The Amanab border kidnap

It was mid-1990 when my parents, a younger brother and I relocated to our home in Green River from neighbouring Amanab, in the West Sepik’s border with Indonesia.

Green River and Amanab were government stations which were an hour and a half drive apart and each had the luxury of electricity, telephone, cars, cold drinks, movie nights and business was thriving.

The road link was constructed by the Delta Corporation.

This road was supposed to then join Imonda, Bewani and eventually Vanimo-linking the whole Vanimo Green River electorate, running parallel with the imaginary international borderline with Indonesia.

Daily air services from Vanimo were very reliable.

It is sadly not the case today, except a thriving micro economic sector boasting thousands or if not millions of kina banked in people’s homes.

My parents and my five other older siblings spent three decades at Amanab where my dad worked as Bible Teacher and Evangelist.

(back-row right) John Marsh carrying his son Ryan. Andrew sits on his mother’s lap in front of John. The writer (Elias Nanau) sits on the lap of Ryan & Andrew’s grandma, Hazel (front-row left). Les Marsh stands at the back. The others are Elias’ mum and dad and sister and other church workers of the Amanab Bible Teacher Training School
(back-row right) John Marsh carrying his son Ryan. Andrew sits on his mother’s lap in front of John. The writer (Elias Nanau) sits on the lap of Ryan & Andrew’s grandma, Hazel (front-row left). Les Marsh stands at the back. The others are Elias’ mum and dad and sister and other church workers of the Amanab Bible Teacher Training School

He was among the pioneers of the Christian Leaders Training College (CLTC) in Banz, Jiwaka and after graduating he was based in Amanab working with Australian, New Zealand and American missionaries of the Christian Mission in Many Lands (CMML), now the Christian Brethren Church.

I was born, grew up there and was very close to two of my New Zealand friends, Ryan and Andrew Marsh.

We were very best friends doing things together like flying kites, doing bush tracks and running remote controlled but self-engineered motorboat mounted on polystyrene at a manmade fish pond, the size of a lake.

We even do bike riding to a local Yuf River for picnic and sometimes their dad would take us to the local airstrip on Saturdays. He would fly into the sky a remote controlled toy aeroplane he built as we watch in amazement and when petrol runs out, the poor plane glides back to land on the runaway.

Life for us was so carefree and fun.

In fact we were neighbours separated by a beautiful piece of landscape with ever green grass, hibiscus flowers border us and frangipani trees with beautiful orchids growing on them.

Their father John Marsh worked with my father, so as their grandfather, Les Marsh, a Vietnam War veteran.

When my parents and I left Amanab for Green River, the Marsh also left for New Zealand after spending over 10 years there.

A photo taken when my parents and younger brother (far right) farewell the Marsh to New Zealand in June 1990.
A photo taken when my parents and younger brother (far right) farewell the Marsh to New Zealand in June 1990.

Years before then, there was an active Organasi Papua Merdeka (OPM) rebel activity along the border which even involved our local men, assisting their Melanesian brothers or harbouring them to escape the search and brute of the Indonesian military.

Guerrilla warfare was spite among the two groups.

The OPM were a separatist movement that wanted Independence from Indonesia since 1969.

Green River, Amanab and Vanimo also hosted refugee camps for the West Papuans (Irianese then) who advocated for Independence but could not live in Indonesia’s West Irian (now West Papua) in fear of being persecuted.

I remember vividly Talair planes would fly over regularly to drop off food rations- mainly rice, tinned fish, flour, salt and cooking oil for the refugees.

Nearing the end of 1990, my parents and I were already in Green River and it was when one mid-morning of November 19, a Monday, shocking news reached my father.

John Marsh, Ryan and Andrew’s dad who had returned from New Zealand to Amanab to conduct some administrative training with the locals there and to induct his replacement Steve Schaeffer from the United States were both kidnapped by the OPM rebels.

They were among four other people who were taken hostages.

The others were a Karl Gumari, the District Officer in Charge at Amanab. He was from Ramu, Madang Province.

Karl Gumari, the then DOIC at Amanab with other public servants at the Amanab soccer field. The background is the then district office.
Karl Gumari (centre), the then DOIC at Amanab with other public servants at the Amanab soccer field. The background is the then district office.

Three Filipinos who were constructing the road from Green River to Amanab working with the Delta Corporation were also kidnapped.

They were Armando Heraldo, Cirlo Barion and Oscar Tirones.

My eldest sister Lydia was teaching at Amanab Community School and my other sister Hilda was a nurse at the local Amanab Health Centre.

They were living at our place at Amanab and had fair account of what happened that kidnap evening.

Schaeffer lived in the house that my friends Ryan and Andrew used to live in and when their dad returned, he was living with the Schaeffer’s too.

At about 10pm that evening, my sister Lydia and a good friend who was very pregnant heard Steve’s wife called aloud: “Steve, Steve.”

