Border confrontation: John Quinn

Like all good stories, this one starts “long, long ago and far, far away”

The great bird island to the North of Australia dozed in the tropic seas for millennia until, in the mid-1840s, the Dutch, expanding their possessions through what was then the Dutch East Indies and relying on dubious and tenuous claims of sovereignty made by the Sultan of Tidore, drew the first straight line on this unknown land along the 141st meridian of Longitude and claimed everything to the West as their own. Why they picked the 141st and not the 140th or the 138th is lost in the mists of history, though it is a curious fact that the boundary separating Victoria, NSW and part of Queensland from SA, also runs along this meridian. Naturally enough, the Dutch never contemplated asking the inhabitants of the land what they may have thought of this annexation; such a suggestion would have been met with smiles of incredulity.

The 141st meridian remained simply a line on a map, largely ignored until the late 1880s when, at the series of Berlin Conferences of that decade, the great European Powers, with breath-taking arrogance, decided to “tidy-up” the entire world  by delineating amongst themselves colonies and spheres of influence. If you have ever wondered why so many modern states—especially in Africa—have such neat and ruler straight frontiers, the root cause lies in that era of untrammelled European Imperial Power. Unmindful of physical features like rivers and mountains, careless of ancient tribal and linguistic boundaries, ignorant of what actually lay in the interior of vast territories, the entire Globe was parcelled out by diplomats and pencil wielders. The Dutch were confirmed in their claim, though a “squiggle” had to be inserted in the South to take into account the bends in the recently discovered Fly River. Another neat line was drawn in heading east from the 141st through lands and people yet to be discovered and everything to the North became the property of the German Kaiser and to the South into the possession of the British Queen/Empress. As usual, the new owners would have regarded it as the height of absurdity to ask the inhabitants their opinion of this “done deal”; after all, those were the days, as Rudyard Kipling so succinctly put it, of the “white man’s burden” in looking after the childish “lesser breeds” of the Earth.

Though these measures had some slight effect on the coastal peoples, in the interior life went on in an unending cycle of fighting, raiding, gardening, fishing and ceremony. The facts that the British handed over the Southern part of their claim to the new Australian Commonwealth in the early 1900s, that Australia invaded and captured the German North in 1914, that a solemn League of Nations Mandate was granted, followed by an equally solemn UN Agreement for Trusteeship, and then further solemn and weighty Agreements for Administrative Union into the Territory of Papua New Guinea went completely unnoticed. After the Second World War, the Border area along the 14st meridian dozed under the amicable and unstructured control of Australia and Holland: Europeans from Hollandia and Vanimo visited and socialized, coastal locals from as far East as Aitape voyaged and traded in their ocean-going canoes along the W.N.G. coast, Australia looked after a large chunk of the South in the Merauke area whilst Dutch ‘Kiaps’ administered enclaves in the Australian Northern border areas.

This somnolent situation continued until the early 1960s, when the Australian Government suddenly woke up to the fact that the forthcoming UN sponsored, so-called “Act of Free Choice” would more than likely wrest control of W.N.G from a friendly European power to a decidedly unfriendly Indonesian dictatorship. As usual in such situations, something of a panic set in and money and resources were unleashed in a flood as teams of surveyors were mobilized to firmly delineate the 141st Meridian on the ground, the Pacific Islands Regiment base at Vanimo was expanded, the airstrip there strengthened and lengthened, and a string of Border Patrol Posts were authorized.

And now, this is where the writer comes into the picture.

Returning from a Sydney course in early 1963, I was posted to the Imonda area, over the coastal mountains inland from Vanimo which, though legally and technically in the Australian Amanab Sub-District , had been administered for many years by the Dutch from one of their Patrol Posts at Kenandega, also known as Waris after the people whose ancestral lands were now split by the Border, leading to the situation where a man on one side was now a Papua New Guinean whilst his brother—perhaps a 100 metres away—was now an Indonesian! The Waris people were very sophisticated from long contact with Hollandia (soon to be Sukarnopura and then Jayapura), wore European clothing or the Asian Sarong for formal occasions, spoke Bahasa Malaya as a Lingua Franca, had a system of elementary Village Schools and professed the Catholic faith. In complete contrast, further to the South lived the Waina and Sowanda peoples, whose land  was also split by the border. These were a tough, bellicose and virile people: the men wearing only a phallocrypt (the Pidgin English ‘Cokis Bokis’ is a wonderful and descriptive phrase for this article of undress) with the women wearing even less. They told, with great gusto, of how they had massacred a Dutch Patrol in by-gone days and then discovered that cane body armour did not repel automatic weapons fire from a resulting punitive expedition, though the Dutch left them severely alone as a result of this clash.

I had the job of taking over and building a brand-new station and airstrip. What qualifications did I have in Town Planning, Road and Bridge construction and so on? Absolutely none. What Degrees or Diplomas in Airstrip Construction did I possess? Nil, again; but, as usual in those more relaxed “Can-Do Kiap” times, it was simply assumed by all concerned that the project would be taken on and concluded successfully. One saving grace, and most unusual in my career, money was seemingly limitless for paying labour, bringing in supplies and so on. Construction proceeded apace with hundreds of locals being recruited and set to work using tools and methods more than familiar to ancient Romans hacking their long, straight roads through British forests 2000 years ago: axes, spades, picks and shovels with wooden T-pieces for getting a level. Supplies at first came in by carrier-line walking the two long days from Amanab Airstrip through primaeval forest, though air-drops out of Vanimo and Wewak were soon required. Some of the first drops were a bit of a disaster with at one time the Catholic Mission (just off the end of the station) being bombarded with tins of meat and having a bundle of crowbars spear through roof and floor and a metre into the ground. Practise makes perfect, though and if anybody reading this needs to successfully drop a bottle of rum or a dozen eggs from a low-flying plane, simply give me a call.

