Last stand of Stone Age man

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Guardian, London, 24 August 1996


A tropical valley watered by the bends of a fat river cradles a plain of exquisite tidiness. There is something Scottish about the place – a damp magnificence mixed with the faintly sinister earthiness of highland landscape. It isn’t just that at four sharp the daily rain reduces the valley floor to rents in the mist, the limestone walls to razor-sharp ridges torn off by cloud. The highlands of West Papua are to the capital in Jakarta what the Western Isles are to London: the Indonesians may own them, but it is not the same country.

Overflying this place in 1938, the American millionaire-adventurer Richard Archbold made his own comparison. He was the first white man to set eyes on the pristine Baliem valley and its inhabitants – outstanding neolithic agriculturists who had been living untouched inside their mountain fastness for 6000 years. ‘From the neat stone fences surrounding their carefully weeded fields,’ Archbold wrote, ‘it was easy to imagine we were in New England rather than in an isolated valley of the last of Stone Age man.’

Earlier this year, the British media suddenly started reporting events in this most unreported of territories. On 8 January four young British graduates on a research expedition in the Lorentz nature reserve in the south-west of the country had been taken hostage by men that the Mail on Sunday designated ‘Stone Age terrorists’. Part of a larger group of Javanese and European scientists, Daniel Start, Anna McIvor, Annette van der Kolk and Bill Oates were hidden by their Papuan guerrilla captors with remarkable success from the Indonesian Army who were tracking them. The Britons were eventually released unharmed on 19 May (though two of their Indonesian collaborators were unhappily killed in the chaos).

Instantly upon their release, the country slipped off the news-map. The story failed to elicit much background – the kidnapping was treated as a cut-and-dried instance of the dangers courted by Europeans in ‘primitive’ country. This has been, for more than thirty years, the Papuans’ routine destiny. Occasional reports of massacres in their country, of the flight of thousands of refugees into neighbouring Papua New Guinea, of the dispossession of huge tracts of tribal land by Western companies and Indonesian settlers, are greeted in some circles with disbelief.

There is confusion over the name; the Indonesian occupiers suppress efficiently any news of opposition in their easternmost ‘province of Irian Jaya’. Their occupation force, estimated at 10,000 troops, ensures the discreet running of the island’s economy. Vast areas of the country are strictly out of bounds to foreigners. It’s unsurprising that beyond the human interest story, the Britons’ ordeal got the scantest media attention. The wider context is more alarming.

The Dutch first claimed the western half of New Guinea in the early nineteenth century as a handy strategic buffer for their assets in the East Indies. Dutch attempts to restore their rule after the Japanese occupation in World War Two were thwarted by Washington – Eisenhower scrambling to endorse an Indonesian empire as the best solution for the vast archipelago. ‘A strong Indonesia,’ he declared, ‘would provide the essential barrier to the spread of communism in the East.’ Early signs of massive oil and mineral deposits fortified the desirability of bringing West Papua under rule from Java. Aiding Indonesia in its territorial claim opened the way for American corporations to conclude highly lucrative exploitation deals.

The New York Agreement of 1962, nodded through the General Assembly of the UN, handed over administration to Indonesia on 1 May 1963. In a clause of startling offhandedness the UN resolution merely declared that the Papuan people were to be consulted about their country’s future no later than 1969.

The first governor of Irian Jaya (who was speedily removed) described the Indonesians’ arrival.

‘There were numerous brutalities, thefts, torture, maltreatment…. When the Indonesians came, they took literally everything, even air-conditioners installed in walls. Our people looked on and laughed to themselves, thinking:  “Is this how they are going to run things here, dismantling everything and taking it away?”’ It is accepted by impartial observers that when the ‘Act of Free Choice’ came just before the deadline, the 1025 Papuan representatives of the regional councils who voted unanimously for integration with Indonesia did so under menace of having their tongues torn out or being personally shot by President Soeharto’s special envoy, a brigadier-general, if they demurred.

The Indonesian authorities immediately refused to acknowledge the ethnic notation of ‘Papuan’ – Papuans may only be called Irianese or anak daerah, ‘child of the region’, ‘native’ – and banned the name OPM (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, the Free Papua Organisation), whose guerrillas abducted the four British scientists. They lump all opposition together as ‘GPL’, an Indonesian abbreviation for ‘wild terrorist gangs’. Thenceforth the Indonesian stategy for the people remained simple: marginalisation, pursued by every means available under the widest definition of legal.

