The Hellish Truth Behind
We like to feel that a Lost World exists, peaceful
and 'primitive'. The reality is different
The Independent, 8th February 2006
"Tomorrow," said Galile, "I will take
you to the Bird of Paradise. We know where they live.
You will hear them, and maybe see them too. They are
My Papuan friend and I were sitting in a thatched hut
in a tiny village high in the rainforests of West Papua,
the western half of the island of New Guinea. I was,
I was proudly told, the first white person ever to come
here. As firelight flickered on the walls, Galile was
telling me about the wildlife that inhabited the rainforests.
It was what he thought I wanted to hear, but it wasn't
what he really wanted to tell me.
"You see," he said, staring into the fire,
"we are happy that you come here to see our forests.
But we want to know why the world does not see the other
things that happen to us. Why do you not see the killings
of our people? Why do you not see how the soldiers destroy
our culture? I tell you now - West Papua is being destroyed.
And I want to ask you: why will no one listen?"
I had no answer for Galile then, and I have none now.
West Papua rarely makes the news. When it does, the
stories are of the kind which made headlines yesterday:
the discovery of new species of Birds of Paradise or
tree kangaroo; the "Stone-Age paradise" of
tribal New Guinea. Perhaps we like to feel that such
an untouched, Lost World exists, outside of time, peaceful
and "primitive". The reality is very different.
West Papua is certainly one of the most remarkable
places on Earth. Swathed in tropical rainforest which
is second in size only to that of the Amazon, it is
home to around 250 tribes, who have inhabited the country
for an estimated 40,000 years and speak, between them,
300 separate languages. Most continue to live in small
villages, harvesting sweet potatoes, growing sago and
raising pigs as their ancestors did before them.
But paradise stops there, for West Papua is an occupied
land, whose people have no freedom to choose their own
government and little control over their land and resources.
It is a country in which calling openly for freedom
is punishable by torture, or even death. It is a country
which is closed to foreign journalists and human rights
workers, and which is flooded with thousands of soldiers,
ready to strike at the least sign of dissent. Look at
West Papua through the travel books, and it looks like
paradise. Look a little closer, and it can start to
seem like hell.
Until the mid-20th century, this remote land was part
of the Dutch East Indies. In 1949 the Dutch gave up
most of their empire to the new nation-state of Indonesia.
They argued, however, that West Papua was part of Melanesia,
not Asia, and that it should remain separate. In 1961,
they granted it independence.
Months later, Indonesia invaded. The UN was forced
to intervene, but it was swiftly made clear to its diplomats
what the outcome should be. It was the height of the
Cold War, and the West was keen to appease Indonesia,
which was being wooed by the USSR and China. As one
British diplomat put it at the time, "I cannot
imagine the US, Japanese, Dutch, or Australian governments
putting at risk their economic and political relations
with Indonesia on a matter of principle involving a
relatively small number of very primitive peoples."
The US, the Netherlands and Indonesia agreed that the
UN would stage a face-saving referendum in which the
Papuans would be asked to choose between independence
and Indonesia. In 1969, seven years after Indonesia
invaded the country, the UN stood by as Indonesia rigged
the vote. Declaring that the Papuans were too "primitive"
to cope with democracy, they produced 1,026 "representative"
Papuan leaders, threatened them with death if they gave
the wrong answer, and then asked them to vote. The outcome
was never in doubt.
Indonesia then embarked on a campaign to wipe out Papuan
culture. Those who resisted were murdered, tortured
or "disappeared" with a horrific ferocity.
At least 100,000 Papuans have been killed by the Indonesians
since occupation; according to some human rights workers,
the figure could be as high as 800,000.
West Papua's rich natural resources - gold, copper,
timber, oil, gas - were sold off to foreign or Indonesian
corporations, many of them linked to the army or the
government. Millions of hectares of tribal land were
confiscated, and objectors swiftly dealt with. Soldiers
murdered, raped, tortured and brutalised the people
of West Papua with impunity. They still do.
Eighteen months ago, a group of us in the UK set up
the Free West Papua Campaign to raise awareness of the
situation. Every day, we are contacted by people in
West Papua, who risk their lives to talk to us. In the
last few months alone we have been sent photos of villages
burned by the army, and refugees starving in the jungle.
We have heard of dissenters being slashed with razors
by soldiers, or having petrol poured on them and set
alight. We have heard of men jailed for a decade simply
for raising the West Papuan flag in public.
What the people of West Papua desperately want, as
Galile told me in that highland village, is the world's
attention. They need our media, our governments and
our NGOs to see what is being done to them - and to
do something about it. The world needs to see, and to
stop, the genocide that hides behind those images of