They instinctively concluded something was wrong but not to do with crime or guns.

It’s rare as hen’s teeth then there you fear about hold ups or gun totting criminals coming over to your place.

They ran over, turned the hibiscus lined green grass walk way, and a very tall person with heavy dreadlocks reaching his waist stood there with a gun pointed at them.

He said in accented tok pisin: “Tupela susa, em ino hevi b’long yutupela. Yupela go bek na slip.” (Sisters, its nothing concerning you so better you go back to bed).

They froze, almost choked, but gained consciousness and ran back home, ducked under their beds.

The rebels took John and Steve away and their other elements did the same taking hostage Gumari and the Filipinos, at the other end of the government station.

When my sister Hilda finished from the health centre that evening after giving the 10pm medication to patients she said there were people moving about empty 44 gallon fuel drums at the airstrip.

These were actually the rebels or their assistants blocking off the runway for any possible plane to land.

News of the silent kidnap broke out early Monday morning and responsible authorities in Vanimo were notified.

For public servants from outside working at Amanab, panic fears shivered down their spines and the urgency to vacate the place was just highly eminent.

The empty fuel drums were cleared and then a Talair Twin Otter aeroplane flew in with a group of PNGDF soldiers who did an air drop at the southern end of the airstrip the following day and they secured the remote government station.

Timothy Humour and Jason Gumari, the son of Karl the district officer in charge at Amanab. The left background is the southern end of the Amanab airstrip where the PNGDF soldiers did the airdrop. The further background is where the refugee camp was established.
Timothy Humour and Jason Gumari, the son of Karl the district officer in charge at Amanab. The left background is the southern end of the Amanab airstrip where the PNGDF soldiers did the airdrop. The further background is where the refugee camp was established.

Information were that when the rebels saw the PNGDF air drop, they retreated into the jungles but it was fairly difficult to identify who were rebels among the many refugees already settling at Amanab.

The Talair plane which dropped of our soldiers then landed and evacuated panic, and gasping public servants and their families who just wanted to get out of Amanab immediately.

My sister Lydia said even when the pilot announced the plane had reached its allowable weight, children pushed their way in.

The plane did a short take off to Vanimo.

Steve’s pregnant wife and her little son were evacuated to their mission headquarters in Wewak on an MAF plane.

My sisters and others got on a Delta Corporation dump truck after the plane took off and did nearly two hours drive south to Green River.

It was fear, throbbing hearts and panic in the air but for the locals, what could you do.

That was home and war or not, you live to face it.

Residents were in a state of frantic suspense wondering what was going to happen next, and that is in the next hour or the next 24 hour.

Many had rather superfluous perceptions that the super power United States of America would now wage war against the rebels, as one of their citizens, Schaeffer had been kidnapped.

And damn this would be the start of World War III.

It was the first ever kidnap in the area by foreigners creating such anxiety for the locals and residents.

But in 1983 in neighbouring Green River to the south, locals endured quite a similar reaction, fairly traumatic and agonizing.

Indonesian jet fighters flew in and did revolutions around the Government Station.

Residents and a police officer from Morobe, Tom Supu who is now based in Wutung said there was an explosion from a suspected mini bomb dropped.

The Indonesians were allegedly looking for OPM rebels and they infiltrated the PNG airspace.

Many school children at Green River Community School panicked and dashed for their villages, never returned to school.

This was the same for several panic-stricken public servants who took the Sepik River on a canoe and headed to Wewak.

At Amanab, the presence of PNGDF soldiers however reassured residents and local villagers a sense of security and protections.

A night curfew was effective and enforced by the PNGDF soldiers.

It’s a rural setting and only less than 10 landline office telephones were working including the Christian Mission in Many Lands (CMML) VHF radio network hosted by the Christian Radio Mission Fellowship (CRMF).

The six hostages on the first evening of kidnap were kept at the mountains near Amanab.

They were walked through the jungles at night and kept in caves or makeshift shelters during the day before reaching a border village past the Kamberatoro Catholic Mission and into Irian Jaya (now West Papua).

We may wonder how these rebels knew too well the topography of the jungles around Amanab or specific caves to shelter in.

A research thesis by Eleni Harris to qualify for an honours first degree at the Melbourne University in 2005 says the Amanab kidnapping was very significant in many respects.

“It was the only time the OPM ever kidnapped people in PNG, employed the assistance of sympathetic PNG citizens, and brought hostages over the border, and as a result the singular occasion that the OPM’s demands were directed at PNG authorities, and not Indonesian. It was also the only time they ever took foreigners residing in the area. The main ransom demand appears to have been that the PNG government recognise the legitimacy of their struggle for independence,” Harris stated.

Schaeffer, the kidnaped American missionary said in his Christian Mission’s magazine: “We found out the men and boys who were guarding us were not OPM guerrillas. While the OPM had planned and taken part in the abduction, the Human Rights Border Commission –made up of PNG citizens who were OPM sympathisers –was looking after us.”