Whilst building projects were going on, Patrols had also be mounted to Border villages and this led to one amusing situation where I had set a small team to work on my house and associated pit-latrine, going off on Patrol, being delayed  and returning days later to find the team 13 metres down and still industriously digging away. Subsequent users of the out-house were prone to comment on the “long drop”.

Now it can be told! Just about the worst part of the job was deciphering coded messages streaming in from Wewak, Port Moresby and even Canberra wanting to know this and that about the Border and what might be happening over the other side and then having to encipher the information provided by my trusty team of informants. I also found it best to ignore the nonchalant guys who would skulk around for a couple of days before disappearing Westward to my counterpart on the Indonesian side, who was probably experiencing the same coding dramas that I was inflicted with. Clandestine and heavily-armed P.I.R. patrols would also materialize from time to time as they mapped Border trails and items of interest to the Army High Command, with Indonesian Army patrols doing the same job on their side.

Life proceeded on until a highly unusual bit of excitement occurred the week after the celebrations for the 1964 New Year Sing-Sing. Whilst I was having a bite of lunch, the distinctive drone of a DC3 was heard approaching and I went out to find an Indonesian Air Force Dakota circling overhead! It then flew along the strip and out tumbled seven bundles, which blossomed parachutes and came swinging down. Despite a large Australian flag being put out on the ground, yet another parachute drop was made. Remember, all this happened at a time (to put it politely) of  “strained relations” between Indonesia and Australia. Some of the labour-line scampered off into the nearby jungle, though every one of my R.P.&N.G.C. contingent—off-duty or not—came running up, hastily fitting their antique long bayonets to their equally ancient .303 rifles. At that moment, I was never more proud of the old-style Constabulary, of their dedication and bravery and of their readiness to face a situation which might be spiralling into something completely out of all our experiences. A quick check of one of the drop-bags under a parachute showed it contained only rice, which was an enormous relief.
But now, the still circling Dakota lowered its landing gear, lined up with the strip (unfinished and completely unsuitable for so large an aircraft) and gave every indication of preparing to land: once again, what could happen or might occur flickered through my mind; luckily, though, a wiser head in the cockpit must have prevailed and the plane rumbled low overhead, with uniformed Indonesians waving down to our little group before the plane droned off to the West.

The strip was cleared, labourers and other worried locals were reassured and a just-landing Australian Cessna—the strip was just open to very light aircraft—was dispatched to Amanab to pick up the ADO. As you might imagine, the air-waves ran hot with messages flashing back and forth over what might be going to happen. It was eventually agreed, at some higher level of the Administration, that a Missionary Aviation Fellowship Cessna out of the W.N.G. capital would be allowed to come in later that day to retrieve the chutes and drop-bags which the Indonesians would like returned. We were told that the pilot would be the only one on board the plane and would have the required Customs and Immigration documentation. Well and Good!! In the afternoon, down comes the plane and out steps the pilot: then the pilot’s son (a boy of 9 or 10), then an Indonesian Air Force Colonel, then his Adjutant, both of the last resplendent in Full-Dress Uniform! Naturally enough, nobody had any form of documentation. The Colonel had wanted to come armed, but had been dissuaded from doing so by the MAF pilot; visions of newspaper and radio headlines of the variety “PNG/Indonesian Border Drama/Incident/Conflict/Stand-Off” (take your pick) flashed through my mind. After yet more radio conversations, the matter was sorted out amicably and the Indonesians, the pilot’s son, the chutes, the drop-bags and the rice (which had been destined for just over the border Waris Patrol Post) were returned to their proper side of the Border over the next few days.

Speaking of aeroplanes, I was once taken to task by some of the men from a far-distant Waina village because after a long and interesting conversation about aircraft and where they originated from (try explaining the concepts of “factories” and “machines” and “production lines” to a people who have no idea of such things) they triumphantly accused me of fibbing  as one of their number had recently visited Imonda and had seen an obviously pregnant aeroplane (a Cessna with a large under-belly pod) on the ground. With a long sigh, I had to agree, passed around a few sticks of tobacco and left further explanation to another day and somebody else.

My fiancée (now long term wife, Judith) flew up from Australia to check up on what PNG life entailed and was the first white woman ever seen in the area. One morning we discovered that word had got around about this long-haired, red-lipped, jeans-wearing stranger and that nearly 200 Waina, Punda and Sowanda women from far-distant villages had made the long trek to inspect her. After the initial murmurs of interest and astonishment, the patting and stroking to make sure she was real and the reassurance of some of the howling kids (and the distribution of more sticks of tobacco), the ladies went off quite content. As we whites had women just like them, we could be elevated to the status of human beings instead of the odd, and perhaps reincarnated spirit entities we may well have been.

My final tasks in this most fascinating of areas was to conduct Electoral Education and the first House of Assembly elections (now that’s another story of the difficulty of perception and concept), before a transfer to the “bright lights” and city sophistication of the District Headquarters at Wewak.


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