The OPM was a bush movement in the Sixties, a spontaneous upsurge of resistance by bands of tribal warriors. Loosely coordinated, its military actions have fluctuated but it has persisted for as long as the Indonesians have been squatting – with their UN-sponsored cover of legality – in its territory. In the late Seventies, almost every couple of months there was something, an attack on an Army post, a kidnapping; its big era culminated in 1984 with a wholescale and abortive attack on Jayapura, the capital. In the split that followed, OPM memebers went underground and overgroundòthe overground faction attempting with petty success to get at some political participation. In the past two years the conflict has again become national as the Indonesian noose has tightened, and war, which has been present in the Papuan bloodstream in more or less harmless ritual doses for countless thousands of years, is on the up and up.

The Indonesians’ political tactics – centralised administration, a transmigration programme destined to secure a majority of ethnic-Malay Indonesian settlers, the buying-off of educated Papuans with position and status, the relocation of tribes and cultural coercions (like the banning of ritual warfare, and wearing the penis gourd) – naturally don’t include the extra-judicial methods employed by the Indonesian Army. Carmel Budiardjo in her brilliantly documented history of the country, West Papua: The Obliteration of a People, describes the work of special troops sent to terrorise the population under powers to arrest and detain anyone in the interests of ‘national security’. Mass killings are known to have taken place since the middle of the 1960s. Incapable of penetrating the resistance’s jungle hideouts, the troops resorted to civilian reprisals in order to isolate them from local support.

Eliezer Bonay, the first governor, estimated that 30,000 Papuans were murdered in the six years up to the Act of Free Choice in August 1969.

‘In many parts the people are not under government control at all because the troops cannot reach them. They can only bomb, or attack with rockets from the sea. So they just bomb whole regions where there are villages, wherever there are people. Indonesian troops rarely kill guerrillas, sometimes one or two. It’s the people who get killed.’

One instance of the Indonesians’ tactics for undermining tribal life is worth describing for its ingenuity. Pigs are a mainstay of tribal wealth. In the early 1970s Balinese pigs infected with pork tapeworm were purposely introduced into the Paniai Lake area as a ‘peace offering’ after an uprising by local people. (Pork tapeworm causes a pig-version of mad cow disease, provoking psychosis and epilepsy in humans.) The Director-General for Public Health then refused to allow the import of a drug believed to be the sole cure, insisting instead that those at risk must ‘change their habits and way of life’.

In its cultural and biological diversity West Papua represents a staggering array. Ninety percent of a land mass the size of Spain is highlands, jungle and swamp. Pockets of unexplored territory are left, more impenetrable than the Amazon or Congo basins. Primary forests that have escaped the attentions of loggers contain marsupial cats, huge mirror-winged butterflies, and at least eighty species of birds of paradise. A population of just over a million Papuans, Melanesians without ethnic ties to their Indonesian rulers, exists in hundreds of tribal clans disdained in official literature as groups of harmless savages or condemned as bloodthirsty barbarians. In reality, most tribespeople speak four or five of the 300 languages of the island. Like the fishermen of the Costa Brava before the hotel-builders moved in, their social life frequently revolves around the improvising of long humorous poems in blank verse. Anthropologists have not come anywhere near assembling the fragments of this structuralist panoply, and if one of the most faithful indices of perfect social conditions is long-term stability, the Papuan tribes were well on their way to basic utopia before the Indonesians landed.

The first time I travelled to West Papua, in the winter of 1985, I spent three weeks walking in territory belonging to the Dani, a 60,000-strong Papuan tribe who occupy the best part of the Baliem valley. The second day, hiking south out of Hetigima village towards the cliffs at the valley’s end that squeeze the Baliem river into forty-five-mile-an-hour rapids, I saw some Hetigima men congregating ahead.


Powerful, naked, sporting elegant yellow gourds over their penises, they each carried a black-palm bow with a fistful of flightless arrows or a twelve-foot spear. I thought it was worth reminding them that I’d dined with some of them the night before and I greeted them, but their attention appeared to be elsewhere.

A mile from the village was a rocky gorge – a natural boundary – and a creek rushing over its floor sixty feet below. Then I saw the enemy: a dozen sentries from the next village posted against the sky. Seeing me, they danced and yelled, jabbing their spears in my direction, perfectly at ease with the logic of confrontation.

I remembered a snatch of conversation I’d heard the week before, drinking behind the high walls of Jakarta’s Petroleum Club with a pair of Reuters journalists. A flare-up of tribal warfare had been reported in the highlands; the Indonesian government were sending in troops.

