Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Frog in a pot of water

While I was in our project in the highlands of PNG, I was "evacuated" with staff by a 10 seat prop plane that was chartered to fly in, pick us up, and deliver us back to the capitol. It was actually quite emotional - after a meeting where the management informed the national staff why we were leaving and everyone hugged goodbye, we rolled out of the compound in a convoy of white landrovers to the airstrip followed about ten minutes later by crying staff - I felt like I was in an episode of M*A*S*H. My colleagues were worried about leaving patients and colleagues behind and wondered if they would ever return. Despite the fact that I had only been there three days, I was emotional too and even felt some tears in my eyes when we took off down the old dirt runway.

A little background:
In the area where we work in the highlands, its extremely violent and neglected. The people there still wear traditional clothing often and they conduct elaborate tribal wars. Because of the violence, there's been almost no one working there for years. We run a project focused on sexual violence, domestic violence, and surgery for violent injuries. For the past few weeks, there's been a bunch of drunk men with seriously big machetes (one was like 3 feet long!) breaking into the hospital and shouting death threats at the staff. Since we are a neutral agency, we don't use armed guards so all we can do when they come in is lock ourselves in the compound.

Since the authorities woudn't do anything about security, management decided to "send a signal"by evacuating the staff. The community was so pissed off at the authorities for problems in the past that they sent 20 people to kill the CEO with machetes and spears three months ago. So security is a big issue. But the people in PNG are very emotional - it was hard to communicate what the "signal"was that we were sending...
the community was also incensed that we were leaving so they staged a demonstration outside the hospital threatening to burn the place down. Which we were afraid they might do. So as we were packing up on Tuesday night for our 11am evacuation flight, we heard gunshots from right outside of our "doublewide" trailor (or prefab house as its called in PNG) where we were staying. The radio handsets that we are all required to carry with us everywhere went off and we were told that we had to hunker down.

It's been a while since I heard gunshots... in DC, it wasn't that unusual but in Amsterdam, if I hear that sound, I assume its a car backfiring. I've grown accustomed to peace - even though I work in war zones. On the Ethiopia-Somalia border, I saw men running around with automatic weapons but I don't recall hearing shots.

I was staying with a psychologist and a doctor in the prefab house and we had all been chatting as we packed so we all went into the hallway and sat on the floor while our unarmed guards went out to investigate. Then there was another gunshot from closer to our house. We realized that we had the door to our house still wide open but were too afraid to run past all the windows to close it. So we decided to crawl into the shower and sat there for thirty minutes until we got the all clear. Since the UK doctor was listening to Kelly Clarkson whle she was packing, we had to continue to listen to it while we sat there wondering what was going on. So I got to contemplate the fact that I might be killed by a crazy drunk man while sitting in a shower of a doublewide lstening to Kelly Clarkson. Not exactly how I thought I would check out.

In the end, it it was all fairly uneventful. Supposedly the police were "checking their weapons" or one of the drunk dudes that has been harrassing the hospital was in an altercation with another guy and someone pulled a gun. Everyone seemed to think it was fairly uneventful and we had some laughs about sitting in the shower later on. But now that I think about it, I feel more like the frog in the pot of water that doesn't know how hot its gotten until its boiled. The violence in Papua New Guinea is so pervasive that it's hard to see it. The people are so sweet and friendly and nice but there is a potent brew of an unfamiliar culture based on payback and revenge and home brew that gets angry men drunk faster.

Sometimes I think about the risks that I take in my line of work. In general, I have a higher than normal tolerance for risk, I suppose. But sometimes I think that I have become immune to thinking about danger which is a bit scary. I wasn't really scared when we were crouched on the floor, I stayed calm and we thought of options. I remember being scared in Lebanon when the bombing started and I realized I had no idea what to do if the building I was in was bombed. Preparation has always helped me feel calm - if I know what I'm supposed to do, I can just go on auto pilot. But in PNG, I felt scared in the nightclub in Lae but not in the hospital compound in Tari.


  1. Anonymous6:06 PM

    Wow Sarah, I finally got around to reading this. A thoughtful piece and a good analogy. Glad you got home safely, although now you are off again. I'll cross my fingers that you hear no gunshots in India & see you when you are back in the 'Dam! - Jen

  2. Your stories are amazing. I respect what you do so much, but I worry about your safety. Much love to you out there in the crazy world fighting for good things.