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MAF makes first official flight to Yalum, PNG, as tribes make peace after 22 years

14th January 2022

The reconciled tribes of Nete Lyaim receive MAF after 22 years in traditional attire

For more than two decades, civil unrest prevented MAF from landing safely at Yalum Airstrip in Papua New Guinea and serving the local people, but after years of walking four days to access basic services, the warring parties finally made a truce and welcomed MAF back with open arms…

Twenty-two years ago, Yalum Airstrip in northern Papua New Guinea’s Enga Province was closed when a group of men stormed an aircraft in a bid to attack a passenger they believed to be their enemy.

Fortunately, their attempt failed but mistrust and insecurity continued to plague the community.

Today, MAF conducted its first operational flight from Mount Hagen to Yalum Village in Nete Lyaim – home to around 17,000 people – delivering much needed school resources to children.

The local primary school (200 pupils) and secondary school (150 pupils) will directly benefit from cargo on board this MAF flight.

Yalum resident, Miok Michael (right), receives much needed school resources for his community

Without flight access, from Yalum it takes eight hours of hiking, followed by an hour’s driving to reach the nearest town, Laiagam.

Miok Michael – a local Yalum resident and engineering graduate – was on board the historic 40-minute flight, accompanied by recovering patients from Mount Hagen General Hospital.

Miok says it’s been a long-awaited answer to prayer:

‘It has been 22 years and our prayers are finally answered. We used to walk four days to access basic services. We thank MAF for reaching the unreached in Nete Lyaim region.

‘Great thanks to MAF Ops Director, Satish Moka, the Mount Hagen team and MAF Pilot, Richie Axon, for the great flight today.

‘God bless MAF as they continue to reach the unreached rural communities of PNG. All in all, we thank God for this.’

Miok Michael – local Yalum resident, MAF passenger and peacemaker

‘Pregnant ladies and babies died on the road’

There are no health facilities or medical staff in Yalum, nor does the village have any road access.

Without MAF flights, Yalum Village is extremely isolated

Before MAF resumed its essential service, Miok explains how the community used to struggle to get to hospital.

‘It used to take about three days. We used to sleep overnight and take the bus to access medical care. Sometimes, pregnant ladies and babies died on the road. It’s a sad story to tell, but now MAF is a great blessing to us here.’

Miok played an integral part in community peace talks, which resolved tribal differences.

According to PNG newspaper ‘The National’, the warring tribes finally ended their hostilities on 7 December 2020 in a ‘mass surrender’.

They burned their guns, arrows, bows and even uprooted their marijuana, which had been used in illegal trade for firearms – a source of much tribal fighting and intimidation in the region.

A dedication service followed, attended by 46 tribes from across the region. For the first time, former enemies dressed in traditional attire held hands and danced together to hand drums.

With peace assured, renegotiation with MAF followed. Miok continues:

‘I just talked with the local community leaders. We came together as one and cleaned up the airstrip. It took us about a year before we reconnected with MAF.

‘I would like to thank MAF. It’s a great opportunity and blessing to the people of Nete Lyaim. Thank you Lord for using MAF to meet the needs of our rural communities. We are very happy.’

MAF pilot, Richie Axon (left) has been part of history in the making

‘You are not forgotten’

Before the first operational flight could take place, MAF pilots, Richie Axon and Paul Woodington, ensured that the airstrip was in good condition before undertaking a test flight in August last year.

Fortunately, the airstrip was free from obstacles and in much better condition than they’d expected. Local residents had worked hard to remove obtrusive trees, overgrown grass, and took the time to re-erect the broken fence — a real community effort.

When Paul and Richie completed the test flight, they were greeted by dancing, singing and smiling – the mark of a reconciled community. Richie was thrilled with the warm welcome:

‘It’s a privilege to reopen the airstrip. We appreciate the effort you have put in to improve the airstrip to a level that we can operate again. We are God’s servants to you. I hope our coming here will remind you that you are not forgotten.’

On the day of the first operational flight to Yalum, Richie continues to be in awe:

‘It’s pretty special to be here today on what is the first operational flight of MAF in 22 years. Last year, Paul Woodington and I reopened the airstrip, but we didn’t have any cargo on that flight.

‘It was a training and dedicated flight to open the airstrip, but today – actually bringing in a load and helping this community – albeit in a very small way – it’s special to be involved in that.’ 

Former enemies, now friends - 46 tribes in traditional attire greet MAF

At around 450 metres long, Yalum Airstrip is particularly challenging. With its short length and 2.4% slope, it means that all aircraft loads must be limited, and stringent safety procedures adhered to.

MAF is encouraging residents to work with the Rural Airstrip Association to lengthen their runaway, which will increase flight opportunities in the future.