At the United Nations General Assembly not long ago, Melanesian leaders from the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu accused the U.N. of “turning a deaf ear” to human rights atrocities in the Indonesian province of Papua and urged the world to support the region’s campaign for independence. Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai said the people of West Papua must be allowed the right to self-determination to free themselves of the “yoke of colonialism.”
Since first arriving in West Papua 30 years ago, I have been returning to make short documentaries to expose the situation in Papua and the drastic measures that are being taken by the Indonesian government to hide the truth in this remote corner of the world. For example, all media are prohibited to enter Papua. And the scale of the atrocities are unthinkable. It’s been documented that when the military or police find a freedom fighter in a village, they burn him alive. Then they demand his wife eat him. If she won’t, they kill her children. This is what they call an atrocity.
Last year I spent a month in Vanimo to film West Papuan refugees and learn about their lives.
The refugee camp was a one-mile hike from the main road. No signs were posted. I was told to follow the trail past a stream crossing and it would be 150 meters ahead. When I arrived, the camp was empty except for one West Papuan. I talked to him at length about his life and his new home 10 miles from the border of West Papua in a small town called Vanimo.
The Papua New Guinea government has instituted a policy of protection for the West Papuan refugees who seek safety from the Indonesian military and police. As the man spoke, I could tell he chose his words carefully.
“I’ve lived here for two years now, my wife, child, and I. I’m a West Papuan freedom fighter.”
How many freedom fighters are there in West Papua? I asked.
“We are scattered mostly throughout the highlands. I am not sure of the count, but we have grown in size in the last 10 years.
And what is your main objective, I asked. “It is to reclaim our land which was taken from us many years ago.”
Fifty-five years to be exact. Once a Dutch colony, West Papua’s people, with the help of Holland, were preparing themselves for self-governing independence. But Indonesia had other intentions. In 1969 with the help of the United States and United Nations, West Papua became Indonesia’s 26th province under the fraudulent Act of Free Choice.
How is it living in PNG [Papua New Guinea]? I asked. He thought for a few seconds before replying. “We are living on unstable ground. As refugees we can easily be kicked out for any wrongdoing. Just me talking to you could pose a problem.”
And what would happen if you were sent back to West Papua? “ I would simply be killed” he replied.
Do you feel safe here? I asked. “My life here is in constant turmoil. Being close to the border we are subjected to possible Indonesian military raids. We are also looked down on as refugees by the local people. I feel we have created a burden for the people of PNG. We must constantly be on the lookout. Our safety really depends on our awareness.”
As I traveled through Papua New Guinea, I understood what he was saying. PNG is a country looked at by many as a failed state, a corrupt government with little regard for its people and their ancient culture.
While in Wewak, a small village near the Sepik River, I talked to the proprietor of the guest house where I was staying. “Many local people out of frustration have taken to moonshine a homemade brew of alcohol that is deteriorating our society. And as a result we have lost the ability to reason. Can you imagine a culture that cannot reason?” he asked. I understood his distress. I could see it in the eyes of most PNG people. A look of hopelessness that at times would lead to random acts of violence, arguing, and physically fighting, partly due to years of frustration.
For my own safety, I would need to be inside before nightfall and be careful of my surroundings at all times.
I asked the refugee I had met earlier if we could meet tomorrow. He agreed, but that was the last I saw of him. On returning the following day, the camp was empty. I spoke to an elder, who explained that my presence had brought danger to the camp. I explained my intentions were to help his people, but he insisted that “to show up here unannounced and to be speaking about delicate topics such as independence for West Papua would only endanger the refugees living here.”
I left Papua New Guinea within one month after I arrived. My focus, in talking to refugees had gone sideways. I understood that their lives were no more secure living in PNG and that they remain a people on the run. I hope one day their aspirations of a free West Papua will become a reality and their land will return to its rightful owners, for they have suffered far too long.