Iuri patrol – night work: Adrian Geyle
(Published in Una Voce, September 1998, page 16 and in Tales of Papua New Guinea as ‘Night Patrol at Green River’)
Adrian Geyle was CPO for two years at Lake Murray, Kiunga, Gaima and Daru, Western District; PO OIC Green River, Sepik District; PO H/Q, Madang District. (1951-1955). Field and liaison work on two 7-month field expeditions to the Upper Sepik. Oil search operations. Gravity meter work. Supervising labour (1956 – 1957). Field work with Australian Petroleum Company, Gulf District. Oil search operations (1958). Recruitment Officer in Dept of Public Service Commissioner, Konedobu; Regional Taxation Officer, Lae. Assisting New Guineans grapple with the introduction of personal and business taxation into their lives, with the approach of independence (1966-1970).
What possessed me to stir the camp, tired and leg-weary as we all were, was a mixture of determination and desperation. Six young men, alleged to have attempted murder, had for a long time eluded arrest. Reports had it that they had attacked a young woman visiting Tomo hamlet. A child had died whilst she was there and she was declared a witch. At a small creek deep in the rainforest nearby, the woman was washing her face and hair when her attackers surprised her and attempted to kill her with arrows, from close range. They succeeded in making a pincushion of her body but she survived the onslaught.
It was our second camp, two days out from Green River Patrol Post and only three hours on from Iuri village where we bought food from friendly people on passing through. There we learned that one of the wanted men had left only an hour before we had arrived – our second indication that the ‘bush telegraph’ was at work. The first? Not far out from the station, on approaching Iuri, we came up against a bizarre arrangement of a stick, a fern frond and a large, orange-coloured berry suspended at head height above the track, hanging on a ‘wait-awhile’ vine with needle-sharp thorns. A more obvious ‘keep out’ message would be met later, my lance-corporal volunteered! I took it that he meant arrows.
The mountain foothills that we skirted – along foot pads the locals used – were not high, but some sections of the tracks were agonisingly steep. We were there for two reasons: one to contact and, hopefully, to arrest one or all of the woman’s assailants, and two to recompense the Iuri people whose houses had been burnt to the ground by police from Green River who had taken it upon themselves to mete out punishment.
A clearing on another mountain had been pointed out to us: that was where the six men were supposed to come from. By crow flight it would have been five or six kilometres away, across a heavily forested valley. We stirred at 10pm for an 11pm start. My entire complement consisted of seven police (six constables and a lance-corporal), six carriers, a medical orderly, my personal servant and an interpreter. All of the police, the interpreter and myself set out. The carriers were wantoks of the Iuris so I had no fears for their safety nor that of the medical orderly and my house boy. The interpreter informed me that we certainly were being shadowed, and that would make our job almost impossible. No matter, I determined, as our ongoing effort was to establish trust and a decent level of dialogue. By their own code, the young men had done nothing wrong; they were seen to be protecting their own against evil forces. Evidently the presence of this ‘witch’ had coincided once before with the death of another person considered too young to die through natural causes. She had a reputation!
It was a bright, moonlit night so we wouldn’t be totally in the dark. We carried no torches. The rainforest cover was to our advantage and the light from the moon was just enough to see where we were heading, if not where we were putting our feet! Trekking through rainforest in daylight can be delightful – I always enjoyed its green coolness, its surprises and its mystery. Trekking at night is a different kettle of fish! Snakes are never far from one’s thoughts – they are not easily seen, even in daylight. In the mottled moonlight under the forest canopy, the thought of them presented us with anxieties of the adrenalin-making kind. Three and a half hours later, at 2.30am, we arrived at a cleared knoll with a house standing starkly before us. It was a strange construction, unusual for the area we were in. Generally, houses were walled on four sides and stood about two metres off the ground, but this one was floorless, rather tall, and open-ended. It was so open we could see right through it, like a drive-through shelter of sorts.
This was the place we had seen from across the mountain valley, from whence we had set out. There was no sign of occupants, which was to be expected at 2.30 in the morning, but with luck we had a surprise for some luckless sleepers in there somewhere, maybe in bunks along the walls. Lance-Corporal Simun and I synchronised our watches. He took three constables with him around the edge of the surrounding forest to advance on the open end opposing myself and the three remaining police and interpreter. Close in we did, with great trepidation on my part, as we knew not what to expect … arrows out of the darkness perhaps? We advanced with rifles, but with strict instructions not to shoot…… My report to the Department of District Services headquarters in Port Moresby reads: “Almost despair, no-one there.” We were all mightily relieved and dropped to the ground, exhausted. I have read of knees knocking but never thought my own knees would! They did that night as we closed in on that open-ended house standing stark in the moonlight.
I wonder now, 44 years on, why on earth I organised this nocturnal fiasco. We had clambered through the semi-dark forest over logs and tree roots only half-expecting our elusive six to be somewhere further on. We left an axe near coals still glowing in the open-ended house to say again that the government was mindful of wrongful burning of houses by the police on that previous patrol. We would have been less disruptive and invasive (and they might have understood us better) had we placed the axe there in daylight. On our way home, recompense was made to all who suffered from the burning of houses at Iuri. The houses would have been easily rebuilt, but possessions were destroyed and a body being prepared for burial was incinerated. An axe and a machete were given for each house destroyed. I was told after I was transferred from Green River that the six young attackers of the ‘witch’ did present themselves to the officer who took over the post. I trust they received sympathy and understanding on their way to laying down their bows and arrows in the cause of progress – which was, for them, an alien notion and for us, at times, a questionable one.