Papuan rebels are waging a war with only bows and arrows
Wiro Nongganop says he commands a battalion of West Papua independence fighters, but he has no firearms, only bows and arrows, and lives in exile in a bark hut, sometimes surviving on potato leaves.
Nongganop and a few members of his Muyu tribe fled their homeland in 2019, crossing the poorly marked Indonesian border to the relative safety of Papua New Guinea’s far west.
He says 700 men now live under his command, surviving by farming muddy land donated by the government while dreaming of an independent West Papua – an elusive goal since Indonesia took control of the western half of the country. island of New Guinea 60 years ago.
“If there were weapons, we would go to war,” Nongganop, a battalion commander with the OPM, or Free Papua Movement, told AFP, sitting cross-legged in a hut next to his deputy. “But there are no weapons. If we use an arrow once, they use a machine gun.”
West Papua rebels have waged a low-level insurgency against better-armed and better-trained Indonesian forces for decades while struggling to garner international support.
Today, frustration, crushing poverty and alleged violations of the rights of Indonesians have emboldened extremists in the fragmented independence movement who want more direct military action.
It’s a one-way system. They don’t care about people. Three people from Kopassus came with a car and an armored truck to get me out of my house. So we ran away
The rebels have stepped up their fight, targeting road contractors as well as schools and clinics they say have links to the military.
In April, they killed Indonesia’s intelligence chief in Papua, dramatically escalating tensions.
Jakarta responded by designating all separatists as “terrorists”, deploying more troops to the area and launching a series of bloody retaliatory attacks.
UN envoys expressed “serious concern” that Indonesia’s response has been excessive and appears to “reflect a broader pattern of racism” targeting indigenous Papuans.
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Last year they cited allegations of torture, the killing of Papuan civilians and the displacement of tens of thousands more.
They also expressed concern that Jakarta has sporadically cut off internet access and de facto banned almost all foreign journalists from the region, making independent verification difficult.
The Indonesian government did not respond to requests for comment, but Chief Security Minister Mahfud MD said this month that Papuans are equal citizens in Indonesia.
“The Papuans are brothers to us, just like the Javanese, the Sumatras, the Buginese and the Acehnese,” he said.
Nongganop may be lucky to be alive. He fled following signs that he was about to be picked up by the fearsome Indonesian security forces, known as Kopassus, who regularly patrol border villages.
He and his deputy cite the names and details of several ethnic Papuans who have died or disappeared from their home areas under suspicious circumstances in recent years.
“They committed secret killings,” he said, blaming Indonesian security forces. “It’s a one-way system. They don’t care about people. Three people from Kopassus came with a car and an armored truck to take me out of my house. So we fled.”
I’m afraid to go back. I will wait here for independence and then I will leave
He wishes someone would give them weapons so they could fight back, but no one has done that in decades of conflict, leaving them with only traditional homemade weapons used for hunting: bows, arrows and spears.
And for people like Nongganop, life in the impoverished western province of Papua New Guinea has been difficult, with survival a battle in itself.
Yapsi, also called New Location, is a tough place to be a subsistence farmer. The land is poor, plants do not grow well, and malnutrition and tuberculosis are common. Children struggle to get to school and are forced to play between tarpaulins bearing the names of various UN agencies that offer modest aid.
Many of those who arrived in 2019 have already crossed the border into Indonesia despite the risks.
“It’s hard to find enough to eat. There’s no food,” Nongganop said, adding the situation was too difficult for some. “They were hungry. They couldn’t stand it.”
Nongganop admits the way back is closed to him, at least for now. Indonesian security forces know who he is, he said, and he would be in danger if he returned.
“I’m afraid to go back,” he said. I will wait here for independence and then I will leave.”