Sunday, November 14, 2010

Hitch-hiking in West Papua

A journey towards understanding some of the everyday effects of Indonesian occupation.

For some time the idea of visiting West Papua had been stuck in our heads. Partly for adventure: this island is the third largest rainforest remaining in the world, but the primary motivation was to understand a little bit more about the conflict here, currently the longest running and most bitter in the territory claimed by Indonesia. Since the early 1960s the Papuans have been fighting back against the military might of the Indonesian state. Their cultural survival is ranged against high economic stakes including natural resources- timber, gas and especially the world's largest copper mine - and also vast expanse of their land which Indonesia uses to relieve the pressure on the more crowded islands of Java and Sulawesi.

There was a time when solidarity with West Papua was quite popular in radical ecological circles in the west - images of indigenous warriors fighting the might of a militarised state with their bows and arrows captivated the imagination of a lot of us at the time. I was inspired by this too, but I was also wary, because real solidarity cannot be built on romantic images alone; the reality of conflict situations is always complex and it doesn't do to ignore the inconvenient bits. In the end we felt it would be a good idea, as by now we could communicate in Indonesian, to take a look at what's going on there.

Papuan activists often describe Indonesia's occupation as genocide. And when they do it is clear that this word does not only refer to the countless massacres that have taken place since Indonesia consolidated its control of Papua between 1962 and 1969. There is another sort of death that has come along with the Indonesian occupation, that's what's being implied. Can we understand this pressure, the compounded effect of cultural, ecological, demographic, psychologial and spiritual attack?

As we planned our visit our biggest concern was whether our presence would become a problem for people there. Surveillance and repression of the Papuan population is an ever-present danger, and we had no wish to bring problems later, through clumsiness or naivety, for some activists who might talk to us. Is it really necessary to go there when there are already a lot of sources, the information is out there on the internet? It is always hard to make decisions when you take into account the safety of people other than yourself, even if you know those people deliberately choose run risks as part of their struggle.

Taking this into account we decided to go there, not as activists or journalists or people with any explicit political interests, but merely as tourists. Plenty of tourists travel to Papua to see the forest and the different cultures; the state encourages it. We would just look at the situation as we could, not expecting to get a complete picture, but just keeping our eyes open. We would respect the dangers which Papuan people face by not bringing up the topic of independence, and we would not try to meet any activists. Hopefully in this way we would get some idea of the mood of the Papuan people in general, not just limited to the activist movements. We only had a few weeks to spend there but nevertheless we would try to see what we could find out.

We were interested not only in the situation of the Papuan people themselves, but also those who have come to Papua from other parts of Indonesia over the years, looking for work. Surely many have come here through economic necessity - what is their role in the conflict? What is their feeling about it? To get a full picture of how things worked there, we should take an interest in all parts of society, and try to understand the nature of oppression there, whether it be deliberately intended or not.

Papua is an extraordinarily culturally diverse place, and the political situation is also very different in different places. We would have to make a choice of just a couple of places to visit. In the centre of the island is a high mountain range with an altiplano that is home to many different cultural groups, some of which have been the fiercest opponents of Indonesian rule. These mountains are also where, whether due to isolation or the people's fighting spirit, the traditional culture seems stronger. Most well known is Wamena, the biggest town in the highlands and a focal point for resistance, but that place can only be reached by aeroplane. We chose to go to Enarotali, taking the only road that goes up from the coast to the highlands.

The starting point of this road is Nabire, a town known for the gold that can be found in the nearby mountains. We were invited to stay by a retired preacher who wanted to practice English and so we met his entire family, who had moved there from a nearby island around 40 years ago. They were our introduction to Papua. We stayed in the house of his brother, who must at some point have made something out of the gold rush because he had built a big house full of electrical appliances and musical instruments, along with a 15 meter boat and engine which he used for fishing trips. He took us out on this boat once, on a family picnic to the local mangrove forest. These were happy days for us, with this big family, all with a playful attitude, looking for gold in the local river, helping out with English class. There were plenty of moments when some word or gesture indicated that not everything was always so easy, but we were shielded from that.

