Papua New Guinea, Witu group, Garove Island: Armed Boarding and Attack - March 2012
THE GAROVE ISLAND ATTACK
We met a number of expats who recommended this small cauldera island North of New Britain in the Witu Group. In March 2012 we anchored at the eastern anchorage, a couple of hundred feet from shore in a small, well protected enclosed nook near a small village.
We were a bit on our guard the first evening, as usual in unknown places in PNG. A couple of things happened that were a little odd - we had several visitors after dark, which was unusual anywhere in Melanesia. Two men brought a huge bouquet of flowers. Gini was on deck reading at about 2100 when she heard a small "thunk" against the hull and saw small splashes near the boat, as if someone on shore were throwing rocks or fruit at the boat. She killed the lights and watched the shore, but did not see anyone. Also, a small local trader boat came roaring in in the evening and tied up across the small anchorage. It was the only other boat there.
The next day we met the trade boat captain and some friendly local people, went in to one of their houses, and invited some local kids out to see the boat. The kids offered to guide us up to a Japanese gun on the ridge the next day and one of the girls said she had sent the flowers. After all this we felt pretty secure, and went to bed with the hatches and companionway open. It was a quiet, calm, partly cloudy night. We had two small solar lights illuminating the deck.
At about 2200 we were boarded by armed men. They came out in a canoe and climbed aboard very quietly. David woke up to two men holding him down with a machete at his throat and things started to happen very fast. He struggled with them, and a third man with a machete grabbed Gini by both wrists and dragged her above decks. As Gini passed David in the dark, she could hear the two other men choking him and beating him and there was a smell of strong body odor and blood in the air. All three of the men were extremely agitated and shouting "we will kill you".
Above decks, the third man told Gini to be silent and he took her over to where a fourth man was waiting in a canoe. Gini tried to calm him down by talking to him quietly and continuously, telling him it was OK, we hadn’t seen their faces, please just take the money and leave, please don’t hurt my husband, etc. She told him she could show him where the money was, below decks, and he hesitated for a moment. Gini took this opportunity to shove him overboard over the lifelines and start screaming. He tried to climb up twice but was unable to hold on with Gini shoving at him. After this he and the man in the canoe took off, apparently spooked by all the noise.
Meanwhile, David was held down, punched, choked, and hit with both the sharp and dull sides of a machete. He fought back and got to his feet, and was wrestling a machete away from his attackers. At this point Gini jumped down and tried to disable one of David’s assailants, they realized they had lost the upper hand, as well as their friends, and fled the boat.
It was a violent fight and we were afraid of a second attack or retaliation from the attackers’ relatives, so we immediately raised anchor and powered away from the island with no running lights. We don’t know if the attackers came from a local village or from the trading boat tied up near us.
In the morning, Gini sewed up machete cuts in David’s neck and arm at sea with 22 stitches. When we reached land we filed a police report. The officer asked about three questions, scrawled the answers on a blank sheet of paper, and filed it away in a thick, mildewed "incidents" book. No further action was taken.
We try not to let this unusual incident affect our future attitude too much. We don’t want to become paranoid and distrustful, but we do have a new set of rules now.
- We became complacent even after we met several people who had experienced trouble in this region. We assumed that violent crime was a problem only in PNG’s big cities. We forgot that we were conspicuously rich (relatively) visitors in a poor neighborhood.
- Before, we slept with open doors in poor neighborhoods. Now, we dog the hatches at night and raise the companionway stairs across the entrance. This way, the boat is still ventilated, but no one can sneak in or break in without giving us time to respond. In the past we made the assumption that, since the boat makes so many little sounds under foot, that we would wake up if someone came on board. We were wrong.
- We have purchased an alarm and motion-sensor light for future sketchy places such as Africa. We wish we had a dog - the ultimate alarm system!
- We have emergency plans. We set the rigging lights and spotlight so that they can be turned on from inside the boat. We have the means to make noise and a show of force readily accessible in different parts of the boat: air horn, radio, flare gun, machete, spear gun, hornet spray, hammer, winch handles etc.
- We make tracks on the chart plotter when we enter anchorages now, for a variety of reasons. In Garove we had to motor out through the inner anchorage, outer anchorage, and reef pass on a moonless night. We did it by eye, compass heading, and luck, since we were almost out before our chart plotter got a fix on our position.
- There was no point in making a distress call, since there was no one nearby that could be relied upon to help. Screaming for help was only useful because it made the boarders nervous; it did not draw any kind of assistance.
- Should we have resisted? Our answer is Yes. We feel that a sexual assault would have been a definite probability for Gini. Aside from psychological trauma, it is estimated that 10% of the population of PNG is infected with HIV and we were not within reach of antiviral treatment. Finally, our attackers told us they were going to kill us. The next day, while cleaning up, we found that a short length of rope had been tied to one of our stern anchors by our attackers. We’ll leave its intended purpose to the reader’s imagination.
- As before, we strive to make friends and keep an ear to the ground about local goings-on when we arrive in a new place.
Dave and Gini