Lush and humid, Papua New Guinea's highlands look idyllic. But a brutal massacre of women and children has highlighted a deadly turf war on our doorstep.

WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGES

The images that shot around the world last week were shocking enough. The hacked bodies of women and children, victims of a bitter inter-clan conflict.

Their remains wrapped in cloths, tied to branches and lying beside a sun-soaked country road. There is a brutal logic to some of the deaths.

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The scene was gruesome but what also horrified many Australians was that it happened so close to our shores.

The 16 people murdered hailed from the Hela province of Papua New Guinea. At its closest point, the PNG coast is just four kilometres from Australian islands in the Torres Strait.

Australia used to govern the nation until as recently as 1975 and, with the US, Canberra is setting up a military base in the country.

PNG's Prime Minister James Marape has condemned the slaughter and told the culprits bluntly: "I am coming for you."

The massacre occurred in the country's humid highlands, a region drunk on a heady cocktail of bitter clan rivalries, mining riches, lawlessness and even sorcery. In one grim incident, young boys were beheaded.

Locals stand by the bodies of victims recovered in recent tribal violence in Papua New Guinea. Photo / AP
Locals stand by the bodies of victims recovered in recent tribal violence in Papua New Guinea. Photo / AP

Even in an area where killings are not uncommon, PNG watchers have struggled to comprehend the sheer brutality of these murders.


"I wish I could say violence was a surprise in this part of PNG," Jonathan Pryke, Director of the Pacific Islands Program at think tank the Lowy Institute told news.com.au.

"But targeting women and children is what makes this stand out. It's sadistic."

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One answer to the sustained violence in this part of PNG may be found several valleys away in the shadow of a mountain. Deep beneath the grassy exterior of Mt Kare, rich seams of gold run. Just down the road, the Pogera gold mine is one of the world's largest.

Hela provincial administrator William Bando told news agency AFP last week that the killings might have a connection to local rivalries at Mt Kare.

Location of the Hela region in Papua New Guinea. Photo / Google Maps
Location of the Hela region in Papua New Guinea. Photo / Google Maps

WHY ARE MINES SUCH FLASHPOINTS?

Mines are generally run by major firms but a proportion of the royalties are distributed locally, to the government and landowners.

In a poor country, the effect of that cash can be huge. Indeed, Hela province itself was carved out of another government region so the local Huli people could more directly benefit from the proceeds of a huge liquefied natural gas project in the town of Hides, backed by the US company ExxonMobil.

PNG experts news.com.au has spoken to have said it's too early to tell if the new Mt Kare mine and the massacre are connected. Violent disputes can be for many reasons. The mine's owner Indochine has said that linking the site to the tragic incident is nothing more than "speculation".

A plausible alternative explanation is the slaughter was a tit-for-tat action for other recent killings. But land rights, including over mines, have turned violent in the past. During the 1990s, more than 20,000 people died in PNG's Bougainville province, largely over who would benefit from an enormous mine.

Resources are big business in PNG with the industry making up 21 per cent of the nation's economy.

Luke Fletcher, Executive Director of Jubilee Australia, an organisation that advocates for communities in the Pacific region, told news.com.au the entry of big mining firms into remote regions had fundamentally changed the way of life.

"It impacted the whole fabric of society. There was a lot more cash coming in. Disputes became associated with land and who was the landowner of a particular tenement identified for a mining project.

"The Huli ethnic group has a complex social connection to the land so it's been very difficult for the Government to identify who is a landowner."

That's led to not only skirmishes over property but also the withholding of some royalties as the mining firms don't know who to give the money to.

These disputes have rumbled alongside more longstanding feuds as well as desperation brought on by poverty.

At the same time, promises of modern infrastructure haven't, in some cases, eventuated. And while shiny new hospitals and schools have been built, in a number of cases, funds to pay staff and materials have dried up.

"There is more cash around but in some ways that has been just as much of a problem. Because there's so much cash, there are now so many weapons," said Mr Fletcher.

"This isn't the first violence we've seen, it's just the most egregious."

GOLD RUSH

Michael Main, an anthropologist and PhD candidate at Australian National University, knows Hela well. On visits to the lush mountain valleys he recalls having to persuade locals he was merely a student and not a geologist looking to pinpoint the next rich fissure of gold.

"When a piece of land acquires a much greater value (due to mining) that does exacerbate things; even if it's only perceived in that way. With the hype around mining some think a mountain is literally full of gold."

There had been a "gold rush" in the early 2000s at Mt Kare, he said, where nuggets were found in the soil and dug up by locals. But that was all now gone with the remainder of the riches beneath the surface.

The Porgera gold mine in Papua New Guinea is one of the world's largest. Photo / News Limited
The Porgera gold mine in Papua New Guinea is one of the world's largest. Photo / News Limited

STONE AGE TO ARMS RACE

The population of PNG's Highlands were completely unknown until the 1930s when Australian patrols stumbled across a people who, essentially, were no more progressed than the "Stone Age", said Mr Main.

The modern age has arrived with speed: mobile phones now sit alongside age old beliefs in sorcery. It's a place where rivalries run as deep as superstitions, all unencumbered by the usual trappings of the nation state, like police, who are rarely seen.

But in times past there was a framework around violence.

"Most people would not have been involved in fighting and it would have been bows and arrows facing off,"

"There is no longer the strong tradition of dispute resolutions through dialogue. Guns have changed the power dynamics," he said.

"It's become an arms race. One clan will be well armed, the another clan they have a historical enmity with will get armed too.

"You can even hire guns from a friend."

A Huli man in traditional ceremonial dress at a mobile phone shop in PNG's capital of Port Moresby. Photo / Supplied
A Huli man in traditional ceremonial dress at a mobile phone shop in PNG's capital of Port Moresby. Photo / Supplied

BRUTAL LOGIC TO KILLINGS

Weapons mostly came in from the neighbouring Indonesian province of West Papua. But some come through Australia's Torres Strait. While the few police will sell individual bullets to supplement their meagre wages. The Government's own armoury has been pilfered from.

"The amount of guns vastly outnumbers those held by the entire PNG defence force," Mr Main said.

The recent violence has been eye opening, however. Women, who in Huli society are never armed, have become victims as have children. And traditional tools — like the bush knife — have also been used to butcher victims.

"When I was there, there was the case of young children being beheaded as part of the conflict," he said.

He added there was a brutal logic to killing kids: "It's making sure the next generation doesn't grow up to take revenge."

Mr Main likened the violence to that which has occurred in many parts of the world, from the Balkans to Ireland, where groups jostle for land and prominence.

The Lowy Institute's Mr Pryke agreed: "There's nothing distinct about PNG people; it's just where they sit on the development spectrum".

There was no "silver bullet" he said to end the violence, but the PNG Government needed to make its presence felt.

Some mining firms, he said, had been more successful than others at building local infrastructure and renumerating locals. But they needed to step up.

"The mining industry will tell you they are doing as much as they can and they don't want to fill the gaps left by the Government. But they need to think more deeply about improved development outcomes, because if this violence continues that could be destabilising for business interests in the country."

Mr Main said the mines have brought jobs and cash. But much of that was when they were under construction, with many wage packets drying up when mining began.

"When they were in the construction phase there wasn't much fighting because there was money coming in, development was happening and people were focused on the future.

"Now that vacuum has been filled with all these jealousies and grievances from the past returning."