After a couple of days we set out to hitch-hike to the top of the mountains. We wondered if this would work or not here.  Actually the first truck that passed us stopped to give us a ride, It was going to where we wanted to get to, so the hitching at least turned out to be quite straightforward. The journey that followed would come close to simultaneously being the most incredible and most uncomfortable hitch-hiking experience of our lives. Nowhere had we seen something to compare to this Papuan jungle. On top of a loaded truck going up the rutted mountain road with unbroken forest as far as the eye can see, save for a couple of river valleys where people were busy panning, or working their family gold mines. The trucks, all bound for different towns along the way, travelled in convoy, so they could help each other out in case of a problem. A breakdown or a problem with the locals. It was clear from their skin colour that nearly all the drivers had their roots in places other than Papua.

The rain started and we split up to go in different trucks to escape the downpour, but it wasn't long before all the other trucks stopped for their drivers to sleep and we had to climb on the top as before, with no protection from the cold mountain rain driving into our faces. By this point it was 2am and we continued through the night, tensely gripping some bars on the roof for fear of falling.  The road that was broken in many places, we forded rivers swollen by the rain waters. At one point the rain got into the electrics and shorted the headlights but we continued using only the indicator lights to show the way through. In some places landslides had taken large bites out of the road and the way past seemed impossibly tight and ready to fall, but somehow we get through each time.

As dawn approached the rain stopped, the moon came out and in its stillness we saw vast flat areas which must have been marshes because lakes would have reflected the moonlight. Night butterflies  with wings the size of human hands entered the headlight's glare for an instant. This must be the top. There were few villages but along the road small groups of women walked barefoot, traditional noken bags on their shoulders supported by their foreheads.  They were taking something to sell at market, but we were far from any town - they would walk many more kilometres that night.

As the dawn brightened we were still frozen with cold but gradually a world different to that down below was opening up in front of us. The vegetation is different, trees are smaller and tree cover is patchy. Many more villages. Wide valleys with mist cloaking their bottoms, pierced by eerie silhouettes of treetops poking through this thin blanket, framed by the far mountains. The highlands of Papua.

If we had travelled the normal way we would have paid 600,000 rupiah (=US$ 60) to travel in a 4 wheel drive Mitsubishi Strada, an incredibly high price for an 18 hour journey. If we were not westerners we would certainly have had no choice. That's how the Papuans travelled, some people sitting comfortably inside but most perched on the edge of the back of the pickup - surely much less comfortable on the bumpy roads than our place on the top of the truck. The people who own those vehicles are all newcomers to Papua too, and it is difficult to imagine that they do not make huge amounts of money from these journeys. High transportation costs also mean that all goods on the top are hugely expensive to buy, but this is what Papuans have to pay, effectively excluding many from the economy entirely. We came across this again and again and it is difficult not to interpret it as the Papuans do, as another form of exploitation by Indonesians.

This was one aspect of the situation that I had not really contemplated, the everyday relationship between native Papuans and the others (I'm a little unsure which is the best English word to refer to the outsiders that have come to live in Papua - let's just call them Indonesians for now,although of course that's a loaded word, that amongst other things obscures the fact that many came from places where independence desires are also widespread, such as North Sulawesi or the Moluccas). It is exceedingly rare for a business to be owned by native Papuans - even a small kiosk for buying daily necessities. always it is in the hands of an Indonesian. For a Papuan to succeed economically as a rule only occurs when they become public officials. And affluence obtained in that way comes at the price of accepting corruption cash and selling out your community. The economic apartheid is very clear, and the resentment is just as clear. Maybe in the coastal towns the different communities seem to mix a little  more, but in the Western highlands the division is stark and displays itself in an explicit anger directed not merely at the Indonesia state and military, but also at ordinary Indonesians.

The strain is always there, lurking just under the surface, waiting to erupt. Down below, in Nabire, we had heard many stories from Indonesians living there about how they were continually on edge - because if an Indonesian would be seen to step over the line with a Papuan, the vengeance would be brutal and comprehensive. All Indonesians were forced to leave the gold mining areas a few years back after a conflict broke out, where all non-Papuans were seen as legitimate outlets for Papuan anger. Indonesians certainly fear this. Non-Papuans who drive ojeks - motorbike taxis - in Nabire will not do so at night. That's because drunk Papuans often stop them and rob them, and show no mercy. In the night many Papuans who own motorbikes earn some extra money by driving to the drinking places and prostitution spots looking for people who need an expensive ride home.

