THIS year as we focus on the National Census, I am reminded of some unsung heroes who have contributed so much to the development of our country and who formed the basis of our census.
They were called the 'kiaps'. Kiap is a word originating in PNG in pidgin, it largely means captain. The Kiaps undertook their service in Papua New Guinea between 1949 and 1974, after the end of the Second World War when Papua New Guinea was then an Australian managed territory known as the Territory of Papua and New Guinea. The best estimate of how many men served in these roles is around 2,000.
The kiaps were noted for going on patrols. Every village in Papua New Guinea was to be visited at least once per year for annual census. So it was that the kiaps and medical staff who saw more or less every person in
Papua New Guinea at least once per year. At those times, the census was rural Papua New Guinea's registry of births marriages and deaths. Time and again the kiaps were made aware of how much the people appreciated the annual census revision. Typically, following the census the kiap would arbitrate a spectrum of disputes, ranging from compensation for pigs damaging gardens to lovers' quarrels and so their duties were not limited. Their duty statement contained the traditional bureaucratic proviso at the end that said that on top of all those other duties they were required to carry out 'any other duties that may be directed to be carried out from time to time'.
Our country, as known to outsiders, is a country of large impenetrable jungles, high mountain ranges and wide and wild rivers. The rough terrain makes it extremely difficult to move between places, resulting in the isolation of tribal groups and more than 700 languages among those tribes. It still remains.
"The kiaps were an extraordinary group of young Australians who performed a remarkable service of our country. "They were some of the Australia's finest", said one former kiap. Their adventurous spirit was matched only by their commitment to the wellbeing of the people of Papua New Guinea. If you do not know or if your parents never told you, then the story of the Australian Kiaps remains largely untold to many Australians and Papua New Guineans today especially those born in post-independence.
The kiaps were usually representative of all arms of government in frontier areas and they often brought the first trickle of European civilization to any unreachable places. The extraordinary efforts of these Australian men and a small number of women make up a valuable chapter in Australia and Papua New Guinea's history but are still untold. I say thank you to those Aussies and their families. These great Australians and of course with the aiding of few energetic Papua New Guineans have achieved amazing results with limited resources and in the most inhospitable conditions.
"The kiaps lived a dangerous existence," another former kiap said. "There was an ever-present threat of attack from hostile tribes and locals, and many kiaps were murdered on patrol. The harsh conditions on the frontier also proved to be very dangerous, with accidents and illness claiming the lives of kiaps. The list of kiaps killed in boating and aircrafts accidents are extensive and many are unrecorded".
They kept our primitive and hostile communities together in the formative years of PNG. They kept our tribes together and kept our villages and districts functioning. In Philip Fitzpatrick's book he describes the kiaps as men with dogged perseverance who helped bring the emerging nation of Papua New Guinea to independence. During their patrols kiaps could have been killed by poison tipped arrows or spears or axed to death. They could have suffered from accidents or sicknesses like malaria or been exposed to snakes, crocodiles, large bush pigs and millions of mosquitoes. Patrols were certainly not glamorous; rather, they were hard, dirty uncomfortable work compared to conditions those Aussies now working under AusAID funded projects.
They went where others feared to tread and did so without unnecessary bloodsheds or disruptions of the lives of the people, frequently to the detriment of their own health and well being. Some died in drowning accidents. Others were murdered while on official police business, such as the East New Britain District Commissioner Jack Emmanuel, who was killed by disaffected landowners on the Gazelle Peninsula when he attempted to intervene in a land ownership dispute.
They made PNG in a state of constant fear and predation, village upon village, to one of free travel, cooperation across language groups and peace between long standing tribal combatants. When one compare their duties at that time to the US and Australian armies no serving in Iraq or Afghanistan today, I believe both are at par.
Without these Australians and few Papua New Guineans in those days, PNG would not have come this far. Indeed all ex-kiaps deserve some kind of recognitions from both Papua New Guinea and Australian governments.