house was, the virgin forests and the fog that cover the mountains of Goroka in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea are laid bare. Only her family and a couple of other families close to her father attended the party. Confused, Aiva confronted Mama Mafla and asked her what was wrong. Mama Mafla got so nervous that she started crying. She excused herself saying that she was sad because Aiva was leaving the next day to Australia. But that could not be it; Aiva was coming back in a week.
“That’s when I knew that something utterly wrong was happening in the village,” she told me as she rubbed a crack on the wooden table with her index finger. “Everyone knew what it was, except me. The community was hiding something from me. My family was hiding something from me.”
As planned, Aiva flew to Canberra the next day for an Anthropology conference at the Australian National University. She had finished her MA in Anthropology and Media Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin some years before. During that time, she met Mama Mafla, a Papua New Guinean woman who was 15 years older than her. Mama Mafla was in Berlin, invited by the German Development Service (Der Deutsche Entwicklungsdienst), to learn how to prepare cheese.
“Which is funny since many Papua New Guineans are lactose intolerant.”
Aiva was brought in contact with Mama Mafla because she could speak Tok Pisin. Aiva was born in Lae, Papua New Guinea, in the 70s. Her dad, a German school teacher, was working at the time in the nearby town of Wau. The family moved back to Coburg, Franconia, when she was almost six. The connection between Mama Mafla and Aiva was immediate. A unique opportunity to go back to Papua New Guinea presented itself, but this time she would return as an anthropologist.
In the Benabena culture, the concept of friendship does not exist. One is either a relative or a stranger. When Mama Mafla brought Aiva to her community, she adopted her. That is how a young, blonde, German student became a member of a Benabena tribe of 1200 people, whose name is better kept a secret for the safety of the people involved in this story.
She was also adopted by Mama Mafla’s brother, a respected warrior in the village and a powerful sorcerer. He was one of the few members of the tribe who had had the opportunity to study; he earned a degree in agriculture. Despite his dominant personality, Aiva perceived him as a generous man who wanted the best for his community. He shared his home and food with her and never asked for anything in return.
“I had a very naive view of things then, I have to say.” Aiva played with the ginger in the glass and a spoon. “Totally naive.”
As time went by, her father progressively gained more power and influence in the community, until he became the village’s leader, the strong man, the Sipinabo. During his rule, he promoted discipline among the Bena men. Playing cards and drinking alcohol was strictly forbidden, for example. The Sipinabo had a personal army of men armed with rifles – including a number of AK-47 – who were in charge of enforcing the law. He would say that the neighboring tribe was planning an attack against them and that he saw it as his duty to protect his tribe’s territory. After a while, presumably in part to pay his men, he started to charge the villagers for his “protection.” This built-up tension in the community. The respect and prestige he had gained in the past, which made him the leader of the tribe, turned into fear. People preferred not to be too close to him. That was why the community did not attend Aiva’s birthday party, even if they had wanted to.
“They told me that it was nothing personal. The people knew that I wasn’t aware of the intimidatory measures my father had taken.” She was going to take another sip of her glass but changed her mind. “Once a young guy, a nice boy, asked me for some money. When my father heard about this, he had the boy beat up in front of the community. No one was allowed to ask me for money.”
“Did your father ever ask you for money?” I asked her.
“Never,” she said immediately. “He was always very good to me, I must say.”
A week later, Aiva called him to announce her arrival in Goroka, so he could pick her up from the airport. Except this time he couldn’t come and he urged her not to go back to the village.
“‘They shot both of my parents in the head!’ he yelled on the phone.” Aiva recreated his upset voice. “The village is burning down and everyone is scattered!”
Aiva did not know what to do, so she called her parents-in-law – she had a husband in the village as part of her becoming part of its complex social structure.
“My biggest worry was for Mama Mafla and my little brother. Back then, he was only nine years old. I needed to make sure he was okay.”
Aiva’s parents-in-law told her that her father had escaped with his men after starting a war. The community had taken some of Aiva’s adoptive relatives, all women and children from her father’s side who did not manage to escape in time, as hostages and burned down their houses. Nevertheless, they suggested that she come up to the village to make her position clear in front of the community, otherwise the people might assume that she was supporting the Sipinabo – which would endanger her position in the community and possibly her life.
“In PNG it is actually not as easy to hide as you would think, unless you go deep into the bush. Anyways, I decided to go up to the village.”
