Sunday Morning of November 2015, Jonathan Kopf 2016

Jelemaiya called the Hewa people of the Pasife village together for a Sunday morning service, but as the women and children gathered at the little leaf roofed dirt floored building and began singing, Efoko stayed in his hut. The Bible stories never interested him and he would rather lie in the cool of his dark hut then sit on the split plank benches. He was uneasy anyway, still trying to assimilate the most recent murder, where the jungle smothered mountains dropped down from his village into the steep canyons of the Lagaip River valley. What prompted Au** to kill Lefa? His mind went back over the last few months.

It had started when Au**’s family killed the woman, Mifila, back in April, but so what? Everyone knew she was possessed by evil spirits that caused others to get sick and die. She even admitted it, and actually confessed to eating the soul of the boy Wili. She knew her number was up. Efoko rolled over on the woven bamboo floor to face the decaying bark wall. The singing that had drifted up from the little church made from jungle poles and vines was finished, and he could now hear Jelemaiya’s voice as he started his story. Efoko wasn’t listening as his mind wouldn’t rest.

A few minutes later Efoko sat up and turned to face the fire pit. He picked up the split palm tongs and stirred the embers left over after cooking the morning sweet potatoes. When a single flame shot up, he reached into his woven string bag to find his tobacco. His mind kept returning to the events that followed the woman’s murder. By August Mifila’s nephew, Wana**, let her death aggravate him until it boiled over and he ran up to Laskol’s pig house where he shot the girl, Yamene. But then that too was no big deal as the men had already decided she also was possessed by evil spirits. Wana** had tried to sleep with her, but when she refused, it festered until he decided she was the right person to kill in retaliation for his aunt’s death.

Efoko placed a shriveled tobacco leaf on the coals, and then turned it over, moving quickly so as not to singe his fingers or scorch the leaf. That’s when he noticed movement outside the hut, way up beyond the split log fence that kept the pigs from descending from the jungle into the gardens. He froze, staring through the open doorway, hoping to identify who was arriving on the trail. There were at least two men, maybe more. Immediately fear deepened the creases on his forehead and he held his breath. There they were again, their heads bobbing up and down as they walked quickly along the trail that skirted the far side of the fence. Then one man jumped up over the stile, holding his gun up to avoid hitting it on the fence. Then a second man followed, and then another. Now there were four armed men nearly trotting toward the huts, with the dreaded black face paint that could indicate they were intent on evil. Efoko’s heart stopped when he recognized the leader. It was Wana**.

Efoko rose, immediately aware his legs had lost their strength. He spun to grab his home-made shotgun from where it was leaning in the corner and then quickly rummaged in his string bag until his fingers felt a shell. He had paid dearly for each of them, and maybe today was the day to use one. His eyes followed the four men as they quickly arrived to the dirt clearing at the edge of the sweet potato vines. Efoko stepped out into the sun and tried to sound casual. “Hey, come on over here to light your cigarettes at my fire.”

Wana**’s bare feet pounded the dirt as he came to a stop and glared at Efoko. The others immediately fanned out to stand in a half circle, their chests heaving with the exertion of the hard hike. Efoko’s eyes shot from face to face and he recognized them through their face paint; Aim**, a Paiela man they called Af*, and the medical worker’s teenage son named Mai**. They were bare chested and were wearing traditional loin cloths rather than shorts which signaled their intention to travel swiftly over the mountain trails.

“Come in, come in,” Efoko said, motioning with his hand. But then he quickly dropped his arm, hoping they hadn’t noticed the tremor of fear.

Wana** looked around, his eyes darting to the other huts scattered on the mountain side, and then down to the church building where the sound of the closing song drifted up to their ears.

Efoko hoped someone would notice Wana**’s arrival so the women would have a chance to run. “You must be tired,” he said, trying to divert Wana**’s attention, “and I want to hear the story of how Lefa died, so please, come in and sit with me while you rest. I’m sure there are a few sweet potatoes left over from breakfast.”

Efoko was surprised, when Wana** darted around him and ducked through the low doorway into the shaded hut. Efoko motioned for the rest to follow, but their bare feet were planted so he spun to follow Wana**, first glancing down to the church to see if anyone had noticed the men.

The people in the church had not heard the brief exchange between Efoko and Wana**, but Losa and her husband, Manti, sitting in a nearby hut heard the commotion and fear pounded in their hearts. Manti had been sick with pneumonia and had not left the side of the fire pit for more than a week, and Losa had stayed home with her husband but was listening to the sermon from where she sat leaning against the outer wall. Manti ignored his urge to lay motionless and stood quickly, fighting sudden dizziness. He quickly motioned to Losa to keep quiet and she turned her face to the bark wall, dreading the reason for Wana**’s arrival. He had sent messages saying he was coming to kill her and the others who were related to the men who killed Mifila, and now she realized those threats were real.

