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Missionaries Link Papua New Guinea

July 25, 1998

VANIMO, Papua New Guinea (AP) _ Along Papua New Guinea’s ravaged northeastern coast, Brother Leo Ahanotu trudges through thick swamp mud to celebrate Mass with survivors. Meanwhile, pilot Don Harvey lands his small plane loaded with emergency supplies on a dirt airstrip hacked from the jungle.

The two men belong to a missionary network that has been crucial to the massive aid effort. But with its citizen’s band radios, unreliable phone lines and light aircraft, that network served the remote region long before the disaster and will be here well after the emergency ends.

For thousands of years, the island’s hundreds of tribes have maintained primitive rituals and customs, screened from the outside world by mountainous terrain and impenetrable jungle.

About 80 percent of Papua New Guinea’s 4 million residents live in remote villages, many sitting atop mountains that plunge thousands of feet into deep river valleys. The next day’s village may be a day’s walk away.

Into this inhospitable terrain come the missionaries and their support staff, like Tom Hans, who told The Associated Press he was inspired by the tales of Christians working in the jungles of Africa and South America.

``The terrain is amazing,″ Hans, a retired U.S. Army helicopter pilot from Worthington, Ind., said Friday.

``Most of the airstrips are 500 feet long with a 10-degree gradient, so you land uphill and take off downhill. They are like ski jumps; you can’t see over the edge and you just go.″

Hans, a Korean war veteran who retired with the rank of major after serving in the military for 20 years, is a pilot in the nearby Indonesian province of Irian Jaya. He works for the Missionary Aviation Fellowship, an international Christian organization that flies in remote regions around the world.

It was Harvey, also an MAF pilot, who first flew over the Sissano Lagoon after four villages were swept away by three tsunami on July 18, killing at least 1,500. About 2,000 people are missing and thousands are homeless.

The organization responded quickly.

``I flew down there and could see the complete destruction. I went and got special dispensation _ because we are not allowed to fly on Sundays _ then we flew all day Sunday. We brought back a lot of broken people,″ said Drew Sumner, the organization’s regional manager.

For three days, the missionaries and their airplanes were central to the relief and rescue effort: organizing food and medical treatment, transporting hundreds of injured people to the hospital.

The government declared a state of emergency on Tuesday, and the police and military soon took control of the relief operation.

The MAF and its missionary pilots have started returning to their normal work: delivering children to school, evacuating the ill from other villages, transporting priests to small villages.

``Sometimes we’re the mailman, the bank man, the maintenance man,″ said Harvey of the pilot’s role in remote villages. ``We cash checks, sometimes help in medical situations, all sorts of things.″

In an open-air service in tropical heat, Ahanotu breaks wafers of bread and gives them to villagers. As the Nigerian-born missionary prepares to return to his home village down the coast, he is asked by a villager whether he will return.

``If they want that, I will come back. I will keep coming back.″ he said.

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