The adrenaline was palpable in the air when Aiva arrived. A big group of men in ragged football shirts and armed with AK-47s were waiting for her. They were the Sipinabo’s cousins, but they were at war with him now. Many of the Sipinabo’s close relatives managed to flee the village, even the ones that did not take his side in the conflict, like Mama Mafla. In the confusion and heat of the conflict, they were in danger of being killed as a retaliation. The ones that did not manage to escape into the bush had been taken as hostages by the community. They were beaten up and raped by their kidnappers, their life-long neighbors.
“But what had started the conflict?” I asked, feeling something between confusion and irritation. Now, listening to the recording, I feel a bit embarrassed by my reaction and abrupt interruption.
“Well, at the time I arrived in the village I didn’t know.” She explained to me calmly. “Actually, it still wasn’t clear after months of war and after about one hundred people were killed and more than one thousand displaced. Now, after more than ten years later, we have an idea of what really happened.”
What Aiva did not know back then was that the Sipinabo had his eye on a piece of land where he wanted to have a cattle farm. This land happened to belong to his cousins, ten men, with their sons, whose clan had also gained authority in the community and whose influence was increasing. When Aiva left to Australia, a 13-year-old boy from the cousin’s family, who played with the kids of the Sipinabo’s family just like any boy in the village, was accused of being an informant and was kidnapped.
“After collecting witness stories, this is a reconstruction of what happened. Or of what probably happened.”
On the third day after the mysterious disappearance of the boy, his family decided to go and look for him in the Sipinabo’s house. About fifty people went up the hill the house was on (the same house were Aiva’s birthday party had taken place a week earlier). When the Sipinabo saw from his garden the crowd running up, he tossed grenades at them, but the grenades did not explode, so he ran with his family into the bush.
“Those were some old grenades left from the second world war when the Japanese and the Australians fought in PNG. Luckily, they didn’t work anymore. Thank God!”
The family of the boy describes that when they went into the Sipinabo’s house one of them sank into the ground where the toilet was. They found the boy chopped into pieces.
“They went berserk. They went after the Sipinabo and when they couldn’t get him, they shot his parents in retaliation for the boy’s killing.”
A war had started. Now the Sipinabo had an excuse to kill those who threatened his despotic rule over the village. He could call his attack a retaliation now. Rumors had it that he was regrouping in the bush and was coming back at any moment with his men to take back the hostages and kill his enemies.
“Well, coming back to my arrival in the village after the war broke out…” Aiva said a little bit overwhelmed.
She made clear in front of her father’s cousins and the rest of the village that she did not support what her father had done. She also told them that she wanted to remain a member of the community, but she could not accept the way they were treating the hostages–her family. If they did not let them free, she would leave the village and never come back again. The kidnappers summoned to discuss a possible solution and came back to Aiva to inform her that it was not possible to free them. However, since the kidnappers wanted her to stay in the community, they offered for the hostages to stay in Aiva’s house with her, including her little brother, who was also a hostage. The hostages would not be allowed to leave the house under any circumstances. When the men who were looking out in the bush sent a messenger to inform people that the Sipinabo and his men were getting closer to the village, Aiva took her little brother and headed to Goroka. A couple of days later, the Sipinabo reached the village and burned it down. While this was happening, Aiva was looking for Mama Mafla everywhere in the city. She knew that if she did not find her first, someone from the community, an enemy of the Sipinabo, could kill her. People accused her of giving the Sipinabo, her brother, money, since she was educated and had a political position in the past.
“Suddenly, I received a mysterious call. Your mother is with us. She asked me to call you, they said. We have to fly her out of here now. She is not safe traveling the highway. We found a safe place for her, but is best if she goes alone at first. It’s a very remote place in the bush. But she needs money and some clothes. She has nothing, the guy tells me. So we agree to a meeting to give her some money and some clothes and to say goodbye.”
In Goroka, there is only one luxury hotel. It was made mainly for diplomats and white tourists. Locals never go there. So it was the safest place to have the meeting. Aiva had to walk through the hotel’s restaurant, where the person on the phone was going to be seated reading the newspaper; she would have to go out to the pool area, where there was a door to the parking lot. Mama Mafla would be waiting in a car. After Aiva would walk back out through the restaurant, the man would immediately go back to the car and drive Mama Mafla to the airport.
“I gave her a bag of clothes, 500 kina, and a hug. We cried so much in that damned car,” Aiva laughs a bit embarrassed. “I will get your little brother as soon as I can, she told me.”