Manti forced himself through the doorway and hobbled toward Efoko’s hut. He knew he had no strength to resist, but was hoping to create a diversion.

Losa knew she was helpless, but the thought struck her that she should call out to God. “Father, she breathed, “We are in trouble and I need you to show me which path to take.”

Manti arrived at Efoko’s door and leaned against the frame, fighting the wheezing in his lungs. When he confirmed Wana** was inside and the three other warriors were distracted he continued to stand in the doorway, but turned to motion for his wife to flee. He hoped his body would block Wana**’s line of sight.

Wana** stood inside the hut fidgeting, so Efoko motioned for him to squat by the fire. “It will take just a minute to role you a smoke.” Efoko dropped to the floor and opened the mouth of his string bag to locate dried tobacco. “Here, take this,” he said, holding a leaf for the young man.

Losa was still mouthing her prayer when she saw her husband’s signal. She jumped up and slipped through the door, continuing to ask God for protection. She silently ran for cover of the jungle at the far side of the garden.

Wana** grabbed the tobacco but his eyes were darting to every corner of the room while they were adjusting to the darkness, as if he was searching for someone. He dropped the leaf on the coals and then jumped up and darted out through the doorway, his gun still in his hand.

Efoko followed but was having trouble keeping up. Wana** was making a beeline for the church, not noticing that Losa scrambled over the fence and ran into the cover of the underbrush. The other warriors followed close on Wana**’s heels.

That’s when Efoko noticed that Oyafa had come out of the church early and was sitting in the dirt clearing, with his back to the approaching men.

Suddenly Wana** slowed and crouched as he moved forward, raising his gun to level it at Oyafa’s back. But then he stopped when he heard a scream. One of the girls in the church had opened her eyes during the closing prayer, and saw the warriors approaching and yelled for Oyafa to run.

It was only a matter of seconds before everyone was up and shoving their way out the church door while some dived over the low wall that formed open windows. Wana** fanned his gun this way and that, searching for Losa or Kalafu or Nede, or any other relatives of the men who had killed his aunt. “Stop!” he yelled, regretting he had not shot Oyafa when he had the chance, but his voice was not heard over the screams of panic and the pandemonium of people pushing their way out of the building.

In the next village of Yifki, the church service was finished and the men gathered at Matiyu’s house to talk with Kalafu about the way he was treating his wives. “You can’t keep yelling at them like you were last night,” the men were saying. It is wrong in God’s eyes and it is causing your children to be angry and scared.”

Kalafu didn’t like the topic so he changed it to something more profitable. “Why haven’t you finished paying your bride price?” he growled, glaring at his new son-in-law, Weseli. “How long am I going to have to wait for you to buy her?”

Weseli turned to look the other way, but Kalafu wasn’t to be ignored. “If you don’t pay for her, it’s like you are committing fornication because she doesn’t belong to you yet!”

The conversation turned this way and that until it was suddenly interrupted when Losa arrived, out of breath. She dropped to a heap in the middle of the group, not realizing what a relief it was to have her arrival distract from the growing tensions.

“What’s wrong?” asked Waina, moving over toward his relative.

“They’re going to kill someone!” She was barely able to get it out as she was gasping for air, and tears were streaming down her face.

The group instantly closed in around her. “Who’s going to kill someone? What are you talking about?”

It was only a half hour later as they were trying to figure out what they should do about the situation in Pasife when the group heard yelling from a distance. Waina and Fato and the others froze, knowing it could only mean bad news.

Before the runner arrived, he kept shouting out the news he was bringing. “They killed Apiyan! They killed Apiyan!” he kept calling as he got nearer. It was the customary way to get a group to gather when bad news was carried from one village to another.

Back at Pasife, women and children were huddled over Apiyan’s bloody body where it had instantly dropped after being shot in the back. The women were screaming and crying, no longer concerned for their own safety as their voices joined in an anguished wail. Some women had already fled and a few children were cringing in the darkest corners of their huts.

After Wana** had shot Apiyan and bolted for cover in the jungle, the men of the village were instantly running this way and that. Old man Luk ran to Yaukwaf’s hut where he had left his gun, but when his jittery fingers shoved a cartridge into place and slammed the barrel back, it misfired, blowing a hole in the ground at his feet. Jelemaiya was standing at the door of the church yelling toward the jungle, “Why? Why? Why did you have to kill Apiyan?” Only Efoko and the boy named Felon had managed to load their guns and were in hot pursuit of Wana**, but not before Wana** turned and fired off one more shot toward the village to discourage anyone who might want to follow.

At Yifki the men were in frenzied conversation. “What should we do?” asked Fato.

“Kill him!” said the young man, Samato, pacing back and forth with fists clenched. “I’m going to kill him!”

Faimpat ran to his house and returned with his gun. Everyone knew the police were too far away to help. The solution had always been for the brothers, cousins and uncles to band together to form a raiding party to kill someone in retaliation.

