Short Distance Displacement

Betty Barnabas, teacher, mother, displaced person. © IOM 2014

By Joe Lowry

Betty Barnabas has been displaced by violent conflict, and can’t go home until the peace process is concluded. She has been living with relatives for five years, patiently waiting her turn to use the kitchen, wash the kids, get ready for work. Day after day, for the last five years.

“I will be so happy to get home,” this 51-year-old primary teacher and mother of four says. “I will be able to rebuild my house and look after my family properly. Right now it’s dangerous – our enemies are watching us - but we hope the peace process will be concluded soon and we’ll go back to our lands and our gardens.”

From her words, Betty could be South Sudanese, Rohingya, Somali, Syrian, Afghan or from any one of a number of other conflict-affected groups and nations. She could be hundreds of miles from home.

But she isn’t.

She last saw her house on the 29th of November 2009. “Our chief rang the alarm bell at 5 am and I woke up to gunshots and shouting. I didn’t have time to grab my mobile or my wallet. We just ran to the beach and ran towards where our cousins lived. My seven-year-old daughter ran naked.”

The village was burned to the ground, and Betty’s neighbours slaughtered in a horrible manner, cut in two and buried headfirst. Reprisals followed, and the area became too unsafe to return to.

Betty and her friends opened a temporary school, and put their lives on hold for five years. The tribal chiefs have recently met, and hostilities have recently come to a close.

Incredibly, Betty now lives just 600 metres from her old home, in a coastal community called Labu Tale, on the north coast of Papua New Guinea. Her sentiments, her painful longing for her own land, her own home and hearth is as deep and poignant as found among refugees and displaced people the world over.

The conflict is between two tribes – one from the mountains and the other from the coast – and it erupted after the mountain-dwellers were found digging on land near the coast. A generations-old agreement had allowed the mountain people to cross the coastal land to access the sea, but not to dig or build.

Papua New Guinea is riven by similar tribal conflicts, which IOM and others are attempting to map to find out how many people may be displaced, like
An IOM team on route to the isolated settlement of Labu Tale, Northern Papua New Guinea, which has been affected by conflict and natural disasters. © IOM 2014

Betty, across this large and underdeveloped country. Most of the conflicts involve only a few hundred people, but they can be extremely violent and last for years.

Hostilities flare up over issues that might appear petty to the outside world, and they add to the day-to-day dangers faced by isolated coastal and mountain communities in this nation of 8 million people. Funded by USAID/OFDA, IOM is running a successful Community-Based Disaster Risk Management in Lae Province, where Labu Tale is located.

In a rare but welcome example of south-south cooperation, the programme is run by Wonesai Sithole from Zimbabwe. His approach has a lot to do with its success.

“You can’t come in here and make sudden judgments,” he says. “You have to watch people and learn from them before you can make any suggestions. You have to really work together and help them find the answers to their own problems. Then you can make progress.”

It works. Wonesai already has a local name: Aso Hapa, or “first-born son of the village”. That’s integration.


Joe Lowry is a senior media and communications officer for IOM