There was no alternative – apart from retreating – but to zigzag down the path on my side of the gorge and ford the creek. (Behind, the trailing party had simply melted into the bush.) Scrambling down, I waded across the ice-cold creek and it occurred to me that the bow-and-arrow battles I’d pictured had been played out at a somewhat safer distance than this.

But at the head of the path, my heart tripping over itself, my offered clove cigarettes were snatched up. We grinned and smoked furiously; with a disposable lighter they squatted in their warpaint and bird-of-paradise headdresses and lit a fire to call their comrades. Their quarrel wasn’t with outsiders; technically it didn’t even rank as a quarrel – this argument with the men across the gorge was just a millennial rematch.

The ritual wars of the Baliem Danis, banned by both the Indonesian Army and foreign missionaries since the Indonesian takeover of West Papua in 1963, sprang from a race-memory dating from the time when highland Papuans had had to struggle against hostile nature. Tribal numbers had to be restricted to match limited resources. Limited wars terminated when a small number of casualties had been inflicted on both sides had been devised to cope with the situation. There was no point to the warfare any longer but it remained the focus of the men’s interest and energy. Suppressed, it had resurfaced with gusto. A niggling point for their occupiers is that Papuans have always thought of themselves as having the right to war.

On the north coast in Jayapura, accurate information about the OPM is hard to come by. (The interior is closed in the aftermath of the hostage-taking.) Fewer than a face in fifty on the packing-case streets of the capital is Papuan. Its nomadic surge of arriving settlers, seafarers and Javanese officials, alternately dynamic or falling back into melancholy at finding themselves in the Siberia of the Tropics, has no interest whatsoever in vicarious politics.

The head of the Catholic diocesan office, Brother Theo van den Broek, points out another reason for the dearth of facts.

‘In Jayapura or another place, the charge of being a member of the OPM or an OPM sympathiser used on ordinary people is much more repressive, much more effective in keeping people silent than killing two or three people in the bush.’

My interest in these questions goes back ten years, when I walked a little further up the hill and knocked on the door of the Bishop of Jayapura. We sat on Mgr Munninghoff’s verandah overlooking a stunning disrupted coastline diving into the sea. Every time conversation veered towards Papuan independence, he looked at me quickly with his age-lightened eyes and waited silently for the gap to be plugged with safer enquiries.

Since the hostages’ release rumours have been going the rounds of large-scale troop assaults on villages and a planned offensive against OPM strongholds and refugee camps across the border in Papua New Guinea. Possibly the escalation has made the Bishop’s spokesman more forthcoming.

‘We too get rumours about reprisals. For the Army the aim is to get rid of the OPM. Fighting in the bush or in the jungle isn’t that easy. For my part I don’t believe they will succeed.’


This is a bush war. The OPM’s units are well distributed but their strategy has been hindered by rivalry as much as the practical snags of coordinating action across jungle and mountain barriers. Leaders have an unhelpful tendency to disown other groups. Nature encourages a military vacuum. And the Army retaliates, with payback bombing and machine-gunning of villages. ‘It is said,’ a Jakarta daily reported in 1977, ‘that the Baliem River was so full of corpses that for a month and a half, many people could not bring themselves to eat fish.’

Carmel Budiardjo puts the number of West Papuans killed in the first twenty-five years of occupation at 43,000. The scale is likely to be much higher than her careful estimate: in one reprisal alone in 1981, after a Dutch t.v. crew succeeded in filming several hundred OPM supporters in the Wissel Lakes chanting anti-Indonesian slogans, estimates of those killed in the subsequent bombing varied from 2500 to 13,000. In the wake of the abortive OPM attack on Jayapura in 1984, at least twelve thousand refugees fled across the border into Papua New Guinea.

In a pub in Hertfordshire six weeks after his release, Daniel Start is apparently well recovered from his four and a half months in the jungle, though his face wears a constantly faintly puzzled expression, as if an unidentified shadow continues to pass in front of his eyes. He repeats adamantly, ‘Most villages do not want to fight, they don’t want bloodshed.’

It is understandable that he regards the OPM as irresponsible. Nor did the villagers his group was staying with at Mapnduma sympathise with OPM objectives; their take on the situation, he says, was, ‘okay the Indonesianss have taken our territory, let’s just make the best of it, let’s keep our cultural identity, let’s get our children educated, let’s just get a bit more wealthy, it’s going to be easier that way.

‘They were very much against the staunch attitude the OPM has which is the only honourable thing to do is fight until we’re dead’.

