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By Lily Anh

Special to The Honolulu Advertiser

IRIAN JAYA, Indonesia (December 20, 2000 – Honolulu Advertiser)---Men, young and old, are preparing for war.

In secret jungle camps throughout the mountainous, easternmost Indonesian province of Irian Jaya, youthful recruits train for a guerrilla struggle against Indonesian rule. Directing them are old men, veterans of unnamed battles fought three decades ago. The veterans married and fathered sons, sons they now train alongside thousands of others in camps like this one on the Papua New Guinea border.

"I have fought for my land, and I am happy that my son will be fighting now," said Lagonen Ngombo, a commander in his 50s who stood with his oldest boy, Francis, 16, at the edge of the forest. "We will see independence together."

Perhaps. For even two generations of guerrillas together might fail without the three things whose absence has always defeated them: unified leadership, international recognition and guns.

This time, the guerrillas believe the leadership and the recognition will come. The guns, too — though from where and with what money, they do not know. And with the guns, independence, despite a growing number of Indonesian troops in this province super-rich in resources.

"In the forest, we can fight and win with bows and arrows and a few old rifles," said Malkaya Brower, 60, whose son, John, 33, is the oldest barefooted recruit hurdling bamboo fences, crawling under barbed rattan and scampering across swinging logs. "Give us a hundred guns and we could take Jayapura (the provincial capital) and drive the Indonesians out."

Right now, even getting much beyond the border of Papua New Guinea and Irian Jaya, called West Papua by its indigenous inhabitants, seems fanciful thinking for these men. Many, as refugees, have watched the years slip by.

Indonesia reaps huge profits and tax dollars here from logging, fisheries, gold and copper. Jakarta signed a multibillion-dollar contract with China this year to exploit the province’s huge untapped natural gas fields.

And though once well-armed and capable of large-scale offensives, the guerrillas of the Organization of Papuan Independence, or OPM, have fought just a handful of skirmishes since the 1970s.

Still, the OPM, founded in 1965 and the sole guerrilla group since then, remains the chief symbol of hope and resistance.

"We are all OPM in our hearts," said Jatin Wakerkwa, leader of a province-wide student group, expressing the inseparability of the struggle and the OPM that West Papuans feel. "They were the first to fight."

Prayer starts the day

At the start of each day’s training here, the 52 would-be fighters and their officers stand in prayer under their independence flag, asking Jesus to look after them. West Papuans are Christian and Melanesian; Indonesia is largely Muslim and ethnically Malay.

The young men wear faded T-shirts and ragged pants. Their guns are wooden replicas. Some carry a bow and spear-length arrows. To honor the day’s visitors, an instructor lifts a World War II bolt-action rifle to his shoulder and pulls the trigger. The gun jams.

Since the training began here in January, 3,000 young men have undergone the one-month course. Tens of thousands more, the commanders and local activists say, have trained in other camps.

Together, though, the guerrillas say, they possess only two dozen modern weapons.

Guns or not, they want to fight. The remote province, almost one-quarter of Indonesia’s land mass, seems a guerrilla paradise.

The highest mountains in Southeast Asia rise from a rain forest the size of California. Roads are few.

Yet the terrain and a lack of communication equipment hampers guerrilla coordination and has led to several leaders each claiming supreme command.

Aware that East Timor’s successful independence struggle depended in part on a unified military command, guerrillas here just chose a single military leader, Matthias Wenda, the commander of the border camps.

"We have been patient," said Lanek Kenelak, 39, a veteran guerrilla. At least 100,000 West Papuans, mostly noncombatants, have been killed by the Indonesian military since 1963, according to international human rights groups. "It’s our turn now."

Since Indonesia’s authoritarian leader, Suharto, fell two and a half years ago and the military’s grip loosened, West Papuans have demonstrated in the hundreds of thousands.

International attention

In June, a historic West Papuan independence congress in the provincial capital brought the movement its greatest international attention to date. Congress leaders traveled to Jakarta and overseas to plead their case.

But many West Papuans believe Indonesia, which also faces strong secessionist demands in Aceh province to the north and fears an unraveling of its 13,000-island nation, won’t leave without forceful prodding. The arrest of five presidium members two weeks ago confirmed that belief.

In recent weeks, the guerrillas started taking their turn: a machete and bow-and-arrow killing of two policemen and a security guard in the university town of Abepura; and an attack near the border on Indonesian loggers.

On Saturday, in the latest clash, rebels killed a soldier with an arrow and wounded three others. At least 19 people have been killed this month in fighting in the province. In response, security forces beat three students to death and fatally shot a fourth. They have destroyed offices and homes of activists, banned independence organizations and arrested hundreds.

Unless the political and military equation changes, most analysts give the broader independence movement and its guerrilla wing little chance of defeating the world’s fourth-most-populous country.

"Guerrillas are notoriously difficult to quash, no matter how badly armed, but West Papua is too valuable to Indonesia · to be pushed or shamed into leaving," said professor George Katsiaficas, editor of the Boston-based Journal of New Political Science, which is publishing a special issue on the conflict.

Obtaining guns for the guerrillas falls to Patrick Kuby, the 56-year-old Bible-quoting guerrilla intelligence chief. Laughing, Kuby said he’ll buy the first guns from Indonesian soldiers. That still takes money the guerrillas don’t have.

Part of the money problem is a bottleneck at the United Nations, which smoothed the transfer of this last piece of the Dutch East Indies from 1963 to 1969. Only in the past few months has the independence movement received outside political support — from the small Pacific island nations of Nauru, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. Despite growing pressure and an admitted failure to act quickly enough in East Timor, the larger regional powers continue to back Jakarta’s rule.

So against an estimated 30,000 Indonesian soldiers and a national government newly determined to crush even peaceful efforts to break away, West Papuans have begun to look to the guerrillas again.

Now all the guerrillas need are some guns.


Irian Jaya facts:


§ 163,000 square miles, about California’s size.

§ Highest point is 16,024-foot Puncak Jaya, a peak with a glacier.

§ May contain world's largest copper concentration at Mount Carstenz.


§ 1.8 million to 4 million.

§ At least 250 languages.

§ Illiteracy 30.5 to 81.5 percent.

Source: IRJA.org. Inc.

For additional reports from The Honolulu Advertiser, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Honolulu Advertiser. 

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