By Jonathan Kopf
I followed my newly-married friend Feyo up a steep moss covered bank in the Central range of PNG, sweat dripping from my chin to my drenched shirt. I was so weary from the 10 hour hike from the Hewa village I had moved to, that I could barely lift my boot for my next foothold on the face of the river gorge. I grabbed a protruding root above my head and pulled myself up, looking above me at the last 50 feet of incline. The blue sky that had previously been hidden by the 100 foot high jungle canopy became visible where the trail broke into the clearing. Billowing thunderheads were gathering at the 10,000 foot mountain peaks, indicative of the turmoil that had brought me back to the Hewa village of ‘Fi’ where I had first started investing into the lives of the Hewa tribal people.
I paused for a minute to let the pounding in my chest decrease, and then chose my next handhold. “I hope I never have to make this hike again,” I said to myself. “When are they going to turn their backs on these brutal practices of their ancestors?” I looked up again, just in time to see Feyo disappear over the top of the bank, into our uncertain future. “Lord give us wisdom on how to help these people.”
The village in front of us was unusually quiet, as if the group was a cat waiting to pounce. Or more likely they had not heard that we were coming and so were going about their regular routines and oblivious to our plan to save a life. Good, I thought as I headed toward my old house that sat close to the grass airplane runway. This will give me a chance to wash and change into dry clothes before the tensions start. The peak of my corrugated roof was barely visible above the crouching jungle that was threatening to swallow up the grounds around what I used to call my home. I looked down the ridge where there was a cluster of tribal huts close to the building we had donated to the community to be used as a medical clinic and school house. I still saw no one except a few children playing, so I headed toward my front door where Feyo was sitting on a rock, patiently waiting for me to arrive.
“Amena, Amena!” I heard. I turned to see my twenty-something-year-old Hewa friend running toward me. I dropped my backpack just in time for Eyaka to crush me in one of his bear hugs. “Brother,” he said. “It’s so good to see you!”
“I’m so glad to see you!” I answered. “I heard you had left the village to attend school in town.”
My friend, who had previously taught me most of the Hewa language laughed, revealing a row of beautiful white teeth. “Yes, I was accepted into the third grade, but classes won’t start until January.
I unlocked my door and invited Eyaka and Feyo into the house. “I came to help Tiko escape,” I said. “She was supposed to arrive here this morning. Have you seen her?”
Eyaka continued smiling, and I remembered why I like him so much. “Don’t worry,” he said. “She and her husband and baby are safe and are hiding at Aku’s house up the hill. Her relatives are very glad you are helping her to escape and they have surrounded her and will protect her until the airplane arrives tomorrow. Fortunately the men that want to kill her aren’t here in the village right now.”
I breathed a sigh of relief and thought through the last year to the times when Susan and I had worked so hard to find a way to save her life. A year earlier a man from an enemy tribe had stolen a log raft in a nearby river valley and had quickly been killed in the rapids. His relatives blamed his drowning on the Hewa woman Tiko, saying she was possessed by an evil spirit that caused the raft to tip over and dump the man in the water. They had sent repeated threats, demanding her family pay more than 28 pigs and $3000 kina or they would snuff out her life. This was only one of a long string of threats she had received since the time she was first accused of being spirit possessed, so her relatives had pleaded with us to find a place where she could flee to safety.
We had sent the news of Tiko’s situation to other mission stations scattered throughout the jungle, and one group of new believers from a lowlands tribe had offered to adopt her, but only if her husband was willing to move into their tribe also. This was a wonderful offer, but Tiko’s husband Son was scared out of his mind about the idea of leaving his relatives and clan in order to move into the unknown. He had hiked from his village to meet me several times, pleading with me to send his wife and baby boy to a place out of reach of murderous men, but he told me he couldn’t possibly go with her. I had found it hard to reconcile his obvious care for his wife’s safety with the fact that he was willing to send her away to a place where he would never see her again.
That night I had trouble sleeping as the memories of other women and children who had been accused of being possessed by spirits flooded my mind. In March of 2006 the three women Lut, Nomi and Petelin along with two of their babies had been brutally murdered in Tiko’s village. Then in 2007 Tiko’s own pre-teen brother Mason who we had affectionately named ‘Smiley’ had been murdered in his house one night as a mob of crazed men chopped through the siding of the hut and struck him down with axes. Then a year later my wife’s friend Nitti’s life was taken brutally. In a span of five years, 15 of our Hewa friends had been murdered, so many like Tiko had fled into the jungle, trying to survive in hiding. Once I had the Hewa men help me make a list of the women and children who were accused and who were waiting certain death, and we came up with almost 40 names. I wondered if this very night men would smash down the door to the hut Tiko was sleeping in and kill her just before we had a chance to send her to safety. “Lord,” I prayed, “please save her life and also her soul. Please turn this terrible tide so that the men who are now so thirsty for human blood will become preachers of righteousness. Only you can bring something good from the terrible practices of this culture.”
The next day the mission pilot arrived and Tiko along with her baby and husband climbed into the small plane. I scanned the crowd that had gathered, looking for any sign of men carrying weapons. Before I had a chance to say bye to our pilot, one of the men who had helped to murder a man in my front yard in 2006 stepped up to see what was going on. The pilot boarded his plane and fired up the engine. I breathed a sigh of relief as the group pushed back and watched as the airplane taxied to the top of the runway. There was something so calm and peaceful about how the airplane rose and disappeared between brilliant white clouds. The Lord was rescuing Tiko from impending disaster and giving her a fresh beginning in a place far from the danger.
“Lord thank you,” my Hewa friends and I prayed that evening. “We know it was you who protected Tiko and her family, and it was you that arranged a place for them to live. Please change the hearts of the people who are so hungry for blood and replace it with a desire to know you and to experience the salvation you offer through Jesus.”