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One-woman initiative helps end tribal conflict in New Guinea

Melbourne, Australia, 20 June (ENI)

Not all wars and conflicts make the pages of newspapers, nor are all peace agreements the result of the high diplomacy of the United Nations, and that certainly includes those now being signed in the jungles of Papua New Guinea.

After decades of ethnic and tribal violence in the southern highlands of New Guinea, thirty-two tribes have begun to sign a series of historic interim peace treaties, ahead of a big treaty-signing day on 16 September, the day the country achieved independence from Australia in 1975.

By the beginning of June 2008, twelve of the thirty-two tribes had signed peace agreements.

The peace pacts come after eight years of work by an Australian woman, Joy Balazo, who instigated peace-making initiatives by young people within the various communities. For years, tribal conflict has wracked the region, and the result has been death, revenge killings and extensive property damage.

Balazo told Ecumenical News International that something as straightforward as accidentally walking on a garden bed could set off a series of conflicts between the tribes.

"The cycle of violence was such that no one has lived in peace for years. It has taken the young people of the area, along with church support in peace training, to begin to break this chain of violence," she said.

One local tribesman used the phrase, "Once an enemy, enemies forever", to describe the situation. The constant warfare prevented aid and humanitarian assistance entering the region. Westerners were warned off, and the area became out of bounds even for government officials.

As a result, the already poor area suffered one of the lowest standards of living in the world.

Still, in 2003, Balazo, from the Uniting Church in Australia, quietly entered the region and began training local teams of young peacemakers. Gradually, they made inroads in their own communities.

At Christmas 2007, tribal leaders came together and agreed to a peace process that saw them lay down their arms and promise to sign a series of peace pacts between each other.

Those peace agreements are being signed now in preparation for the special day in September, when the tribes will sign a permanent treaty.

Ecumenical News International (ENI)

Kim Cain is the Communications Manager of the Uniting Church Synod of Victoria and Tasmania and editor of Crosslight