FAREWELL PAPUA NEW GUINEA: RETURN TO IRIAN JAYA

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By Sinclaire Solomon

Eighty-eight Irianese refugees were recently repatriated from Kiunga to Indonesia. Authorities on both sides hope it will pay off.

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (April 7, 2000 - The National)---Young Kevin is an Indonesian citizen. He is standing beside me telling me that he had returned from Kiunga and Tabubil five days earlier after visiting relatives.

He speaks fluent Tok Pisin, but so do a handful of others standing within earshot. We are standing at Mindiptana airstrip in Indonesia's West Papua Province, about 20 minutes flying time by light aircraft north west of Kiunga.

The steady stream of Bahasa Indonesia from the mostly Javanese officials and the clove-scented aroma of Gudang Garam cigarettes were constant reminders that we were in Indonesian territory.

Young Kevin continues with his story. He is a regular "tourist" who treks across the border to the headwaters of Alice Creek and then travels by road to Tabubil or boat down the Fly River to Kiunga, all in just two days.

Hundreds of young men like him do this every year, he says, to visit relatives, or simply go on a drinking binge with the "OPs" (PNG-made over proof spirit).

As he speaks, some of his 88 "wantoks" who have just been repatriated from the East Awin camp in the North Fly district are loaded into trucks and taken to a transit camp at the Catholic Mission to be processed and sent to their villages and relatives.

To Kevin and his people, the word refugee is as alien as the international border that divides PNG and Indonesia.

But the PNG and Indonesian authorities see it differently. The refugees are Indonesian subjects. They are being encouraged to return to the homes they fled from in the early 1980s following clashes between Indonesian security forces and pro-independence OPM rebels.

The authorities are quietly hopeful that the latest repatriation of the Irianese refugees to Indonesia's West Papua province will pay off.

Whether more will follow will depend on how well the first batch integrate into their new way of life. But their experiences are not expected to be different from the old lifestyle they left behind 16 years earlier.

They are traditional crossers. An international border means nothing to them. Apart from speaking the same language as the North Fly people, they have been trading and inter-marrying for generations.

The voluntary (and some not-so voluntary) repatriation of Irianese has been ongoing in the Western and West Sepik provinces. The road link between Vanimo and Jayapura makes it easier for them to cross almost unnoticed.

Last Friday, 88 men, women and children out of 170 from the Ioware Refugee Camp in East Awin, North Fly, had volunteered for voluntary repatriation. They were airlifted to the Indonesian outpost of Mindiptana.

The rest could not make it because of transport problems in the refugee camp. It takes about five hours by bush track and canoe downstream on the Fly River to Kiunga.

The repatriation was a joint exercise between the PNG and Indonesian governments with assistance and supervision provided by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

Christopher Mero, the foreign affairs official in charge of the Asia desk, officially handed the refugees over to Herman Monim, the deputy governor of West Papua (formerly Irian Jaya).

While PNG and Indonesian officials hailed the repatriation as a success, they still have to repatriate another 974 refugees -- 71 who missed out on last Friday's exercise and 903 who applied later to return home.

This logistical problem is in the hands of UNHCR associate program officer Takeshi Moriyama, who returned to Canberra this week to seek funds to charter a transport plane for the exercise next month.

The UNHCR continues to provide limited funds for the East Awin refugees who are largely left to be self-supporting.

Life at the camp, however, is hard for the elderly and those with large families.

The PNG government does not provide health and education facilities. The Indonesian government has promised them funds and building materials to restart their life.

There are about 3,000 Irianese in the East Awin refugee camp. About 2,000 of them have been granted permissive residence status. The remainder has asked for voluntary repatriation.

However, the Catholic Bishop of Kiunga, Gilles Code, says there are another 6,000 Irianese in illegal settlements along the border.

Bishop Code said the church provides some education and health services to these settlements and camps. However, it will not receive state funding because PNG does not recognize the existence of these camps.

In addition to supplying medicine and teaching aides, the church also trains people in the settlements to be teachers and medical personnel.

The Catholic Church influence in the Mindiptana and Merauke dates back to the Dutch colonial area when the northern part of Dutch New Guinea was given to Protestant churches to convert and the southern part to the Catholic Church.

Bishop Code notes that the next couple of weeks will be testing time for the resettlement of the Irianese.

If none return, then the exercise would be deemed a success and more will pack up and go home, he said.

Meanwhile, for Kevin and his group, their long trek to the border could be made a lot easier in a few years if both PNG and Indonesia agree to a road link between North Fly and Mindiptana.

The road proposal has been the subject of a series of joint border meetings between officials of both countries in the past two years. It will again be discussed at the next round of talks tentatively set for Tabubil later in the year.

Both sides are keen to reach a decision at the Tabubil talks.

One proposal being backed by the North Fly Rubber company would be to link Dome (on the banks of Fly River) with Mokbiran (in West Papua), which links up with Mindiptana.

For additional reports from The National, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The National (Papua New Guinea).

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