My friend bumbles up in a rickety pick-up truck with a distinctive bullet hole haloed by his crumbled back window. It is my first time to Lae, and he is picking me up from the airport. I am excited, and I throw my bag in the bed of the truck, but he yells that I better put it in the cab with us so no one grabs it as we are driving. I get in, but we don’t go. “We gotta get some things straight before we leave here”, he puts his arm on the window sill and looks me directly in the eye. We have only met briefly before at a conference in Solomon Islands, so I am a bit bewildered.
He cocks his head backward at the bullet hole. “Someone may try to carjack us. They will jump out in front of us on the road with some sort of gun and demand we stop. I need to know what you are comfortable with.” He looked straight ahead, to allow the concept to sink in, to allow me to be alone with my thoughts temporarily. He was insinuating we might be forced to run somebody over. Well, I thought philosophically, is this a moral decision, or is this simply a survival scenario? Does morality exist in a survival scenario? I looked over at him for help. Truthfully, I responded, I am not sure. I guess I am fine with whatever you recommend that will keep us most safe. A very safe answer. “Fine”, he agreed, “then you will duck down, and I will drive directly at them. Welcome to Lae.”
Lae is the second city in Papua New Guinea. Its port is the gateway to the highlands, and because of that people flood in from the jungles for jobs, but it has no roads connecting it to the capital and has dilapidated significantly since the gold mining boom of the 1920s. It never seems to have coalesced as a community to build infrastructure, or an identity. Almost all of the streets in the center of town remain unpaved, there are no buildings over two stories high, and pot holes make the moon look smooth. All businesses, including the post office, have guards marauding outside, there is a cholera ward in the city center, and dust tornadoes through the streets when it is not raining.
Crime is considered to be out of control, but it is hard to compare to other regions as there are not very accurate figures kept anywhere. The day to day reality is that violent crimes like carjackings and worse can happen in the middle of town in the middle of the day. In fact, our first meeting of the day was with a man who had had someone drive into his car on the way to work, then run up smash him in the head, and rob him. Grinning he bent over so we could inspect his blooded matted hair. He’d take care of it after the meeting; he was glad we came.
The flip side of this bloody coin, is that the vast majority of crimes are unreported and are settled in the streets. Police, the military and professional guards all have a reputation for taking matters of justice beyond the written laws, and have a history of fighting each other. There is a noticeable prevalence of men in wheelchairs navigating themselves around town, and they all seem to have a 15 foot pole extended from the back of their chairs, crowned by a small triangle shaped red flag. Apparently, when criminals are caught, it is common that they are shot in the knees, which explain the wheelchairs, but it is the towering 25 foot tall mining trucks crushing around through town, which explain the need for flags. It is communal justice, which is lacking a community.
A couple of months earlier a gang descended into town and were committing violent crimes at will. The military finally launched an offensive and chased them out of town. They took refuge in a jungle stronghold. The military hunted them down, and in a bloody battle killed many of them and injured others. Being in the middle of the jungle, they called in a helicopter to remove the dead and captives. All were loaded into a huge cargo net, strung from the bottom of the helicopter. They then flew the captives back into Lae, and hovered over the center of town while citizens gathered to watch. They then dumped their cargo, and allowed the people of Lae to exact the mob justice they saw fit.
Sometimes the military itself is the mob. In Lae, the week before I came. The military general at the local base had been at the Melanesian hotel with a women. Upon leaving, the general started beating the women quite severely, and the guards at the hotel came over to compel him to stop. He attacked one of the guards, and then the guards teamed up and beat him fairly severely. With his pride broken and his face bashed in, he went back to the base and mobilized the troops on the guards at the Melanesian. Seeing vehicles loaded with soldiers and high powered weapons, the hotel guards retreated to their base seven kilometers outside of town where a battle ensued.
Behind this is also a wide spread tribal custom of reprisal killings that is still very prominent today. If a member from one tribe kills a member from another tribe, then the tribe who lost one of their own will seek out a family member, or maybe just a fellow tribe member of the murderer, and kill them. In October the front page of the New Courier (the local newspaper) was a member of a tribe that had had his son killed by another member of a tribe. The accused was arrested, but was only given five years as punishment, so the grieving father killed the brother of the imprisoned man. In the article, he clearly explained what had happened, as he saw it as justification for what he did. Communal justice is still the way in which disputes are settled in a place that has yet to define community for itself.