At 3:44am on the 26th of February 2018, Papua New Guinea experienced a 7.5 magnitude earthquake, with its epicentre in the Southern Highlands. The initial quake and resultant landslips resulted in 160 deaths and many more injuries. This was followed in the days and weeks that followed by a number of aftershocks which caused many more. The quake caused widespread destruction of property and infrastructure including roads, houses, rupturing of tanks and pollution of fresh water from underground oil and gas leaking into streams from below. The human cost was immeasurable, apart from the loss of housing and shelter and water and food supplies, people were deeply shaken emotionally. Aftershocks left people afraid to sleep in what was left of their homes and communities, already facing poverty, some division and lack of resources, with boiling social fragmentation and tension.
Even now the PNG highlands are very remote. After a plane flight from Port Moresby to Mount Hagen, it took nearly three hours by four-wheel drive on heavily damaged roads tracking through rainforests, mountains and villages to reach the township of Mendi. On arriving there I was given a tour of the town. It is a beautiful place with lush, tropical growth, banana plantations surrounding it and mountain tops hidden in mist. Even so, signs of the earthquake were clear. Some stripes on mountainsides showed where the earth had slipped, houses were sitting squat and bent on the ground where their piers had collapsed and the local hospital still had walls missing. There were signs of human-caused damage as well. I was shown where the police station and courthouse had been razed by arson and where a passenger plane was destroyed, all this in the riots in the town following the earthquake.
Plane burning during the riots earlier in the year – Photo courtesy of the ABC
Mendi was a fitting venue for UnitingWorld to organise joint training courses for pastors from the highlands provinces. Across these, the church is at the forefront of social integration and care. Following the earthquake the churches worked alongside government and not-for-profit agencies to help cater for basic needs and continue to be the prime provider of psycho social support and mediation in the context of conflict.
The earthquake struck in February (while I was working with UnitingWorld supporting our partners in Tonga following Cyclone Gita). For some time access was very limited and first priority was given to basic human and social needs across PNG. It took a number of months with many logistical challenges (including access, funding and people involved) to bring everything together for the workshop in September. This was actually good timing, as any earlier it would have been very difficult for these primary pastoral carers and leaders to get away from the needs of their people.
The workshop was attended by over 25 participants apart from the trainers with the week divided into two segments:
Disaster Recovery and Trauma Counselling – with input from myself and Lua Alu, a counsellor who works throughout PNG in areas of counselling in relation to stress, conflict and sexual violence. I was able to bring a framework to the workshop with input on disaster dynamics, trauma and critical incidents and debriefing.
The second part of the week was on the area of peacebuilding and had input from the team (Tweedy, Hubert and ???) an extraordinarily gifted group of people with extensive first-hand experience in teaching fighting groups to lay down their weapons, find forgiveness and extend peace.
These two elements melded seamlessly, with the first giving an understanding of post-traumatic reactions, symptoms and care, and the second giving a platform on practical ways to move forward in reconciliation.
The workshop was a time of great refreshment for all involved. They provided an opportunity for pastors to come away from situations of ongoing stress in the provision of pastoral care, and share with brothers and sisters in Christ, being equipped and affirmed, ready to return to the difficult ongoing work of supporting their people.
I personally came away very blessed by the kindness, hospitality and warmth of the locals to a stranger from Australia. I learned a great deal as I taught and shared with these dedicated people. As I prepared to leave many urged us to thank the people of UnitingWorld and the church in Australia for this time, and to ask them to remember them, recognising that – even now – they continue to face enormous challenges in caring for communities still fragile from the impact of the earthquake.