FINISHING its night flight from Jakarta, the aeroplane descends alongside the green Cyclops Mountains, which divide Papua’s shoreline from the island's interior. Lake Sentani reflects the warm light of the early morning through the plane’s starboard windows while the pilot keeps the ridge to our left. The airport of Papua’s capital, Jayapura, lies between the lake and the mountains. It was near this place in western New Guinea, what is today Indonesia’s easternmost region, that General Douglas MacArthur made his headquarters in 1944. From a mountaintop near what was then the Dutch colonial town of Hollandia he planned America’s recapture of the Philippines from Japanese occupation—making good on his vow, “I shall return”. This place is littered with the history of 20th-century colonial wars.
The plane arrived nearly empty and the Papuan porters in the arrival hall are finding that custom is scarce. One of them wears a woollen hat with a white star on a red ground. It resembles the outlawed morning-star flag, a symbol for Papua’s fight for independence from Indonesia. Other porters sport dreadlocks and look like Rastafarians. At first sight a foreign visitor could be mistaken into thinking he had arrived somewhere in the Caribbean or in west Africa. In some ways the scene here is typical of Papua: poorly paid jobs like the porters’ are filled by native Papuans while skilled labour and commerce seem to belong exclusively to migrants from elsewhere in Indonesia. Javanese and other peoples from the great islands to the west seem to run the local economy, far beyond Jayapura’s airport. The sense of division is such that nearly all the locals use the term “Indonesians” to mean migrants from elsewhere, as if they did not share a single republic.
A friend meets me for the drive along Lake Sentani into Jayapura proper. Huts stand on wooden poles in the water. A woman moves her dugout canoe slowly along the shore. The car brings me to the house of another contact, an Indonesian who believes that I am on a business trip. As a foreign journalist in Papua—on an unsanctioned visit—it would be only too easy to get into trouble with the police and army. For the locals who co-operate with me, the risks are much greater. Stories of torture and secret killings abound. I try to keep a low profile and do everything I can to protect the identities of those who help me in my assignment.
The western half of the island of New Guinea is the most resource-rich region of the Indonesian archipelago, yet most of its native population lives in abject poverty. West Papua, as the natives of Indonesian Papua prefer to call the whole of their homeland (in Jakarta “West Papua” and “Papua” are different), is home to huge reserves of gold and copper, mined mostly by Freeport-McMoRan, as well as natural gas, which is extracted mainly by BP. These contracts make the case of Papua very different from that of Timor-Leste, which was able to split from Indonesia in 2002 after a long and sometimes brutal occupation. Papua is so heavily endowed with mineral wealth that Indonesia seems unlikely ever to loosen its grip. For decades now, the government has encouraged migrants from Java and other densely populated islands to find a new home in Papua. The consequences of this policy can be seen easily in Jayapura. It has become a predominantly Indonesian port city. The Papuans here have been made a minority in their own land.
I meet my first Papuan contact in an open-air restaurant near the harbour, far from the house where I stay. She turns out to be a shy woman who speaks good English, a student and a member of the radical National Committee of West Papua (KNPB), which has close links with guerrillas in the jungle. She refuses to have a meal in an Indonesian restaurant. We drink juice in a café and make plans to drive to a safe house outside Jayapura.
The safe house turns out to be only a short drive away, in a valley not far from an army garrison. Our car brings us to a house surrounded by shacks with corrugated iron roofs, all inhabited by Papuans. Before I am allowed to alight, several young Papuans scout the area, to see that nobody is watching us. We remove our shoes outside the entrance. A stream of visitors pours into the house after us, and the pile of shoes outside gets bigger and bigger. Reckoning that it could attract unwelcome attention, a young man brings the shoes inside. Curtains are drawn to shield us from curious passers-by. But for the people inside, the room is almost empty. We sit on the floor, eight men and two women. The student translates into English as everyone is introduced. A man across the circle catches my eye immediately; he does not look like a Papuan at all. He has a Portuguese name and hails from Timor-Leste. He explains that he came to Papua almost two years ago to support the KNPB, but he demurs saying whether he is on an official mission or not. “This place is not very safe,” he offers.
He is not the only foreign national in the circle. There is a pastor from the neighbouring state of Papua New Guinea—the island’s eastern half—who identifies himself as a member of the guerrilla movement. He says the KNPB “and the fighters in the forests are working together very closely.” Moses Tabuni, a spokesman for the KNPB, explains that the guerrillas of the Free Papua Movement (OPM)—“the fighters in the forests”—have been fighting the Indonesians since the 1960s. The pastor from Papua New Guinea speaks of joining the two groups to form a Revolutionary Army of West Papua. “We have lost so many people that we want to organise our struggle in a new network.”
Mr Tabuni wears a wristband emblazoned with the morning star. Its image became the official ensign of West Papua during a ten-month period from 1961 to 1962, when the region gained its independence from the Netherlands. That was when the island’s western half changed its name from Dutch New Guinea to West Papua—to distinguish it from Papua New Guinea to the east. After its short-lived independence West Papua was temporarily administered by the UN and then annexed by Indonesia in 1969. (Indonesia has designated its share of New Guinea with several names since then, but it has never allowed the whole region to be called “West Papua”.)
