Forcibly displaced in West Papua
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Forcibly displaced in West Papua

Juan Patricio Gavilán

Since the 1960s, the indigenous people of West Papua have endured a repressive colonial occupation by Indonesia, heavily militarised and extractivist, it has been called “Indonesia’s Palestine” and a “slow motion genocide”. Foreign journalists have been banned from the region and UN bodies, human rights and humanitarian organisations have also been expelled.

In West Papua, human rights – including fundamental freedoms such as freedom of expression – are denied. Local journalists understand the severity of risks in criticising the authorities or talking about self-determination. The result is a veil of silence over a massive long-term humanitarian crisis that is still unfolding.

Rahel Taplo’s story is not uncommon. She lived with her family in a village called Kiwi in the central highlands. “The village was attacked from helicopters” she says. “Four helicopters were dropping mortars onto the houses and we could hear shots, so we all just ran, we ran up into the forest.”

When the villages of Kiwi and Kiwirok – in Pegunungan Bintang Regency, near the PNG border – were attacked by helicopters and mortar fire from the Indonesian Army and Special Forces, many houses and building were destroyed or damaged and the inhabitants fled into the surrounding jungle for safety. Alut Bakon is one of the jungle areas where Internally Displaced People have taken refuge. There is no education and no health service and there is no access for humanitarian organisations or support. Photo: © Juan Patricio Gavilán.

The attacks by Indonesian forces destroyed and damaged housing and public buildings in the village. Rahel Taplo and everyone else from the village ran into remote areas of the surrounding jungles where they have been hiding to avoid detection since the attack in September 2021.

Other eyewitnesses from the village added that two drones were seen during the attack, one dropped mortars, and the other they presumed was for surveillance. Unexploded 81mm mortar rounds were later recovered from across the village as well as flashbangs and M16 bullet casings used during the attack. Indonesian Special Forces now occupy positions within sight of Kiwi village and have set up a sniper post which scans the village area with visible green laser sights day and night. Three people from Kiwi have been shot dead by the snipers while trying to recover food or animals from their farms.

Men sit around a fire in a jungle camp hut where IDPs hide from Indonesian forces. People living here fled from Kiwi, Pegunungan Bintang regency, West Papua. Photo: © Juan Patricio Gavilán.

In the jungle refuge where Taplo lives, there are over 200 other people who fled from Kiwi, but this is just one of seven similar refuges in the area. The villagers remain too afraid to return to their village houses and farms, the constant intimidation means they can’t think of returning, so they have no choice but to forage for food in the jungle, growing some taro root near streams and hunting for wild pigs. They live in makeshift huts made from palms.

Rahel speaks of how they miss their homes, the health clinic and the school. “Men and women and children all suffer” she says, “but without access to health services women in childbirth and infants suffer a lot.” Despite there being significant need, there is no access for humanitarian support to be provided. Taplo says simply, “We’re on our own.”

Kiwi, Pegunungan Bintang regency, West Papua. Children who are former residents of the village and eyewitnesses of an attack on the village stand in front of the pastor’s house that was hit by mortar fire and now stands unoccupied. Photo: © Juan Patricio Gavilán.

Exclusion and repression

The true scale of displacement from violence is difficult to determine as statistics from the government of Indonesia are not available and organisations that normally create such data, such as UNHCR, are refused access. The Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights recently put the number of IDPs between 60,000 and 100,000.

When indigenous Papuans are forced off their land in military operations, it makes way for extractive industries – mining, palm plantations and logging by Indonesian and international companies – and also for Indonesian settlers mainly from Java and Sulawesi. Though the Indonesian government statistics are secret, in excess of a million Indonesians are thought to have been brought into the region under the state-sponsored transmigrasi programme, and uncontrolled spontaneous immigration continues to substantially reduce the proportion of indigenous population West Papua. Some experts are calling this systematic reduction of indigenous Papuans a “slow motion genocide”. The impact on demographics also has a destructive impact on language and culture in the region.

Racism against West Papuans goes from common insults such as “monyet”, meaning monkey, to more active forms of discrimination. Immigrants own most of the stores and businesses across West Papua, very few Papuans do, and Papuans are hugely outnumbered by immigrants as employees. Papuans are refused loans by banks for starting businesses, limiting their business opportunities, and many Papuans feel they don’t get equal treatment from government officials. In short, Papuans feel they are second-class citizens in their own land.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have condemned the violent attacks on protestors in West Papua. There are many documented instances of excessive use of force by Indonesian security forces against peaceful protesters, including instances of fatal shootings, beatings, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions. Even raising the Morning Star Flag, a symbol of West Papuan cultural identity, is an offence of treason, punishable by lengthy prison sentences.

The United Nations have expressed concerns about access for human rights monitors to West Papua, as they have faced challenges and restrictions in their efforts to investigate human rights abuses and provide assistance to the local population. The UN has repeatedly called for the Indonesian government to allow for independent and impartial monitoring and investigate allegations of human rights violations in the region.

Building a unified movement for opposition to Indonesian occupation, a movement for self-determination from Indonesian rule, in a region with 276 languages as well as extremely difficult access to many communities, has special challenges. Any progress in discussing autonomy or independence is also hampered by a lack of understanding between factions with different histories and approaches, leaving many young people to feel that the only way forward is with the West Papua Liberation Army (TPN-PB), a poorly armed barefoot separatist movement. The situation in West Papua remains tense and as exclusion and repression continue, a sense of desperation builds.

The case of Rahel Taplo in Kiwi is mirrored across the regencies of Nduga, Puncak, Intan Jaya, Maybrat, Pegunungan Bintang, and Yahukimo. Tens of thousands of Papuans are abandoned in remote camps for displaced people without basic services or adequate housing, without access to healthcare, education, or employment.

As exiled West Papuan independence leader Benny Wenda has often said, “West Papua is a colony and it’s time for us to be free. Our people are suffering every day. The world must listen to our cry for help.”

Human Rights Monitor has recently published an investigation into the bombing of indigenous villages around Kiwirok. More info here.

Photo: © Juan Patricio Gavilán.

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