Now, Mama Mafla was in the other corner of the country, safe from Sipinabo’s enemies. It was time for Aiva to find a safe place for her and her brother. In the past, Aiva had followed Mama Mafla on her political campaign through the region. Aiva made a documentary film about it. On the tour, one community in the rainforest had been particularly fond of Mama Mafla. The leader of that tribe had heard about the incidents and sent a messenger to bring Aiva and her brother to his village. The community took them in as refugees. They had offered protection to other people from Aiva’s village, too.
“We didn’t know that at the moment. At that point, it wasn’t clear who was on whose side of the conflict. People were very secretive, of course. Everyone was afraid of everyone. So much so that a couple of days after we arrived in this village, I was sitting with my little brother having lunch and suddenly we see a man approaching us. My little brother starts to panic: he is here to kill me! He’s here to kill me! I realize it was my uncle. The Sipinabo’s older brother. I almost had a heart attack. It turned out he was also a refugee in this village. He escaped our village early because, of course, everyone there thought he was on the side of his brother, but he wasn’t. He didn’t agree with what he had done.”
It took me a second to react. I automatically took a sip of my empty coffee mug. Then I said: “When did you decide to leave Papua New Guinea?”
Aiva started a sentence and stopped. She did the same again. Then she said: “My house: burned down. My family: scattered all over the highlands. My father: a warlord. It wasn’t safe for me to be there. My father was making too many enemies, not only within the tribe but in other tribes. At this point I knew that my mother and my little brother were safe, so I decided to leave. ”
Aiva moved to Canberra, where she did her doctoral thesis at the Autralian National University (she dedicated a whole chapter of her thesis to this war). Her little brother stayed with his uncle as refugees until things calmed down. Mama Mafla found a way to get him and they moved together in the remote community that would take her.
“Did you ever see the Sipinabo again?” I asked.
“Yes,” Aiva smiled. “I was allowed to go back in 2012. Six years later, imagine. He called me up and asked me to meet up. In the Benabena culture, I can’t refuse to see my father. But also, he did a lot for me. He was always good to me, as I said. So well, we agreed to meet up secretly in the city. He couldn’t be seen. So I agreed to see him in a second-hand shop in Goroka. A huge shop. An Industriehalle, weiß du? The scene is like from a movie,” she laughs. “I had to pretend to be looking at the clothes and he was going to be in the rack behind the clothes. When I saw his face…” Aiva paused and smiled incredulously. “His face wasn’t his face anymore. It wasn’t the face of the generous man who adopted me. It was the face of someone else. The face of a person worn off by the war and the killing.”
In 2012, the community, including Mama Mafla and Aiva’s little brother, moved back to the village from different parts of the country and rebuilt it. It took them about two years.
“When I flew back, they surprised me. The community had built a new house for me on my mother’s land. A beautiful one! On the mountain. Made of bamboo and a grass roof and it even has a little yard. They put so much work into it. I’m so… honored and happy.”
“Is that how this story ends?” I asked her.
“Not really. There has been a ceasefire but no peace agreement has been made yet. It is tricky to restore peace after so many casualties: a compensation has to be paid for each killed person. Peace is expensive. Besides, the Sipinabo is still in the bush with his men. He could come back any day.”
“Why come back to the village and rebuild it, then, if he could come back and burn it down again?”
“People are tired of the war. The Sipinabo has lost a lot of power; he has no money to pay his men or to buy weapons. He has gotten old very fast in these years. He will never be welcomed back, anyways. He could only come back as an enemy. He’s not gonna come back. He’ll spend the rest of his life in exile.”
“How should I finish this piece?”
“You should write that every year now the community gathers, dressed in mourning clothes, and they have some sort of memorial day where they reenact moments of the war. It is a way of reflecting on what happened, a way of remembering what happened, and especially, it is a way of sharing personal pain with others and healing. It is like a group therapy kind-of-thing.” Aiva smiles. “I swear, they are the best storytellers and the best actors in the world. They reenact, for example, how the women escaped the village through the river with their children on their backs. And they always use humour, even for telling these terrible stories. This friend of mine, I won’t mention her name, likes to tell the story of how she was naked in the river when she heard the cry that announced the coming of the Sipinabo. She is very conservative about being naked. So she makes all these histrionic movements of trying to put on a sheet around her to cover herself, and how it kept falling off while she was trying to carry her son and run in the water. She is hilarious. We laugh a lot back home, all the time. I miss that here sometimes.”