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'My people are dying and the world needs to know'

FREEDOM FIGHTER: Benny Wenda

ON AUGUST 15, a group of protesters will descend upon the Indonesian Embassy to contest the Southeast Asian country’s sovereignty over the region of West Papua.

Leading the charge will be Benny Wenda, spokesperson of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua.

His journey to the frontline of the independence movement is one of a battle, quite literally, for survival.

That he is still around to tell the tale means he is able to lift the lid on a 21st Century genocide few people are aware of.

To date, campaigners estimate 500,000 West Papuans have been killed by Indonesian officials as they maintain their hold over the disputed territory.

Wenda, now living in exile, was granted political asylum by Britain in 2003 following his escape from custody while on trial in West Papua for crimes he says he did not commit.

Making it out alive was “a blessing”, he says, but has vowed to make his freedom count for something.

West Papua was a former Dutch colony previously called Irian Jaya. It had been preparing for independence when Indonesia asserted its claim in 1962.

REDIRECT

Wenda, who now lives in Oxford with his wife and children, recalls his first harrowing encounter with the Indonesian military that would redirect the course of his life.

“It’s still fresh in my mind,” he said. “The military stopped us and my mum was trying to protect her younger sisters. I remember a lot of panic, the military beat my mum and she was gun-butted in the face and she fell to the ground.”

What a young Wenda witnessed next is still difficult to recall four decades on. “[My aunts] were raped by six military men and I couldn’t do anything. I remember the screaming…they were only 14 and 17.”


MAP: Indonesia’s many provinces

Both women died as a result of the injuries they sustained during the attack.
“I couldn’t understand why they were doing this. Is it because we are a different colour? These examples aren’t just in my family, it was the case for a number of Papuan families.”

Unknown to the young man who would grow up to front the nationalist movement, Indonesia’s presence was the result of the 1962 New York Agreement between the Netherlands, Indonesia and the US.

The ruling was legitimised and the West Papua region officially became part of Indonesia after the Act of Free Choice in 1969, a referendum overseen by the United Nations.

However, only a fraction of the population – 1,026 Papuans – was selected to vote on whether or not to remain within the Republic of Indonesia.

Wenda claims that what followed was an attempt to wipe out all traces of West Papuan culture to further establish dominance over indigenous groups.

Indonesia's military forces routinely inflicted murder, rape, torture and false imprisonment – treatment that still occurs today, according to campaigners.

The 44-year-old recalls how his village was bombed forcing his family and many others to flee into the forest where he spent five years of his childhood.

“There are many people who I loved that lived out their final days in the jungle. The conditions were difficult and dying from sickness was common.”

Some of the casualties include an aunt who was raped and a cousin whose back was broken in a military ambush.

Indonesia’s hold on West Papua, Wenda asserts, is purely vested in its interest in the regions natural resource.

The world’s largest goldmine is in West Papua – the American-owned Freeport mine in Grasberg.

The rights to this mine were drawn up between Indonesia and the Americans in 1965 – four years before West Papua even became an Indonesian territory.
“West Papua remains a victim of colonialism and intimidation. The behaviour and treatment is similar to that of Apartheid in South Africa. This is why I really need the international community particularly our black brothers and sisters around the world to contribute a voice to liberate people in West Papua,” pleaded Wenda.

HUMAN RIGHTS

The level of human rights abuse has been censored like much of Papuan history, explains the proud Papuan: “For 53 years, Indonesia has imposed an international press ban in their effort to prevent the eyes of the world from seeing the true horror that is taking place.

“Three months ago the Indonesian president declared that the ban had been lifted but this was only in print, the reality is still very much the same.”

Despite changes in political rule and a number of diplomatic assurances to reduce the level of military presence in the region, numbers are said to have increased by an additional 6,000.

“I think they are scared and worried because the world is slowly being made aware of what is going on,” reasoned Wenda. “They illegally occupy West Papua and the military presence is intended to enforce their territory and stamp out any sort of uprisings with harassment and intimidation.”

Wenda’s emergence as the freedom-fighting patriot was motivated by the years of abuse and racism he was subjected to growing up as a Papuan of African descent: “Because we are black, and a different colour they treat us inhumanely.”

Now, when he delivers spirited speeches on the conditions in his homeland, he wears traditional headdress and face paint.

Identity is a core part of the campaign, he says. “Every struggle we are fighting is about identity and establishing respect for who we are…I never wear a European tie because that’s not who I am, if you lose your identity, language and customs you can be reduced to nothing, that is why we’re not just fighting for political independence but for freedom to express our culture.”

Wenda took up leadership positions during a period now known as the ‘Papuan Spring’ – a movement that was quickly stamped out by the Indonesian military.
In 2002, aged 31, Wenda was arrested and detained for a crime he says he had no involvement in.


UNSILENCED: West Papuan protesters

“I was on trial and brought to court 14 times. There was no evidence and no witnesses that could corroborate their accusations. They didn’t want me leading the people because I was well educated. I studied politics and they were worried that if I continued to lead, I would never give up,” he explained.

Threatened with 25 years in prison, he spent a year behind bars where he was routinely subjected to torture and beatings.

He recalls three assassination attempts until a supporter, who he can’t name without putting their life in danger, helped him escape on October 27, 2002.
“Being poisoned or assassinated is common, I’m one of the only leaders in the history to make it out of the country alive. Even while I’m here in the UK they’re still trying to stop me. I’ve had my visa cancelled or revoked for a number of countries [who I believe] have been paid off to…stop me spreading the news.”

In 2011, the Indonesian Government issued an international warrant for his arrest, which was cancelled in 2012 after an investigation concluded the government had abused the system.

Wenda refuses to be silenced.

“My people still needed me, there are families still living out in the jungle only defending themselves with a bow and arrow. I want to see families reunited, happy and enjoying freedom like others around the world.”

The Indonesian Embassy declined to comment.

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