West Papuans flee ‘liberation’ conflict in remote PNG region
SPECIAL REPORT: By Johnny Blades, RNZ Pacific reporter
The armed conflict in West Papua has caused an exodus of displaced people to one of the most remote areas of neighboring Papua New Guinea.
The latest flashpoint of the conflict is in the Indonesian-administered Bintang Mountain Regency, where state forces are pursuing West Papua Liberation Army fighters whom they accuse of recent attacks on health workers in Kiwirok district.
Since violence escalated in Kiriwok last month, Indonesian security forces have targeted suspected strongholds in villages of the military wing of the OPM-Free Papua Movement.
At least 2,000 people are recorded by local groups as having fled the conflict either to other parts of the Bintang Mountains (Pegunungan Bintang) or illegally crossing the adjacent region across the international border.
Hundreds of people fled to Tumolbil, in the Yapsie sub-district of PNG province of Western Sepik, located right on the border.
OPM spokesman Jeffrey Bomanak said those fleeing were fleeing Indonesian military operations, including the helicopter assaults, which he said caused extensive destruction in around 14 villages.
“Our people, they cannot stay with this situation, so they are crossing over to Papua New Guinea.
“I have already contacted my network, our soldiers from the OPM, the TPN (Liberation Army). They have already confirmed 47 families in Tumolbil.
Proof of influx
Yapsie teacher Paul Alp said he saw evidence of the influx to Tumolbil last week.
“It is easy to enter Papua New Guinea from Indonesia. There are mountains but they know how to get around to climb these mountains in Papua New Guinea.
“There are traces of pedestrians,” he explained, adding that Papua New Guinea sometimes crossed over to the Indonesian side, usually to access a better level of basic services.
Alp said the West Papuans who had come to Tumolbil did not necessarily stay longer than a week before returning to the other side.
He and others in the remote district confirmed that illegal border crossings had been taking place for years, but had risen sharply since last month.
For decades, the PNG government’s policy towards refugees from West Papua has been to place them in border camps, the main one being in East Awin in the Western Province, with the support of the United Nations High Commission. for refugees.
Thousands of displaced Papuans have found themselves in East Awin, but many more who simply come to blend in with the general population among various remote villages along the porous border region.
Sergeant Terry Dap is one of a handful of police officers across the Telefomin district covering 16,333 km² and with a population of around 50,000.
He said many people had come to Tumolbil in recent weeks, including OPM fighters.
“On the other side, there is a fight between the Indonesians and the freedom fighters in West Papua.
“So there is a lot of disruption there [in Tumolbil]. So I went there, and spoke to the Yapsie LLG Neighborhood Development Officer [Local Level Government area], and he said he needed immediate help from the authorities in Vanimo [capital of West Sepik]. “
“They want the military and the police, to protect the sovereignty of Papua New Guinea and to protect the properties to ensure that the fighting does not take place in PNG.”
Sergeant Dap said he had emailed provincial authorities with this request and was awaiting comments.
More civilians are crossing
According to Bomanak, the displacement impacts of recent attacks in Kiwirok district continue.
“The problem is that now that we have damage in the village, more civilians will cross over to Papua New Guinea.
“Five to six hundred villagers, civilians, mothers and children, they are still in three places, in the Kiwirok jungle, and they are still on their way to Papua New Guinea,” he warned.
On the PNG side, Sergeant Dap said some of the people from West Papua have traditional or family ties to the Tulmolbil community.
But their presence on PNG soil creates a risk for residents who fear their communities will be caught in the crossfire of the Indonesian military pursuing Papuan fighters.
Dap said he spoke to OPM fighters who had come to Tumolbil and encouraged them not to stay long.
“I spoke to their commander. They said there was another group of people coming – about a thousand and up, he said.
“I told them, stay a few days and then you go back, because it’s another country, so you don’t have to go in. You go back to your own country and then you stay there.”
The policeman was also involved in efforts by authorities in PNG to encourage vaccination against covid-19.
Distrust of covid vaccines runs deep in PNG, where only 2-3% of the population have been vaccinated, while a third wave of the delta-fueled pandemic claims daily lives.
Sergeant Dap said convincing people to get vaccinated was difficult enough without illegal border crossings adding to the spread of the virus and feelings of fear.
This article is republished as part of a community partnership agreement with RNZ.