Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea and the only international gateway in to the country, is located on a quite spectacular headland that faces out in to Gulf of Papua.
The largest city in the South Pacific with a population of around 350,000, Moresby or POM as it is variously described, has what you might call an image problem – a firmly entrenched reputation as a violent and dangerous place, where the streets are not safe to walk on and venturing out on them is basically taking your life in your hands…
While it is perfectly true that Moresby can be dangerous, my experience is that its not the hell-hole the tabloid media love to paint it and a modicum of common sense will keep you safe and sound!
Aerial Photo of Port Moresby – Courtesy of Rocky Roe & Neil Whiting
So, if you are looking at a trip to Papua New Guinea, the bottom line is that you should not let Port Moresby’s rather “gritty” (as the Lonely Planet calls it…) reputation put you off as the country has a tremendous amount to offer, both above and below the water, and an overnight stay in the capital is not a near-death experience.
In reality there are actually two Port Moresby’s – one that is inhabited by the expats along with the rich locals, where violent crime occurs occasionally, and then there is the one where the locals live where the violence and the crime is systematic and a part of daily life.
The violence emanates principally from the Raskols, or crime gangs, that have become a permanent and very negative feature of Port Moresby, and some other major towns such as Mount Hagen & Lae.
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Raskol gangs first emerged in Port Moresby in the 1970s, largely associated with the growth of urban squatter settlements in Port Moresby that consisted of recent migrants from the rural areas of the country and their children. Unemployment was (and remains) high in the settlements, with most employment in the informal sector, and educational opportunities very limited.
Similar to criminal gangs in western urban centres such as Los Angeles, London, and Paris, criminal gangs emerged as a mechanism through which uneducated and unemployed urban youth in PNG sought a sense of self-worth and security by associating with others who share their deprivation. In a country where betel nut, marijuana, and other psychoactive recreational drugs are widely accessible at an early age, these drugs are an often-cited contributor to the erratic behaviour of raskol gangs. Widespread alcoholism due to Melanesian genetic susceptibility and cultural attitudes towards alcoholism may also be a contributor. Many PNG criminal law enforcement officials accept drunkenness as a legal defence in domestic violence cases.
Over the years, raskol gang activities have evolved from opportunistic incidents of small scale theft or breaking and entering to more organised criminal activity including serving as middlemen in the marijuana trade both within PNG and between PNG and Australia, as well as becoming increasingly politicised as the instrument of various political powers. The growth of squatter settlements in Lae and Port Moresby has led to a corresponding increase in the number and size of raskol gangs.
Crimes such as rape, murder, and carjacking are common in a city that has a 60 percent unemployment rate. The raskol culture of violent crime has recently spread to other populous and impoverished coastal areas of New Guinea, including Lae, Wewak, New Britain (particularly Rabaul), Bougainville Island, and Manus Island. In these areas, the raskol culture has merged with the local history of cannibalism, marijuana cultivation and usage, tribal feuds, canoe warfare, and piracy. Hijacking of boats and even kidnapping or murder of the owners is becoming more common. Even the New Guinean captains of small supply boats that frequent small island villages and run the risk of being beaten, robbed, or murdered for the sake of their meagre cargo of instant noodles, clothing, and disposable batteries.
A violent crime against an expat will usually bring severe retribution from the police, whereas similar crimes against the locals appear to be much more common and not a lot seems to be done about them.
Apparently very few, crimes against expats are planned – instead they tend to be random & opportunistic occurrences where a Raskol seizes the chance that has suddenly presented itself.
For visitors to Port Moresby being involved in such a random event is probably the biggest danger you will actually face, and that is only likely to happen if you are particularly careless, such as walking around unaccompanied with an expensive looking camera or wrist watch, or maybe a visibly bulging wallet.
Local people in PNG tend to sit on the ground and watch the world go by when they have nothing to do, which can be very intimidating to the uninitiated visitor who will already be semi-paranoid about raskols just waiting to pounce…
While it is unlikely that they will be wearing a T Shirt with “Raskol” on the front to identify themselves, the fact is that you will probably know one should you cross paths with one – or more…
So the trick is to use your common sense and get out and see the things Port Moresby has to offer, but use the guided tours offered by all the hotels to do that.
The guides will know the potential trouble spots, who the possible trouble makers are and steer you well clear.
Just in case you are wondering what a Raskol actually does looks like, check Australian photographer Stephen Dupont’s image gallery.
Dupont is quite a guy – he specializes in what he calls fragile cultures & marginalized peoples and in 2004 he managed to get to the “Kips Kaboni” (Red Devils) Raskol community and Papua New Guinea’s oldest gang, to allow him to spend time in their midst and document the individuals in the gang.
Apparently it took him several trips to Port Moresby to build the trust needed, but eventually he was able to set up a makeshift studio in their squatter camp in which to photograph his subjects.
Next Page: What to do in Port Moresby?
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