Despatches: Street fighting men create Wild West in Papua

Violence is spreading in Papua New Guinea, as lack of opportunity and access to modern weaponry exacerbate traditional tribal tensions. Our correspondent explains how the rascals are worse than they sound

Every other week, usually on pay day, the town of Mt Hagen in the mountains of Papua New Guinea plays host to a famous fortnightly rock concert. Despite its status as capital of the Western Highlands province, Mt Hagen is not a place rich in cultural amenities: a couple of hotels (the third one burned down in mysterious circumstances earlier this month), an expatriate sports and social club, all of them behind high walls wreathed with razor wire.

The "rock concert", too, is unconventional, as an Australian policeman, on official loan to the Papuan government explains. "We call it the rock concert for a very simple reason," he says. "The clan people from the villages pick up their money for the fortnight. Then they come into town, they form a big crowd, and for a couple of hours they throw rocks at one another."

The Papua New Guinea Highlands, an isolated pocket of tribal people first encountered by the outside world less than 70 years ago, have a history unlike anywhere else in the world, but their atmosphere today is that of a tropical frontier territory. This is a region on the margins of modern civilisation, a country of miners and missionaries, and a magnet for fortune seekers in gold, oil and gas. In the towns, indigenous people mix with a flotsam of assorted foreigners - preachers, lawmen and fortune-hunters. In the countryside, a single asphalt highway stretches from the Solomon Sea almost to the Indonesian border; the rest of the territory is largely connected by loose tracks.

The police are few and under-resourced, and it is madness to walk anywhere after dark. If the Highlands are the Wild West of Papua New Guinea (PNG), then Mt Hagen is their Dodge City. But its problems are no more than an especially acute version of the state of lawlessness that afflicts much of the country. "Undoubtedly," as PNG's newly appointed Police Commissioner, Peter Aigilo, said this week, "crime in the country is out of control."

The most remarkable thing about crime here is not its frequency, but its variety. With the exception of religious conflict, PNG has just about every kind of violence you can list, including a bloody secessionist rebellion in the island of Bougainville. In Mt Hagen alone, there is tribal fighting, sports hooliganism, political violence and straightforward banditry.

Last week began wholesomely enough, with a rugby league match between the Mt Hagen Panthers and a team from the coastal town of Lae. Unfortunately, the opposing supporters do not only differ in their sporting affiliation; they are also members of neighbouring and highly antagonist tribes. In the middle of the match, a young member of the Jika clan made the mistake of cheering too loudly for Lae, and found himself being beaten up by Hagen- supporting representatives of the Moge tribe. After Lae's victory, the fight spread onto the streets of Mt Hagen. By the end of the week, cars, coffee plantations and a dozen houses all over the province had been destroyed.

The tribal rivalries have been complicated this month by elections to the Highlands local government. Like rugby teams, local politicians draw their support from tribal sources. For the villages, having a local man on the council can make the difference between travelling to market on a sealed road or a mud track, and as tribal flash points ballot boxes are as dangerous as rugby pitches. In Mt Hagen tribal fighting forced the voting to be suspended. For the last two days, shots have been fired in the town either in warning by the police or in anger by political opponents.

Complementing the danger of tribal fighting is the problem of "rascals", a pidgin term which can describe any wrong-doer from a pickpocket to a rapist or armed robber. White armoured cars bearing the names of private security companies glide about the streets of Mt Hagen, carrying the payrolls. The last bank hold-up was in August; by the law of averages another one is due soon. Every business in town has a uniformed security guard and steel mesh across its doors and windows.

Tribal fighting and the struggle for wealth and resources have been going on in the Highlands for centuries, but two things have combined to make their effects much worse. One is the rise in population - longer life expectancies and increased access to education have created an underclass of frustrated young men who drift into cities quite incapable of meeting their economic expectations. The second problem is weaponry. When the rules of tribal warfare were formulated, the weapons of choice were spears and bows and arrows. Today, the same people are fighting one another with pistols, shotguns and automatic rifles.

The range of hardware in circulation in PNG is daunting. Many of the firearms are handmade, crude arrangements of pipes, ball bearings and nails which are almost as likely to blow off the fingers of their owner as to blind his adversary. But crimes are also perpetrated with pump-action shot guns, self-loading rifles and even M-16s. A newspaper report last week hinted at the source of some of this weaponry. During an enquiry into an army mutiny in July it emerged that six AK-47 assault rifles and two rocket launchers have mysteriously "walked" from PNG Defence Force Stores.

"The word rascal can mean a petty thief or a pickpocket, but the worst of these people are well-organised professional bank robbers," says Warwick Hatcher, manager of PNG's biggest security firm, Securimax. "A lot of them are ex-forces, weapon-trained. Our armoured cars can stand up to an M-16 round from reasonably close up. But if they get their hands on one of those rocket launchers, then we're in trouble."