Under cover of darkness, 43 West Papuan asylum-seekers clambered aboard a dugout canoe at midnight. The cue to flee Indonesian persecution in the province of West Papua in January 2006 was urgent.
They had been subjected to brutal repression at the hands of the Indonesian regime.
Reports of government-sanctioned murders, political assassinations, imprisonment and torture were common.
Yesterday, many refugees marked the anniversary of their life-changing escape with a canoe and kayak re-enactment on Melbourne’s Yarra River.
Mostly strangers in 2006, the tight-knit “family’’ — some of whom have married within their community, had children, separated and achieved university degrees since their odyssey — has nurtured an undying desire for self-determination.
Seven of the group tell The Australian in Melbourne of their journeys and the perilous four-day crossing that nearly cost them their lives and provoked a diplomatic crisis between Jakarta and Canberra. Lost in stormy seas, they exhausted food and water supplies, despairing as they prayed for deliverance.
On January 17, to their resounding relief, they spotted land but worried that they had inadvertently strayed back to Indonesian territory.
“We would have been killed,’’ says Adolf Moro, 32, father of a six-year-old son born in Australia, owner of a small business and an engineering and business student at RMIT.
As it transpired, they were drifting off Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula, oblivious to the fact that their arrival presaged a rift with Indonesia over concern that Australia was tacitly supporting Papuan independence.
Jakarta warned that bilateral co-operation to stop people-smuggling operations and counter-terrorism were under appraisal. Amid accusations of appeasement, then prime minister John Howard agreed to change immigration procedures to ensure future boat arrivals would be processed offshore.
While trying to guess their location, the 43 noticed telltale crocodile warnings and signs depicting Australia’s unofficial emblems: emus and kangaroos.
It was a moment of sublime joy. ‘‘We were in Australia! We were so excited,’’ says Marike Tebay, 28, from Papua’s central highlands. Huddled beneath a tree on the beach, Tebay was so ravenous she ate the ants crawling beside her. The eerie calm was short-lived: media soon hovered in helicopters, the navy and Australian Federal Police arrived. ‘They pointed a gun at us. I was petrified,’’ she says.
For three months they were on Christmas Island as Australian Immigration officials deemed their claims genuine, granting them temporary protection visas.
Now most — two returned to West Papua — call Australia home but would prefer to live in their homeland, if it gains independence.
A low-level separatist insurgency has been waged in the former Dutch colony since Indonesia took control of the province in 1963.
West Papuan deaths resulting from Indonesian military and police violence are disputed, says Indonesian Human Rights Watch researcher Andreas Harsono, but estimates vary at between 100,00 and 500,00.
Carrying Australian citizenship and permanent protection visas, the Papuans are scattered across the country, with a large nucleus in Melbourne. Some have never returned to West Papua; others have sporadically, and those who do complain of being followed and intimidated.
Yet it’s still home. “I’m living in exile. We’re still struggling for West Papua’s freedom,” says Moro.
Echoing an overarching sentiment of the group, he aims to impart the skills learned in Australia and democratise the remote far-eastern island.
JOURNALISTDeborah Cassrels has been a journalist for over 35 years. Based in Bali since 2009, she writes on terrorism, refugees, the Bali Nine drug smugglers among other issues for The Australian. She has written for The... Read more