West Papuans tell their stories - Pride of warriors

Witness - Pride of Warriors

Al Jazeera, 16 Feb. 2010

Jono van Hest

 

With strictly limited international media access to West Papua, Australian filmmaker Jono van Hest decided that he wanted to help West Papuans tell their own stories.

The four remarkable stories that ensued provide unparalleled access and a strikingly personal insight into the West Papuan resistance filmed by the West Papuans themselves.


My first encounter with West Papua came with the arrival of 43 refugees in Australia in 2006. They had built and manoeuvred a traditional wooden canoe from their homeland 250km away.

They became arguably Australia's most famous group of refugees, causing a political row that eventually saw Indonesia withdraw their ambassador to Australia.

When the 43 were granted temporary protection they all came to settle in Melbourne, and over time I got to know some of them quite well.

For me it was fascinating to hear stories of their journey but also of the country they had left behind.
Most of the Papuans in the group were linked to the West Papuan independence struggle, and all of them had legitimate reasons to fear persecution if they ever returned to Indonesia.

Yet even in Australia, one of West Papua's closest neighbours, not much was known about what was happening there.

Telling their story

 

West Papuans documented their stories

with video cameras [Jono van Hest]

One day Herman Wainggai, the leader of the group of refugees, showed me a video tape. It contained footage that he had filmed on their journey to Australia. For me, as a filmmaker, it was also what ultimately prompted me to make this film.

It gave me the idea that instead of being in West Papua myself, I could get local people to be my eyes on the ground, documenting events I could never gain access to. I just had to provide them with a means to do so.

So I decided to try and help the West Papuans tell their stories by giving them the tools to do so - video cameras.

With a good friend I put together a series of camera kits and, totally unsure of what to expect, set off for West Papua.

The feeling of being there is hard to describe. It could be summarised as the cultural experience of a lifetime, Melanesia with a hint of Asian flair, overshadowed by fear and mistrust that permeated every facet of society - Indonesian and West Papuan alike.

As I was travelling I had to report my movements regularly to the local Indonesian police intelligence officers.

Most rural roads were dotted with military checkpoints, with many areas closed off completely - even for local Papuan villagers.

As I was interested in the resistance movement, I had to meet many of the West Papuans amidst much secrecy, under the cover of darkness, in cars with tinted windows, or at random safe houses.

The majority of people I spoke to had personal stories of intimidation and persecution to tell and often I received messages that people I had been seen talking to had been interrogated about me.

The kidnapping and torture of Yane Waromi
 

Despite the abduction of his daughter,

Waromi remains resilient [Jono van Hest]

On this first of two trips to West Papua, I met Edison Waromi and his family.

Edison had close connections to the 43 Papuans in Australia. He is also one of the key political figures of the West Papuan independence movement.
 

Leaving a camera with him was mainly a gesture of respect and he offered to lend the camera to some of the student groups active in Jayapura.
 

Never did I expect something as shocking as the kidnapping of his daughter Yane to happen, or that the family would capture the aftermath on camera.

I was in West Papua on my second trip when I received the message about the brutal abduction.

When I came back to Jayapura, I visited the family. Seeing Yane that day is still one of the most traumatic memories for me.

I hope that given time her scars will heal, and I am deeply grateful to her that she made the painful choice of agreeing for me to tell her story.

Edison Waromi believes his daughter was abducted because of his political beliefs and the fact that he refuses to be silenced in his call for independence is testimony to the determination and desperation that many West Papuans feel.

The cultural struggle of Matias Bunai
While these events were unfolding in Jayapura, I was in the highlands meeting up with a contact who filmed the Pugodide villagers and their chief, Matias Bunai.

Sitting in a small mountain hut, with five Papuans crowded around, they told me of their dream to fight against the loss of their culture, and to use their culture to fight back against what they see as Indonesian imperialism unjustly forced upon them.

Sitting there with these village men, proudly watching the video of them ceremoniously butchering a pig and wearing nothing but their penis gourds, really personified the contrasts between West Papuan and Indonesian society - societies whose values are worlds apart but which have somehow been thrust together by the process of de-colonisation and forced to coexist.

However for Matias Bunai and his people time is running out. Far removed from the decisions made on the world political stage, for them it is a matter of stopping their tribe's culture and their language from literally becoming extinct.

The guerilla struggle of General Tadius Yogi

The story of Tadius Yogi also takes place in the vast central highlands.

He is one of the commanders of the OPM-TPN, the West Papuan resistance army.

Active since the 1960s when the Indonesian military first landed in the region, they have led a small but persistent guerrilla campaign for independence.                                                         The rebels say they are willing to call                                                                                  a truce in return for peace [Jono van                                                                                 Hest]

For years Indonesia had completely closed off the region due to extensive military campaigns against him.

My first impression visiting Yogi and his fighters was overwhelmingly one of awe. Awe at the mixture of military and traditional warrior dress, at their passion and determination and the pride they placed on their ceremonies and parades.

On second inspection however it became strikingly obvious how under-resourced and ill-equipped they really were.

As Yogi says: "Since the time we fought for independence we have just used traditional weapons - spears, bows and arrows, bush knives and axes. But this is not equal to the modern weapons the military use."

I was encouraged by the sense of importance they placed on actually meeting me and they had a deeper and more important new message to communicate. The rebels were prepared to call a truce in return for peace.

Levina Bisay's dance
I first heard about the dance performed by the Sampari dance group when I visited a family on Biak island, during my second trip to West Papua.

After that I noticed photographs of Levina Bisay, the dancer from Sampari who caused a sensation when she held up the banned West Papuan Morning Star flag, in living rooms across West Papua.
 

The dancers were immediately

interrogated after their performance

[Jono van Hest]
 

So when I got to Manokwari, the home town of Sampari, I asked about her. She reluctantly agreed to meet me.

Late one evening I was picked up by a car and taken to meet Levina and the group's choreographer, Noak Baransano.

They told me about their dance, about their desire to have the freedom to creatively express themselves through performance.

The dance was about a massacre that had occurred on Biak, and about a little boy learning that his father had been killed.

They performed the dance in front of an emotional gathering of indigenous West Papuan leaders, and the Indonesian press made it front page news.

The dancers were immediately branded as separatists, a serious crime for anyone in Indonesia. Both Levina and Noak were repeatedly interrogated and threatened by the police after the dance, each pressured to speak out against the other.

For me it was incomprehensible that something as innocent as a dance performance, a creative cultural expression, could be seen as a crime.

During my time in West Papua I travelled from the westernmost tip close to Indonesia proper to the eastern border to Papua New Guinea, from the coastal mangrove swamps in the south to the magnificent central highland valleys and the tropical islands to the north.

For the West Papuans I met it is a clear argument. They feel they have been wrongly occupied by Indonesia and they want the international community to help them gain an independent future on peaceful terms.

The Indonesian government was asked to comment on claims that West Papuans continue to be persecuted under Indonesian rule but they declined.