The first night in the highlands we slept on the terrace of a school with two Papuans who wanted to befriend us. Up there we took the decision to always sleep in public places because it's a politically hot area - we didn't want to cause potential problems for Papuan families by staying in their houses, afraid of the attention it might bring them. A non-Papuan teacher whose house was in within the school grounds was nice to us - she gave us hot water to make noodles and mats to sleep on and biscuits. In the morning she asked if we wanted tea or coffee. We replied that we wanted coffee, and she brought out two cups, although we had been four that slept there. She was nice to us, and she had previously taught our Papuan friends, they confirmed she was a good person. But clearly she was so accustomed to the effective Papuan caste system it just didn't cross her mind to bring coffee for everyone.

The Indonesians often spoke of the Papuans in negative terms, more often than not treating the whole indigenous population as a homogeneous group, that was stupid, or backward, or always drunk.  The danger and potential for violence also seemed to be understood as the savage behaviour of a people not yet civilised. Possibly the are rationalised that way so as not to see the violence as expressions of resistance. Undoubtedly people such as truck drivers often have to deal with uncomfortable situations and inconveniences along that road, where poverty and anger are both running high and people are not constrained by a culture which demands politeness, as in Java. These daily difficulties play a large part in forming their attitude. But the discourse nevertheless sounded racist to me - always 'they' are like this, 'they are like that', just like some old colonial official discussing 'the natives'.

As so often amongst peoples recently dislocated from a mode of living in close connection with the natural world, drunkenness is a big problem. Many Indonesians would complain about this but I didn't hear anyone trying to understand why alcoholism should be so high.  And while a lot of Indonesians told us of how they try to be friendly and keep on good terms with Papuans, I never really got a sense that any newcomer would genuinely try to understand the culture of the people to whose land they had come to look for work.

Needless to say, amongst all those drunken ignorant savages we met a lot of inspirational, intelligent and articulate people. We never asked for political opinions but many people wanted to tell us anyway, especially in the areas where there are no Indonesians about -  the villages away from the towns, the places where no-one would want to open a business are 100% Papuan, and people feel it is safer to talk. These villages were not an easy place to move around, there were few smiles and always a bit of tension. We were once directly asked our business by someone we passed at the entrance to a village, what were we doing in that place. He let us know that people were suspicious of foreigners because it had previously happened that white people had come, been looking in sacred caves and rivers, taken stone samples and so on. After that we learnt to say that we were travelling and wanted to know more about the situation in Papua. We found that it was more comfortable and more respectful stopped to chat for a few minutes each time we crossed paths with someone, explain this to them, and if they should have any suspicion, give them a chance to voice them. Without having to be explicit about our own political sympathies, or any pressure for them to reveal theirs, it seemed that many people understood the coded reference and would talk to us about the oppressions they faced.

No Papuan in all the time we were there had anything nice to say about Indonesia, but not all had the same thing to say. In one village, one person talked of freedoms that went beyond the national liberation struggle - whatever the students might speak about Free Papua, he told us, here we are already free because we keep our culture strong and outsiders out. Whatever the outside powers might get up to, it was clear for him that community autonomy based on traditional structures was of vital importance in resisting oppressive changes. He mentioned his involvement in the Dewan Adat Papua, a network of between the various Papuan peoples whose struggle seems to focus on reinforcing indigenous traditions, tending to bypass power games of politicians.

Evidently this idea of community autonomy was not only limited to traditional or tribal practices. We were beside the elementary school at the time, about which it was pointed out with some resentment, had been built and run by the community itself, without any support from government. The schoolkids were there too, watching the strangers, and several of them had swollen hungry bellies. In that area people frequently talked about their families. Invariably they were large and two or three kids from each family would always die as infants. On our journey we continuously encountered such clear signs of poverty - in this land to where so many come to make their fortune.

To go further past that place the stone road stopped and the path that continues was thick clayey mud all the way. But there was a plan to continue the road up the next valley. After trudging and slipping through the mud for a few kilometres to a village higher up the valley we asked people if they wanted that new road. Feelings were mixed - if it happens it happens, but people were well aware that such developments can provoke lethargy. "Now we just walk anywhere, but if there's a road we'll probably end up paying for transport all the time". We pointed out that it was still possible to walk along a road, maybe even easier because there would be no clay. "yes, but we'll get bored if we walk along the road, we'll feel that we should be riding a car." right now there is no road and so we're happy to walk. We don't get bored"

We went down from that mountain and waited for the boat to take us to another port - Manokwari on the bird's head peninsula in the Western part of West Papua. Here there were also mountains, and here also the public transport to get up there was also expensive, and there were no tracks, so we chose to walk most of the way up. It was a beautiful walk, cockatoos screeching on the lowland forests, giving way to smaller trees and eventually heathers and bracken looking just like some European mountain as we reached the higher altitudes.