One of the KNPB’s young members says that they are only interested in organising demonstrations against the occupation. As such, all they want is the free exercise of their democratic rights, such as Indonesians elsewhere have been enjoying since 1998. “But the Indonesians call us troublemakers and terrorists. Should we not be allowed to gather and demonstrate in a democracy? It seems that democracy is all right for the Indonesians but not for us Papuans.”
“If the American mining giant Freeport-McMoRan wants to continue to extract our copper and gold, and if BP wants our natural gas, then they have to support our struggle,” says Mr Tabuni. He adds that he happy for me to quote him by name. On the way back to Jayapura the car is packed with men who took part in the secret meeting. They all seem to be concerned about my security. When we reach my destination, the home of a friend, I ask them to drop me. “No, not right in front of a police post,” Mr Tabuni pleads with a smile. They drop me farther down the road and I walk home like a tourist after a sightseeing tour.
FROM Jayapura I book a flight to Wamena. The town lies in the central highlands where the Papuan guerrillas keep their strongholds. The aeroplane passes over a landscape crazed with meandering rivers. Now I understand why there are no roads leading to Wamena. The place is isolated in the extreme. Even eggs have to be flown in. On the outskirt of town, a pick-up truck is waiting. I stop to buy presents for the villagers and rebels I intend to visit. My young companions—most of them are students and members of the National Committee of West Papua—ask for betel nuts and some snacks. They say we will need cigarettes too, for the army checkpoints on the way, and they wouldn’t mind having some for themselves either.
We drive slowly through the scenic Baliem valley. The Dani, the local tribe, were not “discovered” by white men until 1938. Temperatures on the valley floor, with an altitude of approximately 1,600 metres, can get chilly. Our driver has to stop several times to pick up more passengers as well as a plastic tarpaulin, to protect passengers sitting in the bed from the occasional lashing of cold rain. After each stop the car leaves a mark on the road’s surface: a rectangle of red spatter, betel juice spewed out by the passengers.
The farmsteads along the road are surrounded by fences that are capped with thatched roofs to protect their posts. Gardens on the steep hillsides are fenced in the same way. We pass several checkpoints without trouble. At one roadblock, however, I am asked to accompany a soldier to an office. The ambience is relaxed. I show my travel permit and my driver places two cigarette packs on the table. More discreetly, he lays a few banknotes—the equivalent of about ten dollars—on a chair next to the officer in charge. We are then allowed to proceed.
After some hours we leave the road behind and continue on foot. We cross irrigation channels and fields planted with sweet potatoes. Coffee trees grow in the shade of a light forest. Wading in single file through a swamp we reach a fenced village. There is a guard at the gate. Although he has no shoes he tries to click his heels and salutes one of the men in our column, clearly a commander among the guerrillas. Inside the fence about two dozen villagers are standing under a big tree. As we approach them they start crying. For several minutes tears stream down their faces, some of which are marked with clay. My companions explain that this is a way of mourning the many Papuans killed during the struggle for independence. Smearing one’s face with clay is a sign of grief.
Soon after, a squad of about 30 militiamen arrive. They carry wooden spears, bows and arrows, all fashioned without a single bit of metal. Two colonels, both barefoot, also form part of the detachment. One of them wears a long beard and carries a suitcase. He says he came from neighbouring Papua New Guinea where the guerrillas’ supreme commander, Mathias Wenda, has his headquarters. The villagers bring out a pig in my honour. While two men hold the poor animal’s feet, a third shoots an arrow made of bamboo right through the heart. I have never seen a faster and more effective way of slaughtering. While the meat is barbecued, the fighters and villagers sing and dance. Some of the women are dressed in grass skirts, and one of the men wears nothing more than a traditional penis quiver and a woollen cap.
The students prepared a speech that one of the two colonels will read aloud for the rest of us. They want to give me a copy too, but first they need to put the official seal on it. With their first effort, they stamp the paper with the seal of the National Liberation Army of West Papua (TPN). But this rebel outfit, the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement (OPM), has been renamed the Revolutionary Army of West Papua (TRPB). No matter, the rebels quickly find the right rubber stamp and correct the error. The colonel from Papua New Guinea draws another document from his suitcase. It is a neatly done booklet about the rebel movement, including displays of all its insignia.
Villagers and militiamen take turns joining in a rallying cry: Papua merdeka! Because many hundreds of languages are spoken on the island of New Guinea, the rebels here converse in Bahasa Indonesia, the national tongue of their enemies, in which merdeka means freedom or independence. The militia pick up their weapons to perform some military drills. It is not easy to pivot briskly with a three-metre-long spear on one’s shoulder or to present arms with a bow and a loose bundle of arrows. The only modern weapon I see on this day is an air rifle used to shoot birds. The guerrillas also have a few automatic rifles, according to photos they show me.
Once the pork is cooked, I am given the honour of distributing the meat. With the first few drops of a rainfall we retreat into a hut with a floor of matted straw. The men begin to tell stories of their struggle. I have been told that this can last hours, and it does. Just before dawn I find the chance to explain that we need to make our way back to the vehicle. Some of the fighters and villagers accompany us to the road. We say good-bye and one of the commanders asks me to tell the world the story of the Papuans’ struggle.