Refugees on their own land: the West Papuans in limbo in Papua New Guinea

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Up to 7,000 West Papuans live in refugee villages, separated from their homeland by the wide, despoiled Fly River

Supported by Judith Nielson InstituteAbout this content
Jo Chandler in Kiunga, @jo_m_chandler, Sat 30 Nov 2019 21.00 GMT Last modified on Sun 1 Dec 2019 01.37 GMT

While news of the violence against West Papuans makes news, West Papuan refugees face less dramatic grinding hardships of displacement and sickness.

While news of the violence against West Papuans makes news, West Papuan refugees face less dramatic grinding hardships of displacement and sickness. Photograph: Jo Chandler/The Guardian
It’s 35 years since Agapitus Kiku decided he didn’t want a future without freedom.

As a young man he’d been pressed into a work gang, bristling under the watch of Indonesian soldiers whose authority over his tribal country, in the south-east corner of the vast contested province then called Irian Jaya, he refused to recognise.

He saw no prospects for finding the work he wanted in forestry or mining. Those jobs went to soldiers, he says, or to the Javanese settlers pouring in through the transmigration program which the Dutch administration had begun and the Indonesians continued.

In February 1984, an uprising by Melanesian nationalists in the provincial capital of Jayapura ignited months of brutal retaliations. Kiku, his wife, and their two small children started walking toward the Papua New Guinea border. So did most of their village and some 11,000 other Papuans, trekking on foot or navigating the coast in outrigger canoes – a seismic exodus of political protest that continued over nearly 18 months, triggering deployments of UN aid workers and international journalists, and upsetting regional sensitivities. Indonesia was not to be messed with.

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Kiku’s family walked for a week, hiding at night from the soldiers. One child, aged two, died along the way. They crossed the Fly River where its wandering course bulges through the colonial cartographer’s best effort to carve up the island of New Guinea with a neat vertical rule. Here, in the middle of nowhere, the refugees declared they would not go home until they had “merdeka” – a word heavy with the promise of liberation, independence, freedom.

And still they wait, separated from their homeland by the wide, brown, infamously despoiled river that has served as the drain for the toxic sludge of the Ok Tedi mine for as long as they’ve been here. The more formidable and baffling barriers are the ones they can’t see, but which continue to mire the cause of West Papuan independence 50 years after the malodorous “Act of Free Choice” delivered the province to Indonesia.

‘They have their own agenda – freedom’

At last count, in 2014, the number of people living in refugee villages along the Fly was 5,500. A PNG immigration official who has lately been on the ground, part of a government team collecting registrations for long-awaited citizenship, suspects the population may be closer to 7,000. These are the hard-core stayers from within the 1984 movement, most of them from the Muyu tribe whose customary land straddles both sides of the border, plus their children and grandchildren.

They dug in when others drifted back, and refused relocation to the United Nations refugee agency’s settlement situated – diplomatically, and invisibly – well inland from the border.

“When I was with UNHCR we tried our best to pull them out of the villages to go to East Awin [settlement],” recalls Robin Moken, himself a Muyu man and former official in the provincial capital of Kiunga. “They said ‘no, we are fighting for our rights, and we stay here’. They remain there, they have their own agenda – freedom.”

For this they’ve paid a high price, forfeiting powerful inducements like recognition, schools and health care.

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