52.The people of Wewak and their treatment of the Telefomins

Paul Quinlivan’s Snapshots

The Telefomin Massacres were totally unbelievable, both when they occurred and when the perfection of the planning was discovered. They were the greatest massacre in TPNG history as well as being the most dramatic. In other words they were, in their own clear way, Australia’s equivalent of the Twin Towers in New York City and the fact that the Telefomins who were arrested were housed in the Police Transit Quarters at the bottom of Wewak Hill was, again in its own way, our equivalent of Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay. There were, however, a few differences! For instance, we did not have two guards for each prisoner, nor did we have shackles or handcuffs. And there was the fact that, when the Preliminary Hearings were begun, the announced number of Telefomins was given as 83. But the search parties which had been scouring the mountains for the killers were still searching and the total quickly became 200 and kept rising!
Even when I first arrived the total number of Telefomins had already exceeded the number of Australians in Wewak and its environs. And the two communities were in constant contact with each other. I don’t mean that individual Telefomins pushed their way through groups of Wewak citizens or that individual Wewak citizens shared hospital accommodation with Telefomin patients. What I am saying is that the two groups, as groups, were constantly in close contact. And there was never an untoward incident! This sounds unbelievable so let me explain! The Crown Law Officer, Wally Watkins, started the Preliminary Hearings – that is, the hearings of evidence, in Open Court, so that the magistrate can decide whether the charge of wilful murder has been sufficiently proved against each prisoner as to require him to commit him for trial before the Supreme Court – on the Monday following my arrival. Why he did this has never been explained but, as I discovered later, it was by direction from Canberra.

Since the evidence was dramatic and the courtroom was a pleasant place, open to every breeze that blew – it had been the operating theatre of an Australian army hospital and three of its four walls were flywire – the Wewak public came in and listened. More to the point, the ten or so Telefomins in the dock, and the two or three Telefomins who were to be witnesses that day, were walked up, by two unarmed policemen, from the Transit Police Quarters at the bottom of Wewak hill, where they lived, through the European houses and the town itself. And when the sittings for the day closed they went back down the hill and a batch of between twenty and fifty other Telefomins – all arrested for murder – were walked up, through the town, to the courthouse so that we could conduct interviews to discover witnesses for the next day. And at night a third group came up and we interviewed them and, after a few hours, we sent them back, with their two police escorts, down the hill again. Why we had to do this is one of the great unanswered questions but the point is that, since it is not every day that an ordinary citizen can wander in and listen to a police investigation, people dropped in on these proceedings, also. It is mind-boggling, but it happened.

And there was more. In No. 42 I said that Bishop Arkfeld of the Wewak Catholic Mission and Matron Lynn McAlister of the Wewak Hospital both told me that they were worried at the health danger of holding Telefomin prisoners in a coastal gaol and pilots of other air companies helped to ease the Telefomins’ plight by flying in local food. When Canberra sent a doctor from outside the Territory Administration to deal exclusively with the Telefomins the people of Wewak were jubilant but their happiness was quickly turned to horror when the doctor started climbing into the rafters of his house and cringing there for hours screaming about the giant spiders! Luckily, Doctor John Gunther arrived in answer to their call, diagnosed the doctor, S.C. Ryall, as a case of advanced DTs and forthwith removed him. The tolerance and humanity of the people of Wewak – especially in view of the fact that it was a time of great tragedy – is something of which we should all be proud.


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