“What are we waiting for,” Feyo yelled into the air. “Are we going to let him get away?”

“Now hold on a minute,” yelled greying Fato, moving toward the quick tempered young husband. “We have to think about this first.”

“Someone has to vindicate his death!” Feyo kept pumping his fist and staring up to the sky with veins bulging on his neck. “This can’t be allowed!”

“But we don’t actually know what happened,” cautioned his brother, Faimpat. “First we have to go to Pasife to learn exactly what happened.”

“What else do we need to know?”

Samato jumped toward Faimpat and wrenched the gun from his hands, then spun to run on the trail toward Pasife, but Faimpat and Yanis chased after him and jerked him to a stop.

“Now hold on a minute,” yelled Matiyu from where he was sitting on the raised platform that served as the porch of his hut. “Apiyan was your little brother, so you have a right to be outraged, and he was my Nephew, so I’m angry too. But we are not going to do what we have always done in the past.” Matiyu stood and started down the notched log stairway of the elevated house he shared with Waina. Something about the level of command in his voice caught everyone’s attention, and they all turned together to face him. He had never been a strong leader, but his tone stopped them in their tracks.

“We have always killed in retaliation every time someone killed one of our relatives, but haven’t we been reading in the Bible that those ancestral customs are wrong?” He arrived down to the dirt yard and walked to where Samato was still glaring at Faimpat and Yanis for stopping him. “Haven’t we been learning that Jesus showed a different way? Haven’t we read in Romans that vengeance is God’s choice, not ours?”

Fato stared at Matiyu with dropped chin. This was a strange turn of events as Matiyu had not shown high regard for Bible teaching.

“If we run to kill Wana**, aren’t we just as bad as him?”

“He’s right,” said Faimpat slowly loosening his grip on Samato’s arm. “Wana** is going to face God’s strict judgment for what he did. Do we want Him mad at us also?”

At Pasife, Efoko’s anger drove him after Wana**, but as he raced along the well-worn path on the jungle floor with the teen, Felon, at his heals, he dreaded the idea of catching up to him. Even more, he realized Wana** could easily drop behind a log or stump along the trail and ambush them. He knew he was being reckless, especially since he and Felon were outnumbered two to one. This could only turn out badly.

But then, when he burst from the dense undergrowth into a clearing where men often stopped for a break, there were Wana** and the others sitting on a log, puffing contentedly on their home-made cigarettes, looking as if they were resting from a pleasant afternoon stroll.

Efoko’s anger surged as he saw how casual they felt about murder and he raised his gun and fired. His hasty shot from that distance was wasted as the buckshot flew harmlessly over Wana**’s shoulder, causing leaves to drop lazily from the trees at the far edge of the clearing.

Efoko was incensed and thrust his hand into his string bag in search of another shell, but was stopped by Wana**’s icy tone. “You really thought you were going to kill me, huh? You thought the score would be evened if you could drop me like a wild pig? He jumped up and leveled his gun at Efoko’s chest, marching closer as he let out a string of profanities. He arrived and jammed his gun into Efoko’s chest and then shoved hard, sending Efoko sprawling. With that, Wana** spun around yelling back over his shoulder as he and the others took off. “You better be thankful I didn’t splatter your chest all over this clearing. I’m feeling a little benevolent this time, but next time you don’t stand a chance.” Then he spun around to glare at Efoko one last time. “Actually,” he continued speaking as he turned to walk down the trail, “I’m not going to forget this little incident, but will sue you for the audacity of trying to stop justice. You thought you could mess with me when I was simply evening the age-old requirement of payback killing, but now you owe me bigtime for trying to kill me. Did you hear that?” he yelled as his voice grew faint in the distance. “Get your money and pigs ready because I’m going to sue you for daring to shoot at me,” And with that his voice was muffed out by the fluttering of a billion leaves in the breeze.

Efoko lay crumpled on the ground, and violent tremors seized his entire body. He lay for a long time, allowing the spasms of fear to subside before attempting to get up and turn for home.

Apiyan was not the final person murdered in the nearby mountains last year. Before the end of 2015, the Hewa man named File was shot in the village of Akutzfi, and there have been other killings in the Paiela territory. As terrible as these tragedies have been, we are encouraged to see a few very positive developments. One is the believers have refused to take part in payback killings despite the pressure placed on them by extended family members, and the other is that Hewa families from the villages of Pasife and Asop have fled to our village and have been very open to hear more about the Lord. The believers here have taken it on themselves to try to teach and encourage each of the new arrivals, helping them find courage and strength by surrendering to the Lord. Please pray God will bring a stop to these horrific killings, and that the Hewa and Paiela will drop to their knees in front of their Creator, and also pray the Lord will raise up many more young people with a passion to spread His word over these mountains.