But the slightly scorched expression appears to conceal an anxiety that earths itself in contradictions – ‘Almost everyone’s a tacit supporter of the OPM in that area,’ he goes on. ‘We had the impression they were a fairly disorganised rag-tag bunch of people who didn’t amount to very much and who certainly weren’t active in the area we were in.’

I remind him that he was warned by a visiting Australian journalist a month before the OPM seized his group that its presence was causing tension, particularly with its Javanese members. In the manner of a lot of youthful European optimism in the Third World, Daniel had believed his adventure of a lifetime to be invulnerable to real life-upsetting risk. Backtracking he admits, ‘We knew there was OPM activity in the general area. It was pretty bad timing.’

I offer the view that the country is in a state of war – a just war, with the right to shake off the Indonesians in favour of self-determination, like neighbouring Papua New Guinea. If it turns into a mess, I say, at least it’s their mess; driving between the war-free, lush Hertfordshire fields back to his home, we get into a strenuous irreconciled difference of opinion about the Papuans’ right to sovereignty.

Pitted against the logistical advantages of the Indonesian Army, military logic declares the armed struggle to be pointless, and the essential historical fact is that the Papuans’ fate is legally sealed. Unlike the calvary of East Timor, whose annexation by Indonesia was never ratified, because of the UN and the fiction of their consent to rule from Jakarta, Papuans – OPM or not – are left with no legal means of holding their land.

Brother Theo chooses his words with the care of someone  maintaining a delicate internal compass against the Church’s awkward position – guest under a Muslim regime, sympathetic to the Papuans.

‘What happened in the Sixties was a traumatic feeling. You or I have never experienced freedom that was taken away. I don’t dare to talk about it too much because I don’t know what it means. I only know it means a lot, it means something you can never repair.’

Had the situation improved or deteriorated in two decades?

‘If you say there is improvement, yes there is. If you say it is worse than it ever was, then I would also agree with you. From the point of view of feeling at home, it is worse than it was. You have a lot of demographical change. The Papuans are now maximum 50 percent of the population. In the coastal and urban areas they are completely lost.’

Last year the Bishop’s office felt compelled to publish a dossier of reports of human rights abuses in the diocese, around the town of Timika. Timika is on the south coast, in the territory of the Amungme tribe – it is also one of the centres of operation of the US-owned Freeport Inc., the richest copper mine on the planet. Freeport’s ore contains impurities of gold and silver which alone pay most of the mine’s running costs.

On 31 May 1995 villagers from Hoea village gathered at a church service. An Army patrol from the 572nd battalion, under command of a Master-Sgt Marjaka, came on the congregation and began shooting. The eyewitness report goes on:

‘Rev. Martinus Kibak raised his hands to surrender, but commandant Marjaka didn’t care. He ordered the soldier closest to him, Titus Kobogou, to shoot the minister. The bullet fatally wounded the minister in the left part of his abdomen and Rev. Kibak died instantly. At the same time the patrol fired a volley at the people (among them children) who were praying, causing the deaths of ten others of them.’

OPM forces around Timika at the time were under the command of Kelly Kwalik, an ex-schoolteacher and member of the Amungme. His was the band that abducted Daniel Start and his friends; seven months before, five of Kwalik’s family had been detained and kept for several weeks in a steel freight container believed to belong to Freeport. One of the arrested men’s wives describes a visit to their husbands.

‘Their bodies were very gaunt and their colour was yellowish, and my husband showed me a cloth full of blood: “This cloth was drenched in my blood when I was tortured and I am sure I have no hope for staying alive… I have tried to run away so that they would shoot me rather than torturing me; but the soldiers shot me in my leg and dragged me back to the container.”’

A week later the wives returned to find the container empty. The guard’s version of events was that the men had gone ‘on an operation’ with the army. They were not seen again.

Freeport’s many critics (not including British-based RTZ, which recently acquired a 12 percent holding in the mine) focus on Kelly Kwalik’s tribe having been forced to surrender 10,000 hectares of their land, for which no compensation has been paid.

‘How preferable some sort of compensatory arrangement would have been,’ Norman Lewis wrote in 1993 in An Empire of the East, ‘to throwing the dispossessed Amungme into the arms of the OPM resistance.’

In the real world the Papuans, one supposes, must eventually be expected to deal with legitimised interlopers like Freeport (although shareholders’ appetites for dividends on the Freeport scale tend to be insatiable – a tendency confirmed by Freeport’s and RTZ’s latest announcement of their intention of prospecting in a new 2.9 million-hectare area). Yet aside from the absence of land rights for the Amungme, the massive discharges of toxic mine tailings into local rivers and the forced relocation of Amungme families, as the diggers go round and
down, extracting fifteen thousand tonnes of ore a day from this Dantean inferno in the sky, Amungme chiefs see something else: the mountain – which they regard as their ancestral spirit – is disappearing before their eyes. ‘They are gouging out our mother’s brains,’ they say.