Now that settles our curiosity.

The border people from Wutung to Telefomin in West Sepik have established relationships, as Melanesians with their West Papua cousins and they stand side by side in the plight for West Papua Independence.

During the height of the OPM guerrilla warfare against Indonesians for independence between 1984 and 1985, many young and married men from the border areas of Amanab, Green River, Imonda and Bewani enlisted and joined the OPM train in the jungles to fight against the might of the Indonesians.

I remember some men from my village in Green River passed through our home in Amanab and my mum fed them.

They would say: “Mipela wok bembe. Mipela mekim wok bus” (We are doing cult work).

Their commitment to fight for West Papua’s Independence had their wives and children fended for themselves and yearning for the missing village “men on mission” to return was discussed during afternoon mingles between the wives.

The passion to take part eventually diminished.

Many refugees from West Papua settled in the border areas until 1990 when the kidnapping occurred and then the refugees were repatriated back to West Papua and others were sent to East Awin, Western Province.

During the Amanab kidnapping, Sir Rabbie Namaliu was the Prime Minister and he was put in an awkward position as Harris said in the research thesis: “Although a majority of Papua New Guineans fully supported West Papuan nationalism, no government can condone violent actions against innocent civilians – no matter what the cause.”

“He (Namaliu) refused to meet this demand asserting that Papua New Guinea regarded Papua as an ‘integral part’ of Indonesia.”

Harris wrote in the thesis the other demand by the OPM was that two members of the PNG parliament, (the late) Bernard Narokobi, the Minister for Justice, and Father John Momis, the Minister for Provincial Affairs, act as the key negotiators.

“Both Momis and Narokobi were members of the Melanesian Alliance party and were known for their compassionate stances on Papua, if not their support for its independence. The OPM demonstrated through their request for Narokobi and Momis, as potentially sympathetic government officials, that the kidnapping had been directed at extracting a response from the Papua New Guinea Government, that they wanted PNG to pay attention to them and their struggle, and officially declare their stance on the issue of Indonesian rule in Papua. The abduction was well planned and executed, no one was hurt but, unfortunately for the OPM, both of these men were overseas at the time and it is not clear who the negotiators ultimately were. Had they been the negotiators it is likely the

event would have carried more weight and consequence for the PNG government.”

The six hostages were looked after fairly well at the border for 13 days and released on December 1, 1990- a significant date when West Papua declared autonomy from Netherlands on December 1, 1969.

PNG Intelligence officials and the PNGDF officials already knew the hostages were to be released that day.

The soldiers stationed at Amanab went to the CMML mission store and collected towels and soap for the two missionaries.

It was reported the PNGDF soldiers received the hostages at Kamberatoro Catholic Mission west of Amanab, and drove in an open back utility to Amanab.

It was a dirt road and the car got bogged in the mud.

A PNGDF helicopter then flew in and rescued the hostages to Amanab.

They were dressed in military fatigue.

It was uplifting and massive relief for the residents in Amanab after so much anxiety.

The kidnapped missionaries went to their home, checked anything they may have left on that kidnap evening and boarded again for Vanimo.

John Marsh only returned to Amanab in 1998 with his wife and two children.

1.Andrew, Elias Nanau, Ryan during the visit by the Marsh to Amanab again in Feb, 1998.
Andrew, Elias Nanau, Ryan during the visit by the Marsh to Amanab again in Feb, 1998.

The Amanab kidnap resonated the eminence of protecting our unmanned border so that anyone cannot walk in easily as a thief and leave without trace together with our valuables.

Our border is open and if locals compromise security, this can threaten the sovereignty of our country.

Former army commander (Retired) Brigadier Tedd Diro said early this year in the funeral service of Moses Poi, a border liaison officer based in Vanimo that border issues were countless and it must be dealt with high degree of sensitivity and statesmanship.

He said it was everyone’s responsibility to “guard our borders”, not just the army, police or correctional services.

2 comments

  1. I read this article with interest as I was one of the 6 hostages (Steve Schaeffer). After my release, my wife and I (and son) went back to the USA where my second son was born. We returned to PNG in June 1991, and, after some traveling around, we settled in Anguganak. We took one short trip (one week) back to Amanab. In Sep 1992, my wife was gravely ill, so we returned for good to the USA.

    I knew your father Nanau well. He was a very capable Bible teacher. Semba Natung was the business manger and Wangui was the store keeper. I lost touch with John Marsh 20 years ago. The only missionary I’m still in touch with is Reggie (James) Howard.

    Again, thanks for writing this article.

    Steve Schaeffer

    1. Hey Steve thank you for commenting. I met Reggie last Sunday in Church. I remember you liked playing basketball in Amanab. I am in contact with Ryan Marsh (John’s son) through Facebook. Regards Elias Nanau

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