West Papua: the obliteration of a people


By Matthew Thomas

KWAMKI-LAMA, West Papua — Here, in the island of New Guinea, live the Amungme people. Kwamki-lama is a refugee camp not far from the highest mountains between the Himalayas and the Andes. Tembagapura, the biggest and highest copper mine in the world, is located here, about 2500 metres above sea level. It used to belong to the local Amungme, who made their living from the cultivation of local food gardens and the hunting of wild animals.

In 1967 the Amungme were forced off their land by the mining conglomerate Freeport Indonesia Incorporated (FII), with the support of the armed forces of Indonesia (ABRI). The US-based FII has been mining their land for the last 28 years with no consultation or compensation for the original residents of 25,000 years. The revenue generated by the mine's earnings are massive: US$125 million per year at least. None of this has gone to the locals.

For a number of years, the copper mine has also been the largest gold mine as well, but it's impossible to obtain official figures about West Papua's exports and imports. They ceased to be available in 1984.

Production estimates at the end of 1993 stood at 90,000 tonnes per day; that's a staggering 32,850,000 tonnes of earth extracted every year. The mine runs pretty much 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Thirteen per cent of the workers are West Papuans; they do the menial and dangerous jobs.

From the start, FII mining operations have provided a blatant example of economic greed and military oppression working hand in hand to destroy the livelihoods of the local population.

The Ajikwa River, having served as a receptacle for Tembagapura's tailings for more than 25 years, is now biologically dead. In most places where it hasn't silted over from erosion upstream, the trees on both sides are either dead or dying. The landscape on both sides of the river resembles the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust.


In my years spent growing up in PNG, east of the artificial border that divides the island, I'd occasionally heard of massacres by ABRI of unarmed West Papuan civilians trying to cross the border after ABRI had burnt their villages down. They were suspected of supporting the clandestine Free West Papua guerillas, or OPM. It never made big news and I decided to find out first hand by making this investigative visit.

OPM has been waging a small-scale guerilla war in West Papua since 1965, when, after enough harassment from ABRI, a group of warlike tribes north of here, in Manokwari, blew up an ABRI barracks with a large supply of Dutch weapons and explosives left over from World War II.

Since then, the OPM, aside from the small numbers of weapons captured from raids on ABRI patrols, has fought a mostly uphill battle with bows and arrows and other tribal weapons. Clandestine measures to obtain arms are rumoured to include "dope-for-arms" exports. Although there is no evidence to support this hearsay, the theory is that marijuana is cultivated and cut from jungle plots and secretly flown to north Queensland in exchange for guns and ammunition from Australian and other mercenaries.

Also, details of a "scandalous" arms deal between the OPM and the sympathetic government of Vanuatu were unveiled last year by the Times of PNG.

The indigenous people of West Papua are racially and linguistically as different from their Indonesian masters as the Japanese are from Australian Aborigines. They are more closely related to the Melanesian people in PNG.

Most of the refugees here, such as the largest ethno-linguistic group, the Amungme, are pig people: they used to live in the mountains until the copper and gold mining activities displaced them. When they left they took their pigs with them — much to the chagrin of the Indonesian authorities. The Indonesians are Muslims and consider pigs, or people who keep them, unclean.

I was introduced to Oktovianus, an Amungme who wanted to know if I knew where he could find his jo-mun nerek — his ancestors' sacred spirit, which used to live in a mountain of copper ore that's no longer there.

"It just vanished, vanished!" He looked at me as though I could possibly transform a slurry of copper concentrate back into what it once was.

A man's voice came from across the road: "Someone just killed the old widow's pig!" A wailing sound came from a small, elderly woman. She'd collapsed weeping outside the house I was in and in no time the entire street had come out, wide-eyed and whispering, to see the commotion.

Oktovianus told me later, "If the father of a family dies, part of his jo-mun nerek is retained for a time by one of the wive's pigs [the Amungme are polygamous]". If that pig dies before the Jo-Mun Nerek has time to move on, then evil spirits can interfere with the dead man's transition into the ancestral spirit world.

Human rights abuses

For a few days in the sweltering stickiness of this ramshackle town of some 10,000 refugees, I listened to people who told of their experiences in the hands of Freeport security apparatus and ABRI. Most of those who spoke out were unaware of organisations such as Amnesty International or the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. But they confirmed the reports I had read. Many of them were illiterate and could not speak Indonesian.

One OPM sympathiser told me, "In a place near here a tribal leader named Nalogolan Kibak had his throat cut like a goat and a bucket was filled with his blood. Then, led by Lieutenant Colonel Soekemi, the military area commander from Nabire, the tribal leaders, teachers and pastors of the area were forced at gunpoint to drink the blood."

Another told of an ABRI attack on another village in the area. "After being killed with bayonets, people's bellies were torn open and their entrails pulled out and twisted around like sticks with rope. After that, stones, cabbages and leaves were put inside the bodies and they were left there like wild beasts without souls.

"Pregnant women were bayoneted through the vagina and torn open to the chest and babies inside cut in two. Men who had been shot dead had their penises cut off and put in the mouths of women, while the mouths of men were opened and placed facing the vagina and anus." This account is almost identical to that given in Robin Osborne's Indonesia's Secret War: The Guerilla Struggle in Irian Jaya (Allen and Unwin, Sydney 1985).

During my last two days I spoke with dispossessed Amungme elders as well as leaders of other ethno-linguistic groupings flung together in the dingy village. I listened to an old man called Moses, who spoke on behalf of another village headman who was under house arrest in a nearby refugee compound called SB3.

Moses had well-healed scars and burn marks over his face and body; you didn't need to ask if he'd once been tortured quite badly. He said that following the murder of 37 Amungme who had recently staged a demonstration demanding compensation for the loss of their land, Tuwarek Karkime, a tribal chief, had implored the chief of Freeport security, to take everything.

With tears in his eyes, he quoted Karkime: "I ask God everyday in my prayers and thoughts, why did he have to create those beautiful rocky and snowy mountains in the Amungme people's area? Why do the mountains have richness that attracts Freeport, ABRI, the government and many outsiders who come here to take it all away for themselves, and give us nothing but imprisonment, suppression, torture and a kind of death we have never known? How can we ask for justice from the United Nations? It is better you come ... and kill us all. Take all we have. Our land. Our mountains. Every piece of our resources."

In the 25 years since West Papua's annexation by Indonesia, there has been substantial external economic and military support for Indonesia's activities in West Papua.

For example, the Australian government trains KOPASSUS, the elite Indonesian version of the SAS. It also supplies arms, and it shares in West Papua's mineral wealth. Australian companies, with exploration licences, are busy looking at other mineral sites around West Papua.

If these trends continue, they will lead to the obliteration of the West Papuan people.

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