Brother Theo has written a discussion paper about the mine, hoping to draw the two sides together.

‘But the main wound for the Amungme people is that land has been taken without valuing that it is my land, that the top of that mountain is the head of my mother. People with different beliefs, different views, different values, although in a certain way more human than any value we have, are bypassed as if they are not there.

‘Freeport are doing a number of things – improving housing, education, health – but they are not answering the main question which is: My land. Me. Where I am in this whole story. I am nowhere.’

My impressions of the Baliem valley led me ten years ago to the conclusions of a naïve ethnologist. Then, the highland Papuans – a stocky and low-browed people of inveterate calm and cheerfulness – taught me the size of the mistake you make when you assume that, because a man rarely washes and is terrified of the dark, he lacks intelligence. I was reminded, I say to Father Theo, of Lévi-Strauss’s ‘rustic conviction’ about modernity, evolved in his time in Brazil: ‘Dispossessed of our culture, stripped of values that we cherished – the purity of water and air, the charms of nature, the diversity of animals and plants – we are all Indians henceforth, making of ourselves what we made of them.’

‘I agree completely, and I would even like to enlarge on it. It is not just the Papuans; nobody in Indonesia is being allowed to express their own local and very rich cultural identity. Indonesia in the end will be a very neutral photocopy of nothing.’

1996 was the year of all years – it was a widely held conviction among the OPM, something they got from their tribal fetishes or the Bible – that West Papuan independence was going to come. Many believed the hostages could be bargained to bring it about. Independence had come to be their missing link, disposing of all other evolutionary arguments for West Papua – of the Indonesians and Freeport and every other injustice, at a stroke. The unhappy truth is that due to the contemptible timidity of UN bagmen thirty years ago, independence has only ever been fully glimpsed in the illuminated gaze of rebel leaders on jungle tracks.

‘If someone comes into your garden and steals your pig,’ Kelly Kwalik has been quoted as saying, ‘you have a right to kill them. That is tribal law.’

The struggle appears at last to be taking on different forms. A lawsuit has been lodged against Freeport in the United States on behalf of the Amungme; the mine’s political risk insurance has been cancelled after environmental protests in America. This summer’s season of barricades in Jakarta is the noisiest (though not yet the bloodiest) for thirty years. It may turn out to be the domino that falls lightly against the wall: President Suharto’s elderly cohorts have given the popular opposition a healthy nudge. But Suharto has over the years proved a case that Western liberalism finds distasteful: that human rights, taking the right to exist as a nominal starting-point, are a Western myth. The right to self-determination exists only so long as it can be defended: so long as it has an ultimate guarantor.

Brother Theo smiles thoughtfully. ‘I make the same kind of distinction I make about freedom. If the West Papuans opt for war, if they feel they have the right to do it, I think I can accept it. I think it is one of the fundamental rights of people to look for their way out.’

Were Father Theo not a churchman, you sense he might also agree that, if not this year, then in time the Papuans should be helped to repel their invaders.

But that moment will not bring back the Dani and the Yali and the Nduga and the Amungme as they were: as the keepers of the mountains of their ancestors, and the lazy improvisers of punning epic poems; the diggers of fields in which a mountain sun flashes in the irrigation channels at midday; the master-builders of stone fences and precipitous villages that hang, like brown fruit, from the geometrical mountainside; the cheerful warriors anticipating their next scrap, smacking their lips at the taste of a visitor’s Earl Grey tea. It will not revive the generosity of a Hetigima man who presented me with his bow and arrows, the swaggering bravery of another who guided me through enemy territory for the hell of it, nor the curiosity of a little girl who brought her pet piglet to be inspected. By the time it comes, the peoples’ stone fetishes will no longer possess gender and spirituality. Their chiefs will no longer indulge in realpolitik with the missionaries, taking their people to church on Sundays, so they can get on with their pig-stealing and fighting and enjoyment of a joke undisturbed the rest of the week. The nights will no longer be spirit-filled, nor the days lived for the pleasure of the moment. The highland valleys will never again be magically secret and fresh.

And who, in the meantime, because it is the one reparation we can make for the timidity of thirty-three years ago and the future fare of monoculture we’re thrusting on the Papuans by proxy – the developed nations’ sole gift to anyone who lives differently – will take their case back to the United Nations?

© Julian Evans 1996

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