May 23, 2014 by farbolino
The Limestone peaks of the Central Range jutted from the ground with full forests still clinging to their slopes. We were leaving the densely populated provinces behind and finally reaching the most remote of all, Hela Province.
1:45- People start to exit the bus starting just after Nipa, and just one village is left on my map before Tari although it’s still many hours until we reach it.
2:15- The PMV stops, and I see a strange looking young man with what looks like wood chips glued to his face, something I had yet to see. He’s wearing the same style headband I am , clenching his teeth, and caring an axe. He has a strange look on his face, and I wondered why they aren’t opening the door to the PMV for him. After just a few seconds I realized something was wrong. Just then another man walked beside him who had a glass eye and was holding a machete. I looked around and there was another in front of the bus and one more on the right side too. All the others had long machetes. Fuck, we’re being robbed! My heart started to pound uncontrollably, as I had never been in a situation like this. I was carrying everything I had with me, but most importantly my iPhone which has all the pictures from the trip on it and a large chuck of cash stashed in a money belt with my passport. ATMs are far and few between in PNG and the prices of accommodation can be outrageous. I was at risk of losing everything…
My window, just like many others on the bus were open, and the man with an axe opened it further to talk to everyone on the bus. Everyone had kept calm, which is likely why I didn’t realize anything was amiss until there was an axe in my face. The man with an axe did all the talking, and surprisingly mostly talked in English instead of Tok Pisin. He said in a VERY aggressive and angry tone “Give me 20 kina!” No one on the bus moved, and nothing was handed over. For perspective, 20 kina is worth exactly $7 USD at the moment, and our bus fare from Mt. Hagen to Tari was 60
kina. This wasn’t a lot of money they were asking for in the scheme of things considering we likely had a lot more valuables then 20 kina.
“Give me 20 kina! I wanna buy some smokes!” The people on the bus responded aggressively in Tok Pisin and clearly no one planned on handing over any money. The man with an axe reached through my window and opened the door to the PMV. He then grabbed the man taking the fares from the passengers and tried to pull him off the bus, but was only successful in ripping his hooded camo sweatshirt. He now said “Hurry up and give me the money! I need a cigarette!” At this point the driver and two other people handed over 5 kina each.
I hadn’t made eye contact or moved in fear of them realizing how easily they could take everything from me. My bag was sitting on my lap and practically hanging out the window. Then, the man with an axe spoke to me and said “I’ll fucking cut you!” And raised his axe. The passengers started yelling something at him in Tok Pisin but I couldn’t catch it. “I’ll fucking KILL YOU!!” And this time seemed to really mean it. He re-raised the axe and half swung it down at me but stopped before the axe head entered the window. He reached in the window and grabbed my bag and tried to pull it out the window. He would have easily have done so, but another passenger and I pulled it back. I started to reach into my pocket, and then he yelled “Give me 100 bucks!” I pulled out 10 kina (I only had 16 kina in that pocket), and yelled “I don’t have it!!” And threw the money at him. They ran behind the bus to escape, and now the crew of the bus got out as if to chase them, but within a minute got back in. I started to laugh, which perhaps doesn’t seem like the appropriate response, but I was relieved that no one was hurt.
Someone on the bus actually thanked me for ‘saving’ them which I thought was a little over the top. I hadn’t done anything resembling heroics. Jon the teacher started talking to me and said that some people who live far from the highway have no way to make money and occasionally hold up the road. It was just a matter of fact sort of thing.
I wish I could say that I was fine after we were back on the road and moving again, but I wasn’t. Jon continued to talk about another time that he was held up on this road about a year before. That time it was the ‘real’ raskols that held up the PMV. They didn’t just ask for 20 kina, they took everything. They blocked off the road so the PMV had to stop, and we’re waiting with homemade guns that fired one shot at a time. There wasn’t just four of them either, the real raskols travelled in packs of 12-15. They made everyone exit the PMV and searched everyone to make sure they took everything. When the driver refused to hand something over, they shot him in the chest.
It wasn’t just the story that worried me. Jon continued to say that it usually happened in an area that we were approaching, and usually in the late afternoon or after the sun has set. Well, we were about to cross through this area and it looked quite possible that we wouldn’t arrive to Tari until dark. I asked how often this happened, knowing I wouldn’t get a precise answer. It’s not the sort of thing you can quantify. Jon said ‘sometimes’ which is probably more vague AND more often then I hoped.
3:30pm- I felt myself constantly in a bit of fear every time we approached an uphill bend and there were men walking with machetes by their side. This is quite a common site in rural Papua New Guinea, and suddenly it put me in a very uneasy state of mind.
4:15pm- By now, quite a few people were getting off, which freed up space to pick up new passengers, which in turn also slowed our arrival time to Tari. I felt like we were racing the clock to arrive to Tari before the sunset, and I couldn’t shake this horrible feeling in my gut. It would be dark by 6pm, and we had a lot of ground to cover. All I could do was sit and wait.