Wednesday, March 27, 2013

All Is Silent This Christmas in Wamena

by Norman Harsono

Christmas may be over for the rest of world, but after 44 years of suffering – since Papua’s annexation in 1969 – Christmas was never really there for Wamena.
(Photo courtesy of Norman Harsono).

Pastor Yohannes Djonga stood in the compound of the Jayawijaya government office in Wamena. A crowd of Papuans gathered around him, outraged after a honai adat – a traditional tribal hut – was torched three days earlier. He came to speak and speak he did, giving a heartfelt, passionate speech.

He spoke of Agus Hiluka, in the emergency room of the Wamena state hospital. Agus was unconscious in his hospital bed, his left eye blinded, his body crippled. Despite being completely paralyzed, his hands were cuffed and his feet tied to his hospital bed.

“This is torture beyond the limits of humanity!” the pastor cried. He tried to continue but choked on a tear, as the audience broke into applause.

Agus Hiluka was one of three young men accused of having set a police station alight in Wouma, the excuse produced by the alleged soldiers for setting the honai adat on fire. This demonstration took place on December 18, 2012, only eight days after my arrival in Wamena, but tension had been rising since December 15 with the murder of Papuan activist Hubertus Mabel and local farmer Natalis Alua.

So why wouldn’t I spend my vacation there?

It is a seven-hour flight from Jakarta to Wamena, including transit in Makassar and Jayapura. It is a beautiful land, located in the heart of Papua, a mountainous region scarcely affected by the few humans who inhabit it. Wild boar frolic freely in these forests, accompanied by some of the most magnificent species of birds the world has ever seen.

The natives are very friendly, quite possibly too friendly compared to customs in other cultures. It’s a common practice for men to hold hands, as it is to wish hello, nayak (male) or lauk (female), to any stranger that passes by. Generally speaking, there is no concept of “personal space.”

But not everyone was so friendly; a travel tip is to avoid eye contact with erratically wandering old men. Once you lock eye contact, they will approach you, make friendly gestures then ask you for either spare change or cigarettes.

Alternatively, there are hostile individuals. In my personal experience, while I was taking photographs of Pastor Djonga’s protest, a man approached me and asked, “Who are you looking for?”

“No one. I’m taking pictures.”

“No need! Go away from here! Go home!”

This man alone is not responsible for his hatred; because of their Melanesian origins, the Papuans are considered ‘primitive’ and ‘uncultured.’ They “occupy the bottommost rungs” of Indonesia’s cultural hierarchy, explained sociologist George Aditjondro in a 1987 paper. (The concept of a cultural hierarchy itself was a remnant of Dutch colonization, but then again it wasn’t the Dutch that killed Hubertus Mabel.)

Due to this prejudice about “barbarians”, the Indonesian government has made attempts to “civilize” Papua, attempts fabricated around the image of Indonesian city folk. Their diet is an example of this, as I observed in Wamena. Papuans traditionally consume a variety of sweet potato known as hipere and keladi, most commonly in Wamena.

Then, government-subsidized rice was introduced, which quickly became popular and now competes with locally-grown sweet potatoes. It’s cheaper than sweet potatoes, but it's imported from other parts of Indonesia. If the local government truly intends to combat hunger, it must firstly introduce modern farming equipment and techniques to increase hipere production before introducing rice.

Another effect of the “barbarian” preconception is discrimination and violence. In Wamena, it was rare to see a “curly hair” and a “straight hair” conversing, unless it was work-related. Wamena Airport, dominated by Indonesian employers, is notorious for over-charging Papuans, and even after paying full price, tickets might be resold, without compensation or notification. And although incidents are common – a death, protests, fights – most of the violence isn’t instigated by the Papuans themselves, but by the excessively forced measures used to suppress them.

The government does provide some health services. It was in a government clinic that I met a certain doctor Sutrisno. He complained, “Supplies such as drugs, doctors and clinics are there. But what is needed is two: economy and education.”

On one hand, poor roads and the high cost of transport make it hard for villagers to reach a medical aid station. On the other, they tend to be negligent about health, particularly that of their children, and reject modern medicine in favor of what the traditional shaman has to offer.

Even with health campaigns, school education is still critical for promoting health and modern medicine. Schools are hard to reach. Teachers are limited. What’s more, the quality of education is poor and the system often fails to cater to the specific needs of the area, such as languages.

“Papuan children are lazy about going to school,” said Friar Frances Leumatapo, “But! If ask them to work … they will!”

With such low-value classes, parents and children alike prefer to invest their time working rather than studying.

Greenpeace estimates that deforestation affects at around 300,000 hectares annually in Papua, mostly in the lowlands. But recently, there have been rumors of untapped natural resources in Wamena and in Jayawijaya districts. Pitted against Indonesia and the corporate giants of the world, how much longer can this frontier hold out?

At the end of his speech, Pastor Djonga pleaded, “Please, stop the chasing, because those children don’t need to be done-in on the day so near Christmas.”

There were only seven days left, and yet so much has happened. Christmas may be over for the rest of world, but after 44 years of suffering – since Papua’s annexation in 1969 – Christmas was never really there for Wamena. I remember a Christmas mass in the morning and just a regular day afterwards.

Norman Harsono is a grade 11 student at the Gandhi Memorial International School in Jakarta. He spent his one-month holiday in Wamena to do his school assignment: a social work project.

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