Here the reaction to strangers was a bit different - people smiled and greeted us when they saw us, and there didn't seem to be much suspicion. On the other hand they also asked us if we had any pharmaceutical medication that we could leave with them. This was a contrast to the people of the Enarotali area who had boasted that their traditional medicines could cure any illness, including 'that new disease' which we figured out was AIDS. In the Arfak mountains, people frequently told us that they weren't 'developed'  yet. They looked to progress as the solution to their problems, and its absence  seemed to give a sense of inferiority.  This attitude was quite different to the feeling we got from the people around Enarotali, who certainly saw 'development' at best as a mixed blessing, and some very clearly equated it with genocide.

In our three day walk through the Arfak mountains, no-one once spoke to us of the situation of Papua, independence and suchlike. No-one asked about people from their village who had sought asylum in some western country, after escaping the Indonesian military' s search for armed insurgents. They sang traditional songs in the mornings though, their equivalent of the imitated animal song that had awakened us in Enarotali. The children followed us along the track, chatting with us and then later dancing. Many of these villages had only been reached by a road in the last few years, and suddenly they were a 2 hour drive from the provincial capital.

Tired and blistered we returned to Manokwari city, and spent the day hanging round chatting to people before catching the boat back to Java. People are cautious about speaking about their beliefs, but also brave. We were cautious too, but many times we could sense people immediately understood and respected our caution and a lot of the time it wasn't necessary to directly mention the obvious. Much  can be communicated via knowing smiles. In Manokwari city there were often people who wanted to talk. But the signs of repression are obvious too. The Papuan flag is banned, but a few are brave enough to carry its image on a shoulder bag, or a wristband. Others use more subtle symbols - Papua New Guinea t-shirt are popular, or souvenir t-shirts of tribal warriors or birds of paradise with 'I Papua' printed on the back.

All this time was during the build up to the Indonesian independence day celebrations on the 17th August. Nationalism was being aggressively promoted. School lessons were cancelled and replaced with marching drills. Every day there were parades, practice parade, parade competitions. All students and public servants obliged to attend. The effort of assimilating the Papuan people into this archipelagic super-state may be crude, but it is certainly unrelenting.

Travelling around in this way, in this land where talk is still dangerous, we hear only some details, we hear the narratives of everyday life, as opposed to the news headlines. Whilst that may have been our intention, we nevertheless aware that the big story is developing at a relentless pace. In the capital in particular the movement for independence is increasing, prompted by a 'now or never' sense of urgency to intensify the struggle. At the time we were there were demonstrations in Jayapura and Manokwari on August 2nd, a key date in the calender for independence activists, as it marks the anniversary of Papuans being forced to accept Indonesian rule in the so-called 'act of free choice'. The Manokwari demonstration was violently dispersed by police. A week later came the formal inauguration of the Merauke Integrated Food and Fuel Estate in the south-east corner of West Papua. This vast agribusiness venture which attracts the investments of many senior government and military personnel's private companies aims to 'feed Indonesia then feed the world', whilst surely also destroying forest and dispossessing the people that live there.  As to the ongoing military operation in the remote Puncak Jaya region, which a few months before had evicted many villages in a sweeping operation, it is hard to know exactly what new abuses were going on.

For outsiders it is far easier to focus on the big stories of Papua: Freeport, the logging, militarisation, transmigration programs and so on, than to try to understand the slow and gradual erosion of culture and soul and magical aspects unknowable to us that link the people to their land. These are beyond the comprehension of the outsider who has never lived in a forest, whose parents and ancestors have never lived as part of that forest. A journey through Papua is not going to enable us really understand this dislocation, not in ten years could we find that wisdom. But even without really understanding, we see clearly that all is not well, and even such limited insights still can reaffirm and guide our support and admiration for those involved in the ongoing quest for